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All Saints—the Church's hall of fame

All Saints' Day: 31st October, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

I wonder who inspired you most in your early Christian life? 'All of us', writes the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, 'have at least a modest hall of fame containing affectionate portraits of people who not only inspired us but also genuinely helped us to raise our game and try to be better persons'.

Saints are not just the people, like the newly acclaimed Saint Mary of the Cross, who have 'St' put in front of their name. The practice of putting 'St' in front of people's names may serve to call our attention to people worth our attention, but we should think of those people as just some of the many 'saints' there have been and are. The people that the New Testament calls saints are people who reflect Christ in their lives in such a way that people who know them feel that by knowing them they know Christ better. I suspect that more people have been convinced of God by knowing saints than by hearing arguments.

Some words from Paul's letter to the Philippians capture for me, the essence of the New Testament understanding of saints:

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12-14)

In this passage Paul has three key things to say about the saints:

1. The Saints are not immune from contamination by the messiness of human imperfection

In Paul's words, the saints 'have not already obtained the goal'. The cynic who defined a saint as 'someone who lived a long time ago who has never been adequately researched' was nearer the truth than he realized. For the truth is that the heroes and heroines of our faith are all flawed. They are not perfect. They have failings, and are very aware of them. Their own humility is such that there is no danger we might substitute them for Christ.

Think for instance of the witness and influence of the most famous twentieth century monk, Thomas Merton. Merton's more pious followers were making hagiographic attempts to turn him into a saint and were shocked when it was discovered after his death that he had fathered a child during his student days at Cambridge University in 1934. The censors of the Trappist Order to which he belonged had cut out from his autobiography all reference to this episode.

Fr Basil Pennington, a former Trappist monk, gives an illuminating description of the process which ends with one of the censors writing to Frater Louis (Merton's monastic name) and demanding that he delete all reference to the pregnancy from his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Merton wrote back to the censor saying that 'if it was all right for Saint Augustine to be known to have had a son out of wedlock, he didn't see why it was so scandalous in his case'. The censor's response was terse: 'You're no Saint Augustine', with the emphasis on the word saint.[1]

There is a radical self-honesty in Merton's journals. Take, for example, this journal entry from 1966 after his affair with a nurse he met in Kentucky Hospital: 'The one thing that troubles me most in it all — I see my instability and a certain dishonesty. That hits hard, because I think of myself as honest, sincere, direct, etc. But there are some awfully ambiguous moments there when I am doubting and trying to get free.'

In even the most saintly of us, there are backdoors left unlocked, priorities and attitudes left uncorrected and unconverted. Merton was certainly no plaster of Paris saint. His was a very spotted form of virtue. But if this was worrying to the pious elite, it has been tremendously consoling to many hundreds of Merton's readers. It is far easier and more encouraging to relate to the saints in their weaknesses than in their strengths. Merton's journals are essentially an expression of the prayer: "Here I am Lord, what a mess".

Ordinary Christian people can learn much from the witness of flawed, sinful saints who refuse to be paralysed by their own imperfections and keep on persevering, year after year, in the grace of God. And that brings me to the second point that Paul makes about the saints:

2. The saints do not resign to spiritual mediocrity.

Anthony Burgess the author of Earthly Powers once said, 'I've learned so much from my mistakes, I'm thinking of making a few more of them'! In a similar vein, there is a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy says to Charlie Brown, 'there is one thing you're going to have to learn: you get out of life what you put in.' — to which Snoopy replies: 'I'd kinda like to see a little more margin for error.' The saints can never acquiesce in Snoopy's moral laziness. In the words of my text from Philippians, 'they strive' — 'yearning, straining forward to what lies ahead.'

It's awfully tempting to resign to our frailty and mutter; "My shortcomings can't be helped. After all, nobody's perfect". There is comfort in knowing that even the apostle Paul admits in Philippians 3:12 that he's not perfect. But neither is he paralysed by his imperfections. His is a 'gutsy guilt'. In effect, he says, "I know I'm not perfect but I'm working on it. I'm doing something about it".

We tend to think of perfection as referring to something static: full, unimpaired moral purity. Paul sees perfection in much more dynamic terms, as growing, maturing, disciplining and developing. He sees the saints as being in the middle of a process. The life of Christ is something that needs to be formed within. It doesn't come all at once. It takes hard work and time.

If Paul knows that he is a model to be imitated, he also knows that he is a model in transition to greater glory — 'transformed from one degree of glory to another'. If he wants to be followed, he wants to be followed as he himself is still following hard after Jesus. He is pressing on. He does not think of himself as having already arrived. Indeed, he explicitly disavows the suggestion: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (3:12). What he is aiming for is the attainment of the very purpose for which Christ called him.

And this brings me to a third point about the spirituality of the saints:

3. The spirituality of the saints is a spirituality of the Holy Spirit

Without God's help, we cannot overcome the temptations of this life. As Fr Richard Lennan has written, 'If we cease to have an expectation that we can be better than we are on our worst days, then we run the risk of either denying God or making God less than God is.'

In Philippians 2, verses 12 and 13, Paul makes this clear by expressing both sides of the dynamic of faith. On the one hand, he urges his readers to 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling'; on the other hand, he says, 'it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure'. God is never less than a source of possibility.

Indeed, the work of the Holy Spirit 'involves challenging our tendency to "close" our narrative, to act as if we can exclude the possibility that we might need to change and grow if we are to live our discipleship faithfully.' It is not a matter of self-sanctification by self-effort. In a nutshell, we could summarize Paul by saying: we are to 'work with all our might, knowing that God supplies that might through the Spirit'. (Phil. 2:12,12).

But the Spirit shapes our character gradually by 'thousands of small choices and learned decisions over many years'. It is a long, slow, change of deep, heart-level habits. You don't become like Jesus Christ in the twinkling of an eye, nor for that matter, in a few weeks. As Graham Tomlin has put it, 'God is an acquired taste. ... It can take a while to come'[2]. There is no such thing as instant holiness. The fruit of the Spirit ripens steadily.

Paul refused to allow his past to intimidate him or impede him in his life of faith. The past is now past; thanks to Christ it is now over and done with. It can be laid to rest, even though the details may still be in the memory. What we must not do is give in to despair. I am not into tattoos but perhaps a case could be made for Christians covering their bodies with the letters — P.B.P.G.I.F.W.M.Y. Hopefully some one will know what they mean. It's a worthwhile message: 'Please be patient — God isn't finished with me yet!'

So to sum up and conclude:

Those who are most saintly are first, those who are invariably most deeply aware of how scarred and deformed they are. God's saints are not a Christian elite. They are ordinary Christian people — people who know that sin hangs around, even their good actions, like a bad smell.

But second, knowing this, they do not give up the struggle. They refuse to let their besetting sins have their own way. The saint's narrative is never allowed to close itself. Like gymnasts, they are disciplined and continually strive. Moral pessimism is just not an option.

Third, in this struggle, both pessimism and spiritual pride are excluded, because the saints of God know that it is the work of the Holy Spirit to bring about spiritual transformation, working through disciplined habits. They know that 'there is no slavery so great as being at the mercy of oneself' and only the Spirit of God can set them free not to sin.

As Richard Bauckham has said, 'Saints are people who reckon with God so much more seriously than most of us do. By ordinary standards some may seem irresponsible, foolish, strange, intense, unsociable, extreme. They may mix easily with just the kind of people most of us avoid. They may be so single-minded many of us would think them unbalanced. They are all different, but the seriousness with which they take God often takes them down unfrequented byways of human life the rest of us rarely explore. To take God seriously ourselves it helps to see the extremes to which some people go for God.'

In Paul's memorable words, the saints 'press on to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of them'.


[1] See M. Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, Brother Monk, 1987, Harper & Row, p.12

[2] Graham Tomlin, The Seven Deadly Sins, Lion, 2007, p.180


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