Be ye holy

All Saints Tide

Would you like to be a saint? The whole idea of sainthood arouses very mixed feelings for most of us. Saints are OK, but they’re better at a distance than close at hand: even that gentlest of saints, like St. Francis of Assisi, the one whom they called a second Christ, could be decidedly difficult, and when we think of people like the Apostle Paul or St. Augustine of Hippo, we might quickly conclude that it’s safer to honour them in their absence rather than in their presence. Indeed, it has been said that the best definition of a martyr is “someone who lives with a saint”!

To be a saint simply means to be holy, which is one of the marks of the Church – “one holy catholic and apostolic Church”, but a sign of individual believers also – be holy, for the Lord your God is holy, we are enjoined. What then is this holiness? Do we actually see it in the church as we experience it, and in the lives of Christian men and women? Again, popular accounts of the lives of saints seem to put such ways of living impossibly out of our reach. How can we begin to emulate such heroic deeds, such long hours of prayer, such self denial?

Yet we should not allow pious biographies to obscure the essential humanity of the saints. St Francis of Assisi left a life of self-indulgence to embrace poverty. St Augustine of Hippo was pursued by an anxious mother who seemed almost to despair at his early behaviour, and when he reformed he left a mistress and a child. St Teresa of Avila, when her carriage was grounded halfway across a ford, wound down the window, shook her fist at the heavens and said “If this is the way you treat your friends, God, no wonder you’have so few of them.” St Peter denied he even knew Jesus when questioned by a serving girl at the height of his Lord’s trial.

Of course these saints turned away from lives which denied their Lord or which sought only personal pleasure – but their capacity to be less than good surely remained. Holiness for them must have been a constant choice of God’s will, a daily acceptance of what they saw that love demanded of them; sometimes heroic, often ordinary. Peter, martyred for his faith, was still the man who had denied his Lord. Francis, in his poverty and delighting in the natural world about him, was still the man who had once delighted in fine and worldly things.

Synaxis of All Saints, early 17th Century. Vatican Museums,
[Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

For the saints, to become holy was not an instant remedy, a once for all event, it was a constant taking up of their cross and following in Jesus’ way, a constant choosing of God’s love; a constant recognition that no matter what was done, no matter what lay in the past, so strong was that love that it could never let them go.

Peter, Paul, Francis, and all the rest, were ordinary people, but people whose lives were transformed into holiness by the fire of God’s love. Like them, we too are ordinary people. In a special way All Saints day is our feast too, because in all our lives there are times when we achieve sanctity; when we act purely out of care for another person; when in our prayer we feel God’s presence, however briefly. When we go on doing what is right even though it takes constant acts of our will; when suddenly, unexpectedly we feel a kind of holy joy – all these are times of holiness.

Let us think of these things also when, in receiving the body and blood of the Lord in Holy Communion, that we may experience a particular realisation of his presence with us. This festival ending the season of Pentecost when we have reflected on “being the Church” is the reminder and the challenge to us all that God can and does work in the lives of ordinary people to conform them to the pattern of Jesus himself. Truly this is a great feast day for all of us.

Fr. Edward Bryant

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