Reflection #78 (29th October 2023 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)
We Unitarians don’t really make a big thing about Saints, do we, as a rule? Contrary to other denominations, it’s very rare to find a Unitarian church named after a saint – apparently the only one remaining in the UK is St. Mark’s in Edinburgh – though I recently read a blog post by Rev Dr David Steers (an expert in Unitarian history) which reckoned there were two others that had existed in the past: St. Michael’s in Selby, Yorkshire, and St. Thomas’ in Ringwood, Hampshire, two chapels which closed in the 60s and 70s respectively. This is quite a contrast to other denominations, in the wider Christian tradition (especially in Catholicism), where the significance of saints is much more evident in names, icons, and feast days. And, of course, saints are not just a Christian phenomenon, there are parallel roles in most faith traditions: Bodhisattvas in Buddhism come readily to mind. So I find myself wondering: are we missing out by shying away from the saints? What might we gain from engaging with them? And can we do so in a way that is in keeping with our tradition?
Let’s start here: What is a saint, anyway? The simplest definition, our starting point, probably has to be: ‘a holy person’. A saint is a holy person. Perhaps our next question should be: what is it to be holy? It seems the most common answer to that is: ‘devoted to God’ or ‘dedicated to the Good’; I’ve also seen ‘perfect in goodness and righteousness’. And the etymology of ‘holy’ is derived from ‘whole’ and connected to ‘health’. So perhaps a saint is a person dedicated to God, to goodness, righteousness, wholeness. Another account, by John A. Coleman, SJ (another Jesuit) suggests that those considered saints are usually an exemplary model of how to live, an extraordinary teacher, a source of benevolent power who can work wonders, and someone with special and revelatory relation to God and the holy. I particularly like Lawrence Babb’s metaphor describing saints as ‘focal points of spiritual force-fields’.
In the Christian tradition, the process of officially recognising someone as a saint – declaring a person to be worthy of public veneration and entering their name in the canon – is known as canonisation. It seems that the necessary qualifications to become an official saint, in the Catholic church at least, have tightened up a lot over the centuries! Nowadays, if you want to put someone forward for sainthood, it’s quite a procedure, requiring a prolonged investigation to gather supporting evidence, and at least a couple of posthumous miracles to your name (though Mother Teresa got fast-tracked).
But official saints – those officially rubber-stamped by the Pope – or by leaders of other traditions – they’re only part of the picture. There are plenty more of what we might call ‘folk saints’, often folk heroes with a local following, a connection to a particular area. This is especially a thing in Latin America, where indigenous communities often have their own saints, not approved by the church. And there’s a sense in which, even in mainstream Christianity, all of the ‘faithful deceased in heaven’ are considered to be saints. Although extraordinary souls are marked out, as worthy of special honour or emulation, we can consider anyone who lived a good and faithful life to be deserving of the name.
I was particularly taken with the James Martin’s phrase, from the piece Pat just read for us, the idea that saints are ‘models of holiness’, and that we can be inspired to live differently by their example. Laurence Housman wrote that ‘a saint is someone who makes goodness attractive.’ And Ann Gordon has this to say: ‘In the Buddhist tradition… the faithful are encouraged to study the lives of the great bodhisattvas, the compassionate ones who could have chosen Nirvana but chose instead to remain on earth to assist the suffering. Likewise, in the Catholic tradition, we have the saints — those whose lives serve as living embodiments of Christian principles in action. They endure not only because they lived with great spiritual purpose but because they call each of us to do the same today.’
Words from Ann Gordon. So given all this: can we – should we – aspire to be saints ourselves?
It sounds like quite an ask, but Matthew Fox seems to think it’s an appropriate aspiration, for people of faith. He wrote: ‘I am reminded of the biblical use of the term saint in the book of Acts. That it applies to each of us. All who are attempting to imitate the Christ in their lives merit the title of “saint.” Some do it more fully than others and are willing to let go of more to get the job done.’ Words by Matthew Fox (and if his phrase ‘attempting to imitate the Christ’ doesn’t’ work for you there are of course various substitutions you could make: ‘to follow the Buddha’, ‘to grow in virtue’, ‘to do good’.)
Also note that Fox says ‘attempting’ – not necessarily doing it perfectly – even the big-name saints are flawed. Their life stories are complicated, often morally ambivalent, and occasionally improbable (as Richard Coles put it), but they have ultimately all dedicated their lives to God or to the Good, and for all their stumblings and mis-steps this is the guiding principle that shapes everything they do. When they (inevitably) encounter challenges, or things go awry, they insistently return to this North Star. Saints are at least as messed-up as the rest of us, and yet, they (and we) are holy too. And, as James Fadiman and Robert Frager observe, in their book Essential Sufism, ‘many saints are hidden. Their outer lives do not look any different from the lives of their neighbours, although their inner lives are radiant with the Divine Presence. It is said that God hides the saints and lovers of God so that people will think that everyone else might be a saint and will therefore love and care for one another.’
I wonder what you made of the poem for meditation, ‘Of Saints’, by Kevin Hart? In it, the angel describes three sorts of saint – the sort whose life looks simple and maybe even lamentable but who God loves dearly – the sort who is scrupulous in thought and deed for God and strives to follow a righteous path (this sort are typically quite difficult to live with) – and the sort (this one is hardest to interpret) who is full of wonder and praise and acceptance of all-that-is (perhaps?). And the poem closes with the angel’s question: ‘Which one are you? Not that you have a choice, but day must see you be the one you are.’ And I suppose that’s a question I hope you’ll take away from today’s service and ponder in your heart. Which one are you? The question reminds me of Thomas Merton’s well-known saying: ‘for me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.’
As I draw to a close I want to offer one last perspective on saints from Sam Keen. He wrote: ‘A saint is a person who is filled with wholesome desires, who is moved by an eros to become capacious, creative, magnanimous, and fully alive.’ Now, isn’t that something to aspire to?
So I want to sign off by addressing you with these words by Unitarian Universalist Susan Brown:
‘Welcome all you saints! Yes! You are saints, all of you are saints,
for it is not by perfection that we are sainted, rather it is by our actions.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our presence.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our giving.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our living.
It is not by perfection that we are sainted; rather it is by our gathering together in love,
with love, to become a nurturing, welcoming, healing and faithful worshipping community.’
May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.
Reflection by Jane Blackall
An audio recording of this sermon is available: