The following reflection first appeared in the November 2013 issue of the Anglican Journal.
They were milling about an old converted farmhouse in the Kentish countryside. One of them wore a makeshift monk’s hood, and the other, jeans and a T-shirt. I had come to visit the Pilsdon Community at Malling quite by accident, discovering it just behind my intended destination of St. Mary’s Abbey (a community of cloistered, Anglican Benedictine nuns). I remember looking at the two of them and feeling how deeply they were caught between two worlds: an intentional Christian community for those transitioning out of crises on one side and cloistered nuns on the other. They were my age (early 20s) and I remember urgently wanting to tell them that their call to holiness was right now! God was working to bring them, as unique persons, to fullness of life in Christ. What they wore didn’t matter (“…hoods make not monks,” wrote Shakespeare in Henry VIII); they could not pretend, and did not need to pretend, their way into a holy life.
When we as a church think about saints, we often find ourselves caught between two worlds. On the one hand, that classic (and often canonized) depiction of a saint as a monastic somewhere way back in history, and on the other, ourselves-in our jeans, in our families, in our crises, in our jobs. So when we think about saints, it’s important to begin by saying that being a saint has very little to do with being extraordinarily good, monastic, perfect, nice or even likeable, and everything to do with being who you are in God. A saint, we can say, is someone who knows themselves in God, someone deeply conscious of the truth that, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, our very humanity can bear the holy.
What, then, is holiness? God alone is holy, and the call to be like God in holiness is an ancient one, voiced clearly in Leviticus 19:2 and rearticulated throughout the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 1:15, John 13:34). Holiness is not something one owns or achieves. It is a fullness of life, a human transparency to the life and love of God. Saints are people who have encountered/been encountered by the living God and have chosen to live with Christ, and in Christ, with a particular intensity that opens up the reality of God in real and living ways for other people.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams describes a saint as someone who “starts a chain reaction of new perception in the world, who reinforces, even among those who don’t or can’t yet believe, the confidence that there’s more to us than we had expected” (Uncommon Gratitude; Liturgical Press, 2012, p. 68). There’s more to us than we had expected, more than we could ask or imagine: new life in Jesus. So, to all who are loved by God and called to be saints: how is God calling you to holiness?
THE REV. ANNE PRIVETT is rector of St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church in Oak Bay, B.C.