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Something of Christ revealed in a person

All Saints Day: 1st November, 2007
Fr Stephen Miles, Associate Priest at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

About fifteen years ago the Roman Catholic parish priest at Clayton, Fr Laurie Pearson, set about re-modeling his church. St Peter's Clayton, built in the early 1960's, is a tent-shaped building with a vast open interior. All around the walls of the interior high up on a curved shelf stood a long line of statues of the saints, a variety of figures of men and women dressed in colourful costume of the periods in which they lived. What Fr Pearson did was to lower the shelf to shoulder height so that after people entered the church and made their way to the pews, they would walk past this long row of saints. His idea was that saints, who are our models of Christian life, would be seen as accessible, fellow human beings, instead of a caste of super human creatures elevated far beyond our reach who could only stand to remind us of our inadequacy as fellow followers of Christ.

In the New Testament, the word 'saint' was used for all Christians. During the persecution, the term was applied to a special category of the faithful, the martyrs, those who had died 'in the Lord'. After Constantine's grant of toleration in the year 313, the honour given to the old martyrs was extended to men and women, known as Confessors, those who, by living lives of dedication and perseverance, were witnessing or confessing to Christ just as effectively as the martyr does by dying. Usually confessors were bishops, priests, monks and nuns. Over time, however, the word 'saint' came to be used of any person who was felt to have shown Christ-likeness during his or her life.

Fr Harry Williams says of saintliness, that it is not all round perfection, but quite simply, "something of Christ revealed in a person." It is not, he says, because people are special in and of themselves that we call them saints, but because they are ordinary people through whom the Holy Spirit works to reveal some remarkably Christ-like quality. Consider St Peter upon whose rock of faith the very Church is founded. Throughout his life Peter exhibited if not cowardice then certainly weakness of will, of which he was painfully aware. Not only did he deny Our Lord three times — shame that reduced him to tears — but twenty years after the resurrection when at first he courageously took meals with gentile Christians, flouting Jewish law, he quickly backed down when Jewish Christians arrived on the scene and expressed their disgust. And St Paul, in spite of his stupendous achievements, quarreled and fell out with Barnabas over a trivial matter and parted company with him. And even though Paul readily admitted his imperfections, he was also given to bragging about his suffering for the work of the gospel

Saints have feet of clay. Take for example, a saint of our own time, Mother Theresa of Calcutta. One of the most shocking pieces of news to come out of her beatification is the fact that she suffered from profound doubt — from feelings of abandonment by God, even wondering at times whether God existed. She wrote: "The damned of hell suffer eternal punishment because they experiment with the loss of God. In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not want me, that God is not God and he really does not exist... My smile" she said "is a great cloak that hides a multitude of pains." People think "my faith, my hope and my love are overflowing and that my intimacy with God and union with his will fill my heart. If only they knew."

A common misperception about saints is that they are persons who draw on enormous spiritual resources or have strengths that you and I do not possess. It is more likely that — through a deep awareness of their imperfections — they are people who know their need of God's grace and so open themselves to his power to work in them that the Holy Spirit in some remarkable way shines through their lives. This after all is the message of the Beatitudes, "blessings of the needy" as they have been called: "Blessed are the poor ... those who hunger ... those who mourn ... those who hunger and thirst ... for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Why are the needy blessed? Because only when we become aware of an emptiness, a lack of something, a space in our hearts, can we allow God to enter our lives and work in us that which is pleasing in his sight.

It is the humanity of the saints, their human frailty that binds them to us; it is also because of their very frailty that in their humility they allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. They become Christ-like, in other words, through the help Christ gives them. St Paul sums it up in a sentence: "I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." Sr Joan Chittister puts it this way: "Possessed by a vision of divine goodness" saints "give us a glimpse of the face of God in the centre of the human." By this definition, we've all known saints — those who in their lives give us a glimpse of Christ.

The "something of Christ" may be courage, patience, mercy, kindness, or simply the ability to make other people feel accepted and valued. That, says Harry Williams, is a most precious quality of Christ, revealing the goodness and mercy of God and his generous love. The poet, W.H.Auden, says that his idea of a saint is just such a person. "I have met in my life" he writes "two persons, one a man, the other a woman, who convinced me that they were persons of sanctity. Utterly different in character, upbringing and interests as they were, their effect on me was the same. In their presence I felt myself to be ten times as nice, ten times as intelligent, ten time as good-looking as I really am."

Saintliness is something of Christ revealed in a person, a quality clearly not limited to the Christian but to be found in good people the world over. That isn't surprising since St John tells us at the start of his gospel that Christ is "the light that enlighteneth every man." The New Testament calls all members of Christ's Body 'saints' but in the purpose of God, Christ's body includes all mankind. So at this Mass for all the saints, let us give thanks to God for men and women down the ages who have died in the faith; for all who have witnessed to Christ in their lives; and for all people we have known who — by God's grace — have touched our lives and the lives of others by their Christ-like goodness.


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