Theses on Sanctity

Looking back at my previous post and assorted comments and at COD’s thoughts on Lent Madness, one of the core problems confronting Holy Women, Holy Men and the efforts to fix it is a lack of an explicit Episcopal theology of sanctity. Of course, there are very few widely recognized “Episcopal theologies of” anything which is simultaneously a bug and a feature.

I once tried to go through the BCP catechism and do for death/sanctity/eschatology what I did for the Sacraments, but found that there was so little reference to these topics that it wasn’t worth the effort. I think that there is a theology of sanctity that can be drawn from prayer book as a whole, but I had neither the time nor energy for that endeavor at that point.

Nonetheless, here are some fundamental theses on an Episcopal theology on sanctity that I believe do proceed from the prayer book and the classic Anglican devotional life. (And, yes, Rdr. Morgan, these may address some of your questions…)

1. A theology of saints and sanctity exists at the intersection of Christology, Ecclesiology, and Sacramental Theology.

As I’ve said before and no doubt will say again, one of the great issues of the modern church is our tendency to compartmentalize and categorize and to treat theological matters as if they existed in their own little glass boxes disconnected from anything else. Theology doesn’t work that way. Inter-relation is the name of the game.

In order to speak meaningfully about the saints, we have to talk about Christ. The Incarnation is central here. Christ is both an exemplar and the one who transforms us. He is the first-fruits of the resurrection. He is the one who did teach us, is teaching, and will teach us in thought, word, and deed. He connects us to himself and transforms us according to his own likeness.

But to speak of this connection and transformation is to speak also of Sacramental Theology—of grace and the means of grace that bind us into the Body of Christ and nourish us towards the Mind of Christ. Baptism and the Eucharist and the sacramental actions by which ordinary material reality is bound within the community to the powerful promises of Christ to be means of grace for the community and beyond mirrors the alchemy of sanctity that transforms our earthen vessels into something more substantial.

To speak of the sacramental and eschatological Body of Christ leads us to Ecclesiology, the theology of the Church, the persistence of Christ in his Church and the character and mission of the Bride of Christ. Where are the boundaries of the Church? What is the character of the Church? What is our fundamental mission?

A coherent theology of sanctity is incomplete with these pieces being integral parts of the answer. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that there is no explicit Anglican or Episcopal theology of sanctity—there are so many disagreements in these other areas that there is not enough common ground on which to construct one!

2. Sanctity can be simply defined as the aim and completion of a sacramental life of discipleship.

We are a sacramental Church. The sacraments are ecclesially dispensed ordinary channels of grace that bind us into the life of God. The reality of this binding is expressed in a cruciform life of discipleship. Sanctity is the standard against which progress into this cruciform life is measured; sanctity is the incarnate expression of relaxing our humanity into the person of Christ.

We talk quite a lot about the Baptismal Covenant. If things are properly aligned, then sanctity is related to a keeping of the promises taken on in this covenant.

3. We are missing part of the picture if we do not recognize there there are several key facets of who the saints are and who they are for us: they are a) elder siblings on the way of the cross, b) mirrors of the light of Christ, c) present intercessors, and d) pillars for the Church.

I use the word “facets” deliberately. Facets are different faces and aspects of a single thing—not different things that may or may not be grouped together… At the Reformation, protestant reactions against the abuses seen in popular devotion to the saints led to a myopic reduction of the role and identity of the saints. That is to say, I believe that there were legitimate theological problems with the way that devotion to the saints was expressed in late medieval Europe. I believe that some of these issues still persist. And, to touch on a point raised by a comment on the previous post, I think that much Anglican anxiety around Our Lady is because Marian devotion past and present sits uncomfortable near, on, or over the line between veneration (which is appropriate) and worship (which is not). (This is my main statement on Mary from a while back.)

The end result is that the protestant reformers tended to cut things back severely to the degree that they tended to give (a) their grudging assent and preferred to ignore the others. This is what’s in the Augsburg Confession; the 39 Articles don’t even go that far. In doing so, they violated the tradition of the Church and the teaching of Scripture. (I won’t say clear teaching as the most obvious pieces regarding this appear in Revelation and, due to its nature, it’s rather best to avoid the “clear” word.)

What I tend to see in the current Episcopal Church—perhaps as exemplified in some of the Lent Madness discussions—is a similar reduction of the saints to facet (a). As a result, some clarity on the scope of these facets is essential.

A. The Saints are Elder Siblings on the Way of the Cross.

The saints are exemplars for us in that they give us a picture of what faithful lives look like in a multitude of societies and situations. How they acted inspires us and gives us models. In this facet, we tend to cleave closest to saints with whom we share points of identification whether that be gender, race, class, profession, or situation. This is a lot of what we see going on in Lent Madness comments.

This is the “particularity” piece that helps us work through how we live the Gospel in our particularity—by learning about the particularity of others. However, an over-emphasis on this facet can be a danger when we come to believe that our goal is following the direct example of the saint. After all, no matter how closely connected we seem to be, their particularity is not our particularity. Yes, we should imitate them, but we also must be fully cognizant of what it is that we are imitating! And that leads us directly to our next facet…

B. The Saints are Mirrors of the Light of Christ.

Saints are mirrors, not light-sources. They don’t generate their own glow; rather they glow from reflecting the light of Christ. The saints cleave to Christ, and—in so doing—they cultivate the virtues of Christ. The praiseworthy deeds done by the saints are to be followed and imitated because of the way in which they embody the virtues of Christ. For instance, the marches organized by Martin Luther King Jr. reflect a creative combination of the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance (specifically in resisting the many temptations to violence). To simply say, “Let’s march!” without grasping these internal principles is not imitating the saint; it is failing to discern the universal—the aspect of Christ—that is bound into the particular.

I can’t help but think of Cassian’s citation of St. Antony in his description of how monks are to learn virtue from their elders:

For it is an ancient and admirable saying of the blessed Antony to the effect that when a monk, after having opted for the cenobium, is striving to the heights of a still loftier perfection, has seized upon the consideration of discretion and is already able to rely on his own judgment and to come to the pinnacle of the anchorite life, he must not seek all the kinds of virtue from one person, however outstanding he may be. For there is one adorned with the flowers of knowledge, another who is more strongly fortified by the practice of discretion, another who is solidly founded in patience, one who excels in the virtue of humility and another in that of abstinence, while still another is decked with the grace of simplicity, this one surpasses the others by his zeal for magnanimity, that one by mercy, another one by vigils, yet another by silence, and still another by toil. Therefore the monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it most intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find, or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate. The reason for this is that, although we see that Christ has not yet been made ―all in all‖ (to cite the words of the Apostle), we can nonetheless in this fashion find him partly in all. For it is said of him that ―by God‘s doing he was made for us wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Inasmuch, therefore, as there is wisdom in one, righteousness in another, holiness in another, meekness in another, chastity in another, and humility in another, Christ is now divided among each of the holy ones, member by member. But when we are all assembled together in the unity of faith and virtue, he appears as ―the perfect man,‖ completing the fullness of his body in the joining together and in the characteristics of the individual members. (John Cassian, Institutes 5.4)

For Cassian, the practice of virtue is not fundamentally the cultivation of self-improvement. Rather, as monks grow in virtue they grow into the fullness of Christ and as constituent members of the Body of Christ, they contribute to the eschatological consummation when Christ will be all in all. The quest for virtue is the quest to more fully and completely participate in the life and redemptive work of the Risen Lord.

This is the very same work in which we engage when we study the saints and seek to model their virtues in our lives. Their virtues are theirs only on loan; the heart of their virtue flows from Christ. Therefore, the saints—in congruence with Mary to the servants at the wedding of Cana—always point us back to Christ: “do whatever he tells you.” If we focus too hard on the saints, we end up staring at the finger—not the moon to which it points; yet without their finger we stumble for lack of guidance.

C. The Saints are Present Intercessors.

In Baptism, we are joined into the Body of Christ in all the fullness of meaning that the phrase contains. We share in his resurrection life; we are part of his Church. As members of that Church, one of our fundamental rights and responsibilities is intercession: to pray for one another. As partakers of his resurrection life, at death “life is changed, not ended” (proper preface for the commemoration of the dead, BCP 382). If the saints remain faithful to their baptized identity in this changed life, then intercession  is an inevitable part of it. I’ve written on how I see this functioning in such a way to help anxious Anglicans understand it in this piece so I won’t rehash it all here.

D. The Saints are the Pillars of the Church.

I’m using a metaphor here that I think is helpful because it incorporates aspects of both stasis and visibility. In identifying saints, the Church says something about who it is and how it understands itself by way of the individuals singled out. That is, all responsible theologies of sanctity agree that we on this side of the veil do not and will never know who were and were not saints. There are some presently enjoying the eschatological intimacy with God that would surprise and shock us—of this I have no doubt. As a result, the ecclesial act of recognizing individuals really does say as much about us as it does about them. This is that whole “social memory” thing that I’ve brought up from time to time. In identifying saints we claim them and their history as part of our present identity. Hence the drive mentioned in the previous comments for “how well the saint in question agrees with our own theological politics.”

By including non-Anglican saints we are displaying our greatness-of-spirit by showing that we don’t believe that the holy is restricted to our church. (Did that “greatness-of-spirit” thing sound tongue-in-cheek? Good—it was supposed to…) However, by including Anglican saints we are displaying a conviction that the Anglican path is a true path to holiness (amongst others). Indeed, this was the articulated rationale for only including Anglicans in the post-Reformation period in Prayer Book Studies IX.

So—the individuals we select say something about our identity now. But a pillar doesn’t define a structure; a structure, a Church, is defined by the selection and arrangement of pillars. Likewise, it’s not enough to be selective and intentional about picking individuals; we must be cognizant of how our individual choices shape the Calendar that we offer to the Church. Do the individuals reflect a balanced sense of what we mean by life in Christ or does it get weighted or tilted or skewed in certain directions to the exclusion of others? I think this is one of the big fights around HWHM. It’s not enough to work with the individuals; the structure offered by the whole of the Calendar matters just as much—maybe more.

Ok. There are more theses to theorize, more thoughts to think, and likely more bombs to throw. But they’ll have to wait for another time.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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5 Responses to Theses on Sanctity

  1. bls says:

    This is wonderful! It’s just amazing, to me, that you can pop these things out overnight…. ;-)

    A further thought: I keep thinking of what Robert Farrar Capon said in his book on the parables:

    Christian education is not the communication of correct views about what the various works and words of Jesus might mean; rather it is the stocking of the imagination with the icons of those works and words themselves.

    It is most successfully accomplished, therefore, not by catechisms that purport to produce understanding but by stories that hang the icons, understood or not, on the walls of the mind. We do not include the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, because we understand it, nor do we omit the parable of the Unjust Steward because we can’t make head or tail of it. Rather, we commit both to the Christian memory because that’s the way Jesus seems to want the inside of his believers’ heads decorated. Indeed, the only really mischievous thing anyone can do with the Gospel is insist on hanging only the pictures he happens to like. That’s what heresy really is: picking and choosing, on the basis of my interpretations, between the icons provided to me. Orthodoxy, if it’s understood correctly, is simply the constant displaying of the entire collection.

    This seems, to me at least, to work for the saints in the same way, too. They are decorating the insides of our heads, whether we understand (i.e., “relate to”) them or not.

  2. Beth says:

    I find these five facets of the saints very helpful, and I concur in seeing a trend to reduction of them to the “exemplar” facet. Like, I’m sure, many other Episcopalians, I have clergy friends who post the saint of the day on Facebook with a few little comments, and any time a question is voiced about whether a particular HWHM commemoration belongs on our Kalendar, commenters attack by saying that X thing the person did is something we should all emulate, so they are worthy of a commemoration. I’ve just been kind of baffled by this thought process, and I now see that this is because my default “saint” setting is more around the Mirrors and Pillars facets; direct emulation hasn’t much occurred to me. So it’s helpful to hear the facets laid out more clearly.

    I also think “the aim and completion of a sacramental life of discipleship” is important. To commemorate someone on our Kalendar who was not, for example, receiving Holy Communion regularly in the fellowship of the church and living according to Christian rhythms communicates that in fact, perhaps we’re not all that sure that a sacramental life of discipleship in community is what we recommend for fulness of life.

    And finally, the question of what the balance and structure of the Kalendar as a whole is teaching is, I’d say not maybe, but definitely more important than particular commemorations. Thematically, yes, but also I’m more concerned about the crying lack of ferias than I am about any individuals that have been added. We need ferias. The Christian life is mostly ferias.

  3. bls says:

    That’s really true and important, Beth, about ferias….

  4. MAG says:

    Amen. Your thoughts continue to be a great source of inspiration and contemplation.

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