A small group of conservative Episcopalians gathered every week for lunch to talk about what to do in an increasingly liberal church. The minister was the farthest out on the Evangelical end and I was the farthest out on the Catholic-minded end. This was about 25 years ago, in the mid-nineties. I don’t know what he eventually did. My family and I entered the Church in 2001.
The minister spoke emphatically. He reacted against anything Catholic, but he also felt a hard egalitarianism that reacted against any distinction. Not least, I suspect, those in which he did not rank high, but maybe that’s unfair.
I thought we all have a deep and proper human instinct to look up to and imitate heroes. The Catholic idea of the saints just focuses that instinct on the heroes of holiness. But I’d had many conversations like that one, especially when I was working at the Episcopal seminary, with Evangelicals who threw out the whole idea — not just of saints in the stricter sense but of Christian heroes. They insisted on Christianity’s egalitarianism over every hierarchy.
Yet they had real Christian heroes they looked up to. Apparently the egalitarian impulse had warped their thinking, though it hadn’t completely warped their feelings.
After some back and forth, the minister eventually granted that we should admire some Christians. We should take instruction from their lives. Not honour them, exactly, and not make them heroes, but look to them as models.
I asked about the Blessed Virgin Mary. I foolishly thought that even to him, she was the obvious example. Mary, he said, was just a woman who had a baby. We shouldn’t admire her, because she didn’t do anything special. Lots and lots of Christians deserved more admiration and attention than she did. I pressed him for an example. “Hudson Taylor,” he said, referring to a missionary who evangelised part of Canada.
An Evangelical theologian of some status in that world once replied to my writing about saints: “I’m sure the Apostle Paul would be the first to agree he crossed the finish line in the same condition and under the same circumstances as do all Christians, by the Grace of God.” He thought this an intelligent response. Of course St Paul and all the saints know that. They make no claims for themselves. But we can see the extraordinary holiness of their lives.
My Evangelicals brethren who think like this use grace to flatten distinctions. Grace brings every man down. If it brings every man up, it’s like an elevator car that lifts everyone at the same rate and to the same height.
It’s more like a long march in which God supplies everyone with everything they need, but some walk longer every day and walk faster and pay more attention to the map. They don’t stop off at the resorts and pubs and tourist spots along the way, and stay out of the areas marked “dangerous” and they don’t backtrack to something they liked better than walking through some boring woods. God has his ambulance crews and his guides and his bail bondsmen to help the others, because he wants them to get where they need to go. But those who do the work take the better part and are worthy of the slackers’ praise.
I said that the question isn’t how he got there, but who he was when he got there. He was a hero of holiness. Something few of us are. Therefore someone to admire and emulate, whose love of God should spur us to love God more. I almost added, “Do you think yourself the equal of St. Paul?” But didn’t because the answer might have been yes. People have said yes when asked that question, because from God’s point of view, etc., it’s all grace, we’re all sinners, and so on.
The sad thing about this, for them, is that they lose one of the great joys of life. (Lose, that is, to the extent they actually live out their belief. Most don’t, I’m pretty sure.) We enjoy the good and holy people we know. They light up the room, light up our lives, light up the night. And part of the enjoyment depends on our recognising their superiority in holiness — even in enjoying their not believing they’re in any way superior.
At the very least, leaving out what we Catholics know about the saints and their involvement in our lives, we can bask in their goodness with the hope that we absorb a little of it. Deeply good people make the world more interesting.
David Mills is a Chapter House columnist.
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