There was once a great Saint who, realising that God was calling him to a life of silent contemplation, became a hermit in a cave in the wilderness and hoped to live out his calling in mystical communion with God. Eventually, as the world so often does, he was forced out of his quiet retreat and founded a monastery to house all the people that sought him out for spiritual direction. After years of austere monastic life, with the recitation of the Daily Office, celebration of the Divine Eucharist and being profligate in all good works, he asks God a simple question, ‘Lord, am I the holiest man in all the world?’ God responds with a visionary experience, and he is taken in the Spirit to the local city, where he is guided to look through a window and he sees a humble, unintelligent and simple old man washing and preparing vegetables for dinner, as he did everyday. And God said to him, in the Spirit, ‘Behold, the holiest man in all the world.’
I am grateful for Fr. Robert who preached in Little St. Mary’s, Cambridge about this story recently, as it has sparked all sorts of reflection and prayer for me on the nature of sainthood and the call to sanctity which all Christians share. The story is a stark reminder that holiness is not the preserve of the religious elite; of those who devoutly pray the office or who devote all their time and study to holy things. Sanctity belongs, by God’s grace, to the ordinary people who, often in quiet ways, show something of God’s loving grace and kindness to the world. Of course, the Daily Offices and the Mass are sanctifying but God does not restrict his sanctifying power to those who, let’s be honest, often by luck, are able to participate in the holy things of the Church. If, as St. Paul tells the Ephesians, God is an artist and we are his works of art (Eph. 2.10), then all people are masterpieces of that cosmic artist from whom all being and beauty flow. In often quiet and unrecognised ways a myriad people go about revealing the holiness and love and grace of God. In the midst of messy, complicated human lives, a little of the divine light shines out and illuminates the world. They are like fireworks who, although of incalculable diversity, each bear witness to a different aspect of the One who sets them alight. We see this in those named saints who we know and love: in Mary’s sacrificial love we see a glimpse of God’s love for us; in St. Joseph’s faithfulness to Jesus and Mary we begin to comprehend God’s faithfulness; and the list could go on, but God is also manifest in the lives of countless thousands who remain unnamed and who have touched our lives personally.
I think of the stories told about my great grandmother, Nora Herron, whose self-sacrificing, practical faithfulness to the Church, her family and to the Lord whom she loved with childlike simplicity of heart, bears witness to the God who created her and called her and in whose arms she will dwell for eternity. There are glimpses of holiness all around us, we need only open our eyes and see. I often think to myself that Nora’s daughter, my nana, Maureen, reveals something of the tender love of God when she prepares the altar for the Wednesday Mass on Tuesday evenings. With devotion and gentleness, she lays out the sacred vessels and prepares the cloths, ensuring everything is perfect, not with irritable fastidiousness but with pure love for the One for whose revealing this altar is prepared. Open your eyes and the holiness of God is alive in the world around us, as well as in that glorious company who surround our steps from heaven. It this vast innumerable company of which it is said ‘the world is not worthy’, they are strangers and sojourners in this world, although fully committed to it, as their true home is with God eternally and they reveal something of the world to which their citizenship belongs in the everyday comings and goings of their life.
There is no criteria of perfection to be a saint, so if we’re looking for perfect people as examples of living saints, we will be looking forever. Saints, living and departed, are those in whom God’s glory is manifest and visible: I would count my dearly departed great grandmother in their company, as well as countless others who have challenged, inspired and enkindled my faith by revealing something of God to me. We profess Sunday by Sunday that the essence of our faith is that God the Son took flesh in Jesus Christ, and he continues to become incarnate in his disciples today but, if we believe that the Son of God could be found in a stable, homeless in Nazareth or even on a cross, we must be prepared to look for those in whom he incarnates himself today in very unlikely places. In our local shop, in the homeless shelter, on the sofa next to us, and even, despite everything, in our churches.
May all the Saints, known and unknown, pray for us
That we to might be made worthy of the promises of Christ
Of your charity, dear reader, pray for the soul of Nora Herron, a practical saint.