What is a saint?

by Father John Parker

All-hallow’s Eve—Halloween—is the night before the sacred remembrance of the Feast of All Saints on the calendars of the Roman Catholic and some Protestant Churches.

The word “saint” evokes many images in our minds.  For some, saints are religious heroes of old, whose lives of piety and good works are the “stuff of legend.”  For others, saints are those gentle, old people who sit in rocking chairs who speak in soft voices, read their bibles, and don’t stray far off the reservation.  Still others might think in terms of that famous Billy Joel song, “Only the good die young,” wherein he sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.  The sinners are much more fun….”  And for many, saints are seen as buzz-kills, goody-goodies, those men and women who have so devoted themselves to God that they never smile or enjoy themselves.

I have always found it interesting that well-intending Christians, struggling to find wholeness, are labeled as “hypocrites” by their decriers.  Ironically, the term “hypocrite,” which is used derogatorily by Jesus quite often in the Christian Bible, is a term that came from the stage.  It means “pretender; one who pretends to be other than he really is.”  I find that ironic because “pretender” is precisely what comes with a Halloween costume, particularly in the debauched adult form.  Put on a costume and “role play”—perhaps saying and doing things that one would never say or do when sober or unmasked.

By contrast, the pursuit of sainthood is not pretending to be someone one isn’t, but struggling to be the one he or she is called to be!  It is not that a saint is someone who is a party-pooper and kill-joy.  Rather, a saint is someone, oftentimes, who has tried the pretender route for long enough and found that it leads to absolute emptiness.  It fulfills nothing, and in the end robs one of human dignity, too!

A saint, from the ancient Christian view, is one who takes his or her clues about what a true human being is from Jesus Christ, and not from the world around us.  The methods of the fallen world have been tried and found lacking generation after generation, and left every human being in a puddle of confusion, regret, sorrow, and eventually, death.  And wishing, rather, to find true love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (against which there is no law!), the struggler seeks example in those who have had the mess of their lives converted into a life worth living—by God’s goodness—in order to imitate them.  That is a saint.

To be sure, there are saints who were pious and faithful from the youngest age.  The ever-virgin Mary, Jesus’ mother, is the finest and best example of such a woman.  And there are numerous others in such a category.  Yet, we “regular Joes” tend to need and desire inspiration from those who were once all-too-like us, but who found true life, fulfillment, wholeness, and healing!  These are they who were among the muddiest and depraved, but by co-working with God, found themselves sanctified—though they would never have proclaimed this of themselves.  Here are a few examples to look up.

  • Saint Mary of Egypt was a woman who wouldn’t call herself a prostitute because she did what she did for free and for fun.  She is probably the second most well-known woman saint in Christian history.
  • Saint Paul of Tarsus spent the early part of his adult life persecuting Christians and authorizing their executions.
  • Saint Moses the Black was a robber from Africa who repented and became a famous monk.
  • Saints Cyprian and Justina, who became a bishop and abbess respectively even though Cyprian’s parents had dedicated him to the devil as a child and he later went on to practice the black arts.
  • Saint Pelagia the Penitent also was converted from sexual license.
  • Saint Vladimir, the Prince of Kyiv, was a vicious ruler whose 180 degree conversion brought Christianity to Kyivan Rus’ in 988 AD.

As Halloween marches on from being the eve of All Saints Day to a full-blown, secularized “holiday” complete with orange lights and yard decorations, perhaps it is high time to pause and reflect on the one bare thread that gives hope on this occasion—“hallowed,” “saintly,” “holy.”  The South Carolina motto is “dum spiro spero”: “while I breathe, I hope”.  Maybe this year we cast off our masks—whether they are of the Halloween or day-to-day sort—that cover up our interior pain and find the examples of holiness in the saints to which we can aspire—and, by God’s grace, obtain.