On the feast of all saints, we celebrate the great multitude of holy men and women, those whom the Church has recognised and the vastly greater number whose names we do not know. The number of canonised saints seems to be increasing dramatically. Pope John Paul II canonised more saints than all previous Popes combined, and now he and Blessed John XXIII are soon to join the swelling number. Isn’t this all a bit exaggerated? Isn’t sanctity becoming a bit too thinly spread? As in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Gondoliers: "when everyone is somebody, then no-one's anybody".
No, because sanctity is not a common feature that is shared by lots of people, like being right handed or ginger haired. In the third Eucharistic Prayer we say, ‘You give life to all things and make them holy.’ Holiness is being fully alive, as God created each thing uniquely to be. There are as many ways of being a saint as there are human beings.
This can sound like the common mantra of today: Just be yourself. Even the Girl Guides have changed their promise. They now promise ‘to be true to myself.’ Embrace the inner slob! But here we come across a paradox which is central to the Christian understanding of holiness. We can only really be ourselves, most authentically who we uniquely are, by conforming to Christ. St Paul said ‘it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.’ (Galatians 2.20). This does not mean that St Paul’s individuality has been extinguished but that in Christ it comes to complete fruition.
Thomas Merton said to his novices at Gethsemane Abbey: ‘What you came here for is to become yourself, to discover your complete identity, to be you. But the catch is that of course our full identity as monks and Christians is Christ. It is Christ in each of us… I’ve got to become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only be the Christ in me. There is a Louis Christ [Louis was his name as a monk] that must be brought into existence and hasn’t matured yet. It has a long way to go.’ We need the courage to let go of what might look as if it makes our special – a superiority based on our looks, or intelligence, or amazing skill in Scrabble or whatever – to attain that unique identity in Christ, which is beyond all rivalry and competition.
This is wonderful news for a society in which many people have insecure identities, and for whom celebrities seem to be the only real people. We see them on the TV and so they must be real! If only we could wear what they wear, eat the same food and have the same hair, then we would be real too, perhaps. But these pseudo-identities of the market place, off the peg self images, are illusory.
The film Of gods and men tells the story of a small community of Trappist monks living in Algeria in the 1990s. Slowly they find themselves caught up in the rising tide of violence, caught between the Islamacist terrorists and the military. They struggle, together and individually, to discern whether they should stay with the villagers or find safety back home in France. Finally, their separate mental journeys converge in a common decision to stay and share the lot of their Muslim neighbours. When the Prior describes this process shortly before they are murdered, he sees it as a journey towards sanctity, each monk becoming the person he was created to be. He says: ‘I think that each of us discovered that to which Jesus Christ beckons us. It’s to be born. Our identities as men go from one birth to another. And from each birth to birth we’ll end up bringing to the world the child of God that we are. The Incarnation, for us, is to allow the filial reality of Jesus to embody itself in our humanity. The mystery of the Incarnation remains what we are going to live.’
We celebrate the vast throng of saints today, each utterly different; each themselves by being one in Christ.