Tuesday 7 September 2010

What are saints? What is their value?

Until I encountered Eastern Orthodoxy, I never could understand saints and could not see the value of saints.


This failure was not particularly surprising because modern secular culture has no resources for describing saints; while (to my mind, and at the limited level of my understanding) Roman Catholicism seems to conceptualize saints in mostly ethical terms: saints are seen as exceptionally altruistic people, highly devout people who adhere strictly to the laws of behaviour.

The best known modern RC saintly figure is therefore Mother Teresa: who is seen as having been exceptionally altruistic in a self-sacrificing way. But the altruism is portrayed in a material, secular sense.

This, for me, created an unfortunate notion that saints were something like truly sincere and exceptionally hard-working charity workers - and a tendency to judge them by their *effectiveness* in their social work.

So that the sanctity of Mother Teresa is evaluated by measuring the effect of her charitable work on the frequency and severity of poverty in Calcutta...

Clearly this was a wildly mistaken idea of sainthood on my part - but it derived from a 'this worldly' idea of saints as essentially 'workers' for the material good of others who also followed ethical and devotional rules with exceptional precision.


But (as I understand it) Eastern Orthodoxy sees saints as people who have attained the after-life perspective while still in this-life on earth; who are living in the City of God while still inhabiting the City of Man; who have their feet on the ground but their minds in heaven.

Lucky Christians experience a foretaste of life after death, but saints have begun to live the life after death (in communion with God) even before death.

Such people (i.e. saints) are extremely rare and may absent in some places and some periods of history; because sainthood comes at the end of a prolonged process of incremental purification including ascetic discipline and prayer - and people are more likely successfully to 'complete' this difficult process (called theosis) when there is sound guidance from others who are advanced on this path - and in some times and situations there are no such people to provide help.


One special general value of saints in this world is therefore as intermediaries between heaven and earth; as people who can truly answer questions and provide specific knowledge which would otherwise be inaccessible to humans.


Anonymous said...

"Such people (i.e. saints) are extremely rare and may absent in some places and some periods of history"

So would you consider most of the saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church to be true saints in the sense you have in mind?

If Mother Teresa is the archetypal "saint" of altruism, who would you put forward as the archetypal example of one who attained theosis? Bernard of Clairvaux perhaps?

Bruce Charlton said...

@wmjas - I don't know enough to answer this.