Words on the Word

All Saints

Apocalypse 7:2-4, 9-14: They shouted aloud, ‘Victory to our God!’
1 John 3:1-3: We shall see him as he really is.
Matthew 5:1-12a: Blessed are the pure in heart.

A couple of years ago, Channel 4 broadcast a programme on monastic history called Saints and Sinners. A few years earlier, a history of the papacy was published with the same title. Lincolnshire has a jam factory called Saints and Sinners. In Stalybridge, edges are trimmed in the Saints and Sinners Hair Studio. You may google your way to other alike-named conveniences. The word-pair, sinners and saints, seems to point to a basic categorisation of mankind. We complacently lump almost all into the one description, considering the other remote and unattainable. In this, we are mistaken. Today’s feast tells us so.

Our reading from the Apocalypse, describing the communion of saints, speaks of a throng ‘impossible to count’. The saints are not limited to the canonised women and men named in our missals. These are put before us as particular examples, meant to teach us something, to show us a path to follow. But sanctity goes further. In a way, it comes uncomfortably close. For all of us, baptised into Christ, are called, called and equipped, to be saints. Do we think about that? Do we take the proposition seriously? Have we even got a clear notion of what holiness is? St Thomas Aquinas offers us a luminous description, full of refreshment in its brevity. He says: ‘Since good that is loved has the nature of an end, and since the motion of the will is called good or evil in terms of the end it pursues, the love by which the supreme good, God, is loved must possess the supereminent goodness that goes by the name of holiness.’

Holiness, says Thomas, is not primarily a function of accomplishments, but of the undividedness of love. We are subtly transformed into that which we love. By the direction of our love, we set the measure of our becoming. If I love private satisfactions, selfishness will be my mark. My love will turn in on itself. I’ll come to inhabit a world that is lonely and cold, out of reach of others’ love. If I love what is evil—perish the thought!—evil will readily claim me. I’ll eventually lose the habit of good, dismiss its attraction, and come to find my dismal belonging in a vortex of despair. If I love the good, in contrast, good will sharpen and define my love, enabling it to love ever more. The more my love aspires to the very highest Good, the more that Good shapes and refashions my life, so that, at the last, I shall, by grace, stand forth as a new creation, an image of the Love I have loved. This may sound abstract, but isn’t. It gives holiness a footing in the real, in my reality. When our Cistercian Fathers spoke of what the Lord had done for them through their vocation, they used to cite the Song of Songs and say, ‘He has set love in order in me’. To surrender ourselves with freedom to such ordering, eliminating all obstacles: that is what it is to pursue holiness. It is what God desires for us, with a desire whose intensity surpasses our imagining. Do we desire it for ourselves? Is our love set on beatitude, on an embrace of divine joy? That’s the crucial matter. The good thing is: it is a matter we can do something about, ever refocusing our love in Christ. The Lord and his saints will help.