A Degree of Difference

Sunday 1st November 2009
All Saints' Day
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint

In spite of what we read in books, in real life Cultural change rarely happens all-of-a-sudden. Humanity is as prodigal with ideas as nature is with seed. By a combination of luck and flexibility, some novelties survive while most of its competitors die. So to speak of sudden episodes of change would be over-simplistic; but I think it would be fair to say that in the past 100 years our culture has transformed the way we look at the superhuman: our Edwardian forebears would have recognised the sculpture of military heroes and tales of African adventurers; and today all of us recognise the two-dimensional characters of Batman, Catwoman and Lara Croft.

So, on this day of all Saints, where do our Christian heroes fit into this cultural progression? The first phase is relatively easy; we see statues and stained glass images of saints in our churches. At the next level, we are also more comfortable than we might care to admit, for much of what we read and speak of saints is very similar to the content of animated cartoons; it's sketchy and epigraphic, with a tendency towards the hagiographic and sentimental. We seem to have forgotten, in our pursuit of what is saintly, the denial of Peter, the indulgence of Augustine and the ruthlessness of Thomas More. And so, one lesson for today is that saints are not perfect.

The fundamental question we need to look at, whether we are considering celebrity or sanctity, is the distinction between a difference of degree and a degree of difference. I suspect that most of us think that saints constitute a difference of degree; they are not in our category of being; they are special; some of them are heroic, some are superhuman and even some are celebrities; but they are in a different class of people from us. What I want to argue is the precise opposite, that saints are simply us with a degree of difference. So what makes them saints?

The fundamental quality of a saint is to be human to the ultimate degree; and that means attempting to live as creatures of the creator and sisters and brothers of Christ. It means experiencing the joy of our incipient divinity and the sorrow of our falling short; it means experiencing exquisite love and the sharp regret of our unfaithfulness. Saints are not other than us, they are examples of how close we can come to God by being open to God's free self-communicating love and by striving to build The Kingdom on Earth.

So much for the philosophy and the theology; but how would we recognise a saint? The answer is that we almost certainly wouldn't. When we say that so-and-so is a saint, what we generally mean is that she (and it usually is she) quietly and selflessly goes about doing good works. Well, of course, there are saints of that sort but most saints are not like that at all; they are not conformists but revolutionaries who defy conventional wisdom and take risks for The Kingdom. They champion the poor and the down-trodden, not just through quiet good deeds and piety but by confronting injustice head on. They risk their social positions, and even their lives, in the struggle to wrest the world's plan out of the hands of the proud and the venal, placing it in the hands of those who will humbly build God's Kingdom on earth; which as what Jesus asked us to do.

There are saints like the recently notorious Saints Theresa of Lysieux, who are portrayed as submissive to Jesus, which is correct, but in her heavily doctored writings she was also portrayed as submissive to religious authority; indeed, the two were made mutually dependent. Now that the ecclesiological redaction has been removed, we see a rather different figure who had to fight all kinds of prejudice before she was allowed to become a Carmelite nun.

We always run great dangers when we generalise but I think it's time to take a risk; for me, saints are people who have made up their mind for God and just won't be shifted. They may be tactless and raw like Wilfrid who was so abrasive that even Yorkshire couldn't stand it, which is why he came down here. There was Saint Francis of Assisi who dared to question the pomp and wealth of the Church of the high Medieval period, who even championed the cause of animals. There was Ignatius of Loyola who brought his military toughness and precision into self examination; and, in our own day, we have seen the sanctity and the blemishes of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.

So what has all that got to do with us? Well, first of all, we should apply to our spiritual lives the same techniques we use in our secular lives; saints are benchmarks, beacons of excellence, aspirational figures, role models, exemplars of good practice. We use these terms to describe how we, in our own enterprises, strive to raise the quality of what we do; that's what saints are for us. They are examples of what we can do if we work hard at our Kingdom Building.

Now that sounds just a little unlikely. But a few years ago Gustavo Dudamel, a Venezuelan conductor, collected orchestral instruments and distributed them to slum children; and within years the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra, built with Dudamel's Systema won a Deutsche Gramophon recording contract and was the hottest ticket at the BBC Proms in 2008.

Dudamel and I share a philosophy with Jesus, an outlook on life which runs counter to our niggardly, negative, competitive culture, held together by the Daily Mail. We believe that everybody has immense potential for kingdom building; we do not think that there is one Mozart in a million but a Mozart on almost every street corner. We believe, like Jesus, that the natural condition of creatures created by God is to do good; it is in our nature to collaborate, to build, to provide mutual support, to smile, to praise, to intuit, to fix, to deduce and to pray.

We are, in the words of 1 Peter, a royal Priesthood, a peculiar people. Saints are not our almost magically perfect exceptions, they are ourselves writ not so much large as deep, so that what we are and aspire to be are more deeply etched in them. They are not to be admired as heroes, caricatures or ephemeral celebrities, they are intimations of God within us.