Merry Christmas, dear reader. May you find your heart’s desire in the stable tonight. Although we may stammer before such a Mystery, we are grateful for the writers who have bravely attempted to put it into words. One of my favorites is Frederick Buechner, who departed this life last summer on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin. Here is what he preached to students many years ago:
The child born in the night among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again.
Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power to break in two and recreate the human heart, because it is just where he seems most helpless that he is most strong, and just where we least expect him that he comes most fully.
For those who believe in God, it means, this birth, that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we could crack the baby’s skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that. God comes to us in the hungry people we do not have to feed, comes to us in the lonely people we do not have to comfort, comes to us in all the desperate human need of people everywhere that we are always free to turn our backs upon. It means that God puts himself at our mercy not only in the sense of the suffering that we can cause him by our blindness and coldness and cruelty, but the suffering that we can cause him simply by suffering ourselves. Because that is the way love works, and when someone we love suffers, we suffer with him, and we would not have it otherwise because the suffering and the love are one, just as it is with God’s love for us.
Buechner’s complete sermon was published in The Hungering Dark, and later in Secrets in the Dark. You can also find it here.
Praise, praise! I croak. Praise God for all that’s holy, cold, and dark. Praise him for all we lose, for all the river of the years bears off. Praise him for the stillness in the wake of pain. Praise him for emptiness … Praise him for dying and the peace of death.
Frederick Buechner, one of the greatest of contemporary Christian writers, has departed this life. Born July 11, 1926, he died on August 15, 2022. Buechner pursued a life of faith in an age of doubt, and his wrestling with the language and content of belief in books, sermons and lectures has inspired, instructed, and delighted countless believers and seekers.
My first encounter with his striking words and novel images was during my senior year in college. On the last Sunday of Advent, 1965, my father, James K. Friedrich, a priest and film producer, staged a dramatic reading of Buechner’s imaginative rendering of the Nativity story at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills. Before a packed congregation, three distinguished Hollywood actors, two of whom were members of that parish, played the roles of Shepherd, Innkeeper, and Wise Man, each recalling his own experience on that strange night in Bethlehem.
Edward G. Robinson—whose original given name was Emmanuel—registered the Shepherd’s amazement with his familiar dusky growl:
“The air wasn’t just emptiness any more. It was alive. Brightness everywhere, dipping and wheeling like a flock of birds. And what you always thought was silence stopped being silent and turned into the beating of wings, thousands and thousands of them. Only not wings, as you came to more, but voices—high, wild, like trumpets. The words I could never remember later, but something like what I’d yelled with my mouth full of bread, ‘By God, it’s good, brothers! The crust. The mud. Everything. Everything.’”
Frederic Worlock, a veteran character actor in dozens of films from How Green Was My Valley to 101 Dalmations, sounded the Innkeeper’s lament with his distinctive British voice:
“All your life long, you wait for your own true love to come – we all of us do – our destiny, our joy, our heart’s desire. So how am I to say it, gentlemen? When he came, I missed him.”
And the formidable Raymond Massey lent a patrician aura to the Wise Man’s melancholy reflection on his brief encounter with the Real.
“I will tell you two terrible things. What we saw on the face of the new-born child was his death. A fool could have seen it as well. It sat on his head like a crown or a bat, this death that he would die. And we saw, as sure as the earth beneath our feet, that to stay with him would be to share that death, and that is why we left—giving only our gifts, withholding the rest.”
Only in retrospect would the Magus realize that “to live without him is the real death … to die with him is the only life.” [ii]
You can hear a 23-minute recording of the 1965 performance, “A Christmas Triptych,” here:
Searching for the Holy One in our midst is a core theme of Buechner’s work. His vivid description of a papal mass on Christmas Eve, when the writer was in his early thirties, is one of my favorite moments in all his writings. When Pius XII, carried on a golden throne by Swiss guards, passed among the throng in St. Peter’s that night, his glasses “glittering in the candlelight,” he was “peering into the crowd with extraordinary intensity,” as though he were “looking for someone in particular.”
It was Christ he was looking for, thought Buechner, and a theologian might insist that the holy face was already “visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night.” For the old pope that wasn’t enough. There was intense longing in his face, but Buechner also detected a “madness”—as if the pope were straining to exceed any settled account of reality.
And it is the madness that has haunted me through the years. Madness because I suspect he hoped that Christ himself had come back that night as more than just the deepest humanity of everyone’s humanity, that Impossibility itself stood there resplendent in that impossible place. [iii]
All of Buechner’s work is an attempt to put that Impossibility into words, that we might see and grasp its invitation to new life. His nine years as chaplain to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire were formative for him. The student body was a diverse and youthfully cynical lot, and Buechner’s challenge as a preacher was how to connect with the unwilling and the unbelieving. I attended an Episcopal school with compulsory chapel in the same years Buechner was at Exeter, and much later I would preach a sermon at Groton, Franklin Roosevelt’s Episcopal prep school. I know how daunting a roomful of resistant and dubious faces can be. For Buechner, the experience was a refiner’s fire. He learned how to make the case for faith in a fresh and accessible tongue. He did it with a remarkable gift for narrative and phrasing. “It’s on the house,” for example, was his translation of “divine grace.” But he also gained credibility by taking doubt seriously.
In our culture of disbelief, where the awareness of divine presence does not come naturally, even believers must live with persistent doubts. There is no way to prove there’s anything beyond the visible world, that our choices have an ultimate dimension, or that our heart’s desire has an abiding home.
Buechner never denied the validity of doubt. The only thing certain about faith is that it may not be true. “How could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?” he said. “If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. [iv] But it’s always “a fifty-fifty chance” between faith and doubt.[v] You have to choose—not between specific linguistic formulations, which even at their best cannot encompass the Real—but between saying Yes or No when Love invites you to dance.
“To be a saint,” Buechner wrote, “is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews. Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy.” [vi]
In Buechner’s Nativity dialogues cited above, the Divine Mystery has appeared in the world. The Shepherd embraces it. The Innkeeper fails to notice. The Wise Man, reckoning the cost to himself, refuses the offer. Those remain our options as well. And in a lifetime of extraordinary writings, Frederick Buechner explored the urgency of the choices set before us. We can choose life; we can choose death. We can say Yes; we can say No. Or we can simply ignore the big questions and opt for the unexamined life.
One of Buechner’s great influences was the Scottish writer George MacDonald, who, like himself, was an ordained minister. In 1990, I heard Buechner conclude a lecture with lines from MacDonald’s novel, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. Published in 1876, it posited faith as a brave rejection of the depressing sway of Victorian doubt. The way of faith may not be provable, argues MacDonald’s fictional curate, but it will always be more beautiful—and more “true”—than the alternative. No wonder Buechner loved this passage:
Even if there be no hereafter, I would live my time believing in a grand thing that ought to be true if it is not. No facts can take the place of truths, and if these be not truths, then is the loftiest part of our nature a waste. Let me hold by the better than the actual, and fall into nothingness off the same precipice with Jesus and John and Paul and a thousand more, who were lovely in their lives, and with their death make even the nothingness into which they have passed like the garden of the Lord. I will go further … and say, I would rather die for evermore believing as Jesus believed, than live for evermore believing as those that deny him.
Buechner died at 96. When my mother died at the same age in 2010, I happened to find a quote from his novel Godric among her papers. I put those words on the cover of her requiem bulletin, below a Byzantine image of Christ rescuing the dead from their tombs:
I see a star, said Godric, at the age of 100 and more. Sometimes this star is still, sometimes she dances. Within that little pool of Wear she winks at me. I wink at her. The secret that we share I cannot tell in full. But this much I will tell. What’s lost is nothing to what’s found and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup. [vii]
[i] Frederick Buechner, Godric (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1980/1983), 96.
[ii] The performance of the text as “A Christmas Triptych” was in December, 1965.Buechner’s text would be published the next year in The Magnificent Defeat (Seabury Press, 1966)..
[iii] Buechner, The Hungering Dark (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1969/1985).
[iv] Ibid., The Alphabet of Grace (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1970/1989), 47.
[v] Ibid., The Book of Bebb (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 143. In the novel, Bebb is asked what he believes. “I believe in everything.” “You make it sound easy,” the other says, and Bebb replies, “It’s hard as hell.”
“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
— Romans 5.5
— What do you believe? — “I believe in everything.” — “You make it sound almost easy.” — “It’s hard as hell.”
— Frederick Buechner, The Book of Bebb
Hope is hard to come by these days. Overwhelmed by climate apocalypse, exhausted by COVID, horrified by mass shootings, outraged by war crimes, saddened by the evisceration of democracy, savaged by racism, maddened by tribalism, sickened by political insanity, many of us have grown increasingly dispirited. Are we just going from bad to worse, or is hope still a viable practice? On this Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit, I choose hope, no question. But I have to admit, it’s hard as hell.
My hope does not rest in any existing social mechanism or political ideology. As an American embedded in this historical moment, I will continue to support political efforts and movements to bend our political, economic, and social order toward justice and human flourishing. But recent years have left me with few illusions about the capacity of our frail and broken system to deliver us from crisis. Although the stupidest man in Congress complained last week that “you can’t even lie to Congress or lie to an FBI agent or they’re coming after you,” the safeguards aren’t what they used to be.[i] And the prospect of America becoming a dystopian “Gilead” is no longer inconceivable.[ii]
But despite the heretical and dangerous claims of America’s “Christian nationalists,” God’s friends do not rest their faith in any nation-state, which by its nature has no theological aim or sense of ultimate purpose (telos). “The Church as a community transcends every political order because it is animated by the Holy Spirit and has as its telos and aim friendship with God and neighbor.… What distinguishes the community that is the body of Christ is not only its redirection to humanity’s proper telos, but also the regeneration of the heart that makes redirection toward the pursuit of this telos possible.… As such, it stands in contrast to every other polis [communal society] insofar as no other shares its narrative (the Scriptures) or is the site for the Spirit’s regenerative, sacramental, and sanctifying presence.” [iii]
Is it realistic to expect communities of faith, consisting of flawed human beings, to be sites of the Spirit’s sanctifying and renewing presence? Many of us have encountered spiritless churches in our own day, and through the centuries far too many Christian communities have managed to extinguish the Pentecostal flame. But for God’s friends, “people of the Spirit” is who we must be. In the 17th century, Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes used a memorable image to preach the centrality of the Spirit to Christian identity:
“The Holy Ghost is a Dove” he said, “and He makes Christ’s Spouse, the Church, a Dove … No Dove, no Church.” Noting that the dove is a symbol of peace and blessing, innocence and gentleness, he warned against all who “seek and do all that is in them to chase away this Dove, the Holy Ghost.” In its place they would have a monster of their own making, with “the beak and claws of a vulture.” Instead of an olive branch, this terrible creature would “have a match-light in her beak or a bloody knife.” [iv] (“Christians” who love your guns more than children, I’m looking at you!)
We may not always make the best Spirit-people, but that is our only true vocation—to receive the Holy Spirit into our hearts and our communities, not hoarding it for ourselves, but distributing its gifts for the repair of the world and the flourishing of humankind.
Edwin Hatch, a nineteenth-century Oxford scholar who wrote the famous Spirit hymn, “Breathe on me, breath of God,” said that “the fellowship of the Divine Spirit is a sharing in [its] Divine activity, in an unresisting and untiring life, always moving, because motion and not rest is the essence of [the Spirit’s] nature—always moving with a blessing.” In other words, the Holy Spirit is a gift, and gifts exist to be shared—passed around freely in perpetual circulation. As Jesus exhorted us, let your light so shine, that all the world may see and know Divine blessing. Or as Hatch put it:
“The blessing of God, if it be within us, must shine forth from us. No one can see God face to face without [their] own face shining.” [v]
The gifts of the Spirit are many, but hope is my subject today, so I’ll stick with that. As divine gift, hope isn’t a mood that comes and goes. Nor is it something we work hard to produce out of our own psyches, willing it with all our might against all odds. Rather, it comes from beyond ourselves, as a gift from God, not to be grasped in blindness or indifference to the chaos and sufferings of history, but as an enduring disposition, a habit of being, practiced daily in confident fidelity to the divine future which “broods over the world warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” [vi]
I will close with two compelling affirmations of the nature of hope. May they be an encouragement to your own practice of life in the Spirit. The first is by theologian John Cobb:
In spite of all the destructive forces [we] let loose against life on this planet, the Spirit of Life is at work in ever new and unforeseeable ways, countering and circumventing the obstacles [we] put in its path. In spite of my strong tendencies to complacency and despair, I experience the Spirit in myself as calling forth the realistic hope apart from which there is no hope, and I am confident that what I find in myself is occurring in others also.… what makes for life and love and hope is not simply the decision of one individual or another, but a Spirit that moves us all.” [vii]
And from the inimitable Frederick Buechner:
But the worst isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to last thing. The last thing is the best. It’s the power from on high that comes into the world, that wells up from the rock-bottom worst of the world like a hidden spring. Can you believe it? The last, best thing is the laughing deep in the hearts of the saints, sometimes our hearts even. Yes. You are terribly loved and forgiven. Yes. You are healed. All is well. [viii]
[i] Louis Gohmert, a Republican representative from Texas, made this sadly revealing remark in an interview on right-wing media on June 3, 2022.
[ii] Gilead is the name of the scary theocratic American state in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). If you don’t have HBO, just watch the latest news from Texas and Florida.
[iii] James K. A. Smith, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-secular Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 237, 239.
[iv]Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, eds. Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, Rowan Williams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 118.
[vi] The full line from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “God’s Grandeur,” is: Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the gift of God’s future, nurturing the new creation into being, even as the Spirit brooded creatively over the waters at the beginning of time.
[vii] John B. Cobb, Jr., Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology (Beverly Hills, CA: Bruce, 1971), cited in Marjorie Hewitt Suchoki, “Spirit in and through the World,” in Trinity in Process: A Relational Theory of God (New York: Continuum, 1997), 180.
[viii] Dale Brown, The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 124.
In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.” [ii]
When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.”
Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).
As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world.
When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”
Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.
Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]
O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]
(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)
Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.
Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46.
In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience.
As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies,“Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]
When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:
“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.
In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives. Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza.
In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.”
She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.
Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:
“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]
Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]
Heavenly Adam, Life divine Change my nature into Thine; Move and spread throughout my soul; Activate and fill the whole; Be it I no longer now Living in the flesh, but Thou.
— Charles Wesley
Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:
“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]
However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world. “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”
Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness:
“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]
We must be holy not by fits, but by habit, performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.
Blessed are those who rise and shine. Blessed are those who lend a hand. Blessed are those who listen. Blessed are those who take the time. Blessed are those who speak kindly. Blessed are those who smile at strangers. Blessed are those who plant. Blessed are those who raise children. Blessed are those who teach. Blessed are those who provide our meals. Blessed are those who do the hard things. Blessed are those who look with compassion. Blessed are those who do justice. Blessed are those who wonder. Blessed are those who welcome. Blessed are those who nurture. Blessed are those who care. Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies. Blessed are those who suffer. Blessed are the broken. Blessed are those who know loss. Blessed are those who persist. Blessed are those who surrender. Blessed are those who remember hope. Blessed are those who practice resurrection.
“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii] You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.
The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a CountryPriest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing.
I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully:
“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart … When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]
[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.
[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003.
[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.
[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”