Haligweorc, compiler of the fantastic St. Bede’s Breviary, wrote a post last week, where he detailed the differences between how Saints are ordered in the older Kalendars, The Book of Common Prayer (’79) and the new Holy Women, Holy Men. In the old Kalendars (including the ’79 BCP), Saints were organized by who they were: Bishops, Confessors, Martyrs, Virgins, etc. For example, in our Litany of the Saints that we used on the Sunday of All Saints, we followed the older Kalendars, in which Our Lady is always listed first (duh!), followed by the Angels, then the Prophets, so on and so forth, until we name just about everybody. Of course, with the exception of Our Lady, this listing does not imply that one is more holy if one is listed towards the top; for example, a bishop is not holier than a consecrated virgin. I’ll spare you a rather boring discussion on ontology, for now.
The new entries display a dazzling array of new epithets: “Witness to the Faith”, “Iconographer”, “Prophetic Witness”, “Friend of the Poor”, “Educators”, “Pioneers in Medicine”, etc. Furthermore, we have “Teacher” or “Theologian” added to some pre-existing folks in addition to titles like “Bishop” or “Priest” that they already held. In one sense this makes things easier, in another it doesn’t—which Common do you pick for this person/these people?
. . . What we’re seeing is the effect of new technologies and media on taxonomy: these aren’t categories, they’re tags. When you mass all of these together, you realize that we’re not dealing with a hierarchical bucket-system/tree structure. Instead, individuals are being tagged by a set of labels that don’t have a hierarchical-structural valence. Groups are then formed by assimilating high-correspondence tag clusters. Thus, we receive: Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750, George Frederick Handel, 1759, and Henry Purcell, 1695, Composers. They’re celebrated together based on a profession tag.
. . . A tag-based construction of sanctity breaks apart the old system of categorization. Despite its flaws, the old system gave us a clear conceptualization of what sort of roles and levels of dedication to the Gospel were necessary in order to strive towards sainthood. In a cloud taxonomy, that clarity is gone. We don’t have something specific to aim at any more.
So, I asked Haligweorc an intentionally leading question: “Are Saints the Saints because of what they do or because of who they are?” Most graciously in a complete post, he replied with his answer (his emphasis):
It’s my blog so I’ll give myself permission to be a bit hyperbolic: We do not celebrate the saints because of their virtues. Rather, we celebrate the saints because of Christ’s virtues. Yes, that’s hyperbole but it’s necessary to focus on the main thing: saints are incarnational icons. The self-revelation of God happens in many ways–through their participation in the incarnation, the saints are one of them. Looking at the saints helps us to learn about who Christ is. In particular, I see the saints teaching us two very important lessons about who Christ is and they do it because they’re able to clarify generalities by means of particularities.
In his examination of Holy Women, Holy Men, Haligweorc is points out something I find disturbing with my beloved Episcopal Church. Now, read me clearly: I do love the Episcopal Church; I love her traditions, her ethos and her people. But, with HWHM, our Saints are no longer listed by who they are, but by what they do. Big deal, right? Who cares about the Church Calendar, except for a handful of Church Nerds in the blogosphere?
Here’s the problem: I think it is indicative that we’ve become a body that is entirely focused on doing something, not becoming something. And, because of this, I think we are in danger of forgetting the preeminent goal of Christianity, which is theosis or becoming one with God.
Now, read me clearly: I am a supporter of “the social Gospel”. I believe it is the duty and responsibility of every Christian to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. We are commanded to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself”, which means that we are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and give cups of water in Christ’s name. I believe firmly and truly that we are called to give a radical, inclusive welcome. And, thanks be to God, the Episcopal Church preaches this well and does it most admirably. In fact, in many places and in many ways, I think we preach it so well that we never get around to answering “why” we do these things.
We do these things not because they are the goal of the faith, but because they are a natural side-effect of the actual goal of the faith, which is union with God. I am a firm believer that we can only do these things because Christ gives us the grace to do them. Basically, the more we love God, the more we love our neighbor; the more we pursue our relationship with God, the more our relationships with others are enriched. Or, as Haligweorc pointed out, these virtuous works only happen because we are incarnating the virtue of Christ. The more we become like Christ, the more we act like him.
Our call as Christians is not to do like Christ, but our call as Christians is to become as Christ. And, then, act accordingly. So, before we can do, we must first become, for the fount of all of these great and holy works is theosis. And the doorway to theosis is prayer, that holiest of works. Prayer is not simply a preparatory motion for these works of sanctity, but prayer is the first work of the Church. It is the opus Dei and it is through prayer that we become like God.
So, when we start categorizing the Saints (and, thus, each other) by those “dazzling array of new epithets: ‘Witness to the Faith’, ‘Iconographer’, ‘Prophetic Witness’, ‘Friend of the Poor’, ‘Educators’, ‘Pioneers in Medicine’, etc.”, I can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost some of this call to become. I can’t help but wonder if we’re busy encouraging each other to tend the gardens of the world, but leave our own soul’s garden choking on the weeds of sin. That we become so busy doing that we no longer hear the beat of his Sacred Heart for our own selfish and wayward souls. That we save the world, but lose ourselves in the process. I can’t help but wonder if we are encouraging each other to get up and start working on the dishes, while Our Lord prefers that we sit at his feet for awhile.
We must remind ourselves constantly — and so, too, must our liturgy — that Saints are Saints not for what they’ve done, but by who they are in Christ. These are the Bishops, the Martyrs, the Prophets, the Virgins, the Monks, the Confessors, the Laity, the Apostles, among others. These are they who knew Christ and became like God, incarnating the love of God for God’s people, each in their own peculiar way. “These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:4)
Because if the Saints are because Christ is, then we are not who we are because of what we do (“greeter”, “singer”, “reader”, etc), but we are because of who we are in Christ.
So, who are you in Christ?
Don’t tell me what you’re doing. Tell me who you’re becoming.