The Christian Church has no shortage of saints. This may come as some surprise to many, who associate the Church primarily with its views on the universality of sin. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” says St. Paul (Rom. 3:23). And yet, since the first century, the Church has confessed that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1), whose sufferings, excellence, and glory summon us to heroic feats of endurance. There are few depths to which the human person cannot sink, and many dazzling heights to which it has risen, by God’s grace.
The Church has recognized countless holy figures in the course of its millennia-long existence. The gathered corpus of written saints’ lives or hagiographies, as represented in the Acta Sanctorum and other edited collections, has taken over 300 years to edit, and at least 9,000 lives are known. More remain in manuscript form, and we can apply here the wisdom of Solomon: “Of the making of many books there is no end” (Eccl. 12:12). Yet we know that more saints were known locally than were written about.
There are problems with the Christian tradition of saint-making. We are rarely given a balanced or full view of the person in question. The life of a saint is meant to testify to their holiness, to the ways God’s grace was visibly manifest or continues to make itself known through their remains and their prayers. Saints’ lives are always making a case. We are lucky if we hear about the foibles and quirks of the saints. We are rarely told of their sins.
I have long felt that this pattern of writing is less than we deserve and certainly less than we should attempt in our time. My conviction comes from the example of the Bible, rather than from some highly refined modern sensibility. Although Hebrew and Christian Scriptures can be terse and selective, we can hardly accuse them of plastering over the cracks. Whether it’s the sins of Jacob or David, the haunted past of La Maddalena, or the evident imperfections of Saints Peter and Paul, we are given rounded images. The treasure of God’s glory comes to us in clay pots (2 Cor. 4:7), and their beauty shines through especially in their restoration, not their original state. They are kintsugi more than anything else: a chain of memory passed down the generations, shining brightly along the graced lines of their fragments.
I worry at times that the Christian hagiographical tradition has bequeathed to modern cultures a defensive and poisonous tendency. This has been much in evidence over the past decade, and its intensity seems to be increasing. Some of us look at the past, at our heritage, and our cherished figures with admiring eyes and reverent tones. Criticism of the moral failures of past generations is dismissed, often with violent rhetoric. We are told not to judge the past, not to engage in “moral anachronism.” This is remarkable, to say the least.
We are heirs to a faith that is unremitting in its moral gaze, allied to a sense of the utter transcendence of God. Even “the heavens are not clean” in God’s sight (Job 15:15), let alone mortals. How then do we believe that our past does not lie under judgment? Do we not know the words of First Peter? We were “ransomed from the futile ways inherited from [our] ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1:18-19).
I am sure some will feel that I am being too harsh, offering too little grace. But it is one thing to extend forgiveness and mercy — indeed to implore God for such things on behalf of the dead. It is quite another to imagine our saints, our loved ones, or other lesser mortals have no need of the divine assistance.
When the statue of the slaver Edward Colston was brought down in Bristol nearly a year ago, some objected, claiming that he was a philanthropist who greatly benefited his city. Why focus on his evil deeds, when he did such good and showed such love to his fellow citizens?
The Christian might retort: Have we excised from King David’s life the murder of Uriah and the rape of Bathsheba? Have we forgotten the doubts of Thomas the apostle, or allowed the centuries to grant peaceful oblivion to Peter’s denials?
If we must remember a human being, let us remember them as they were. And let us consider whether our histories — personal, communal, national — should be told in the mode of repentance. Anything less is not Christian.
The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow in early medieval history at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.