How to Become a Saint

The Sunday after Pentecost commemorates all the Saints of Church, and reminds us that the great legacy of Pentecost is that all of us who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit—knowing Him, relating to Him—are saints in utero, waiting to be born.

Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians, begins his first Epistle by saying, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. How do we live as the saints we are called to become? On the one hand, that God is Himself forming us to be His 'holy ones.' Like the unborn child who is fed by his mother with oxygen and nutrients through the umbilical cord, we are fed on the life-giving and sustaining Spirit of God in the Church. As long as we are immersed in the womb of holy tradition and attached to the source of our heavenly food—the Eucharist—the Lord Himself gives us everything we need to grow into His children, belonging to Him, breathing His breath, embodying His image and likeness to the world.

Unlike the fetus in the womb, though, we have a responsibility, because we have the power to wilfully cut the lifeline that feeds us on the Spirit, and abort ourselves from the matrix that is sanctifying and perfecting us to become God's holy children. Becoming saints means being actively faithful to the new life and identity that God has conceived within us. Faith, indeed, is the primary characteristic of the saints. As the Wisdom of Solomon says, Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones. And the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us of the Old Testament righteous ones who accomplished great deeds and endured much suffering by faith.

How do we live by faith to become saints? Contrary to popular belief, faith is not reserved for a spiritually-inclined elite with a superhuman ability to resist the bullets of logic, and leap vast chasms of the unknown in a single bound. According to the Scriptures, faith has always been understood as trust that God will do what He has always said He will do—as the Apostle says, the assurance of things hoped for. And what is hoped for except that God will fulfill His promise to one day enter into the midst of His people and be united with them forever? This is why Jesus is called the pioneer and perfecter of our faith—because he fulfills the trust concerning the promise of the Incarnation, which the Old Testament righteous never saw. Faith, then, is ultimately a gift from God—He leaps the chasm between the divine to the human, not the other way around. We do not discover Him; He reveals Himself to all who are willing to receive Him.

Living by faith, then, is the persistent willingness to receive the gift of God Himself in Jesus Christ. I have heard it said that trying to pray is the same thing as praying. I would add today that being willing to live by faith is the same thing as living by faith. I would therefore like to speak about two principles of willingness to live by faith. You have heard these before many times, but the truth be told, this has always been my one and only message. I repeat them now as axioms of the spiritual life to which we must hold if we are truly going to fulfil our potential, growing into God's holy ones so that we might be born into the family of Saints His Kingdom.

The first principle of being willing to live by faith is this: be honest. We cannot embrace universal Reality of what God has done for people in Jesus Christ until we take the first step to acknowledge that Reality exists in the first place. I was reminded of the wicked queen and the magic mirror. As you may recall, the whole story was set in motion when the wicked queen went to this mirror and said, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” She asked the question, not because she really wanted to know, but expecting to be told that she was the fairest one of all. When the mirror answered, “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. / But Snow White is even fairer than you,” the queen flew into a jealous and sought to kill the beautiful princess.

Each of us has one of those mirrors hanging in the inner chambers of our hearts. Its voice is the voice of the Holy Spirit, the still small voice of God, telling us who we truly and who we were meant to be. Too often, though, we suffer the torment of the wicked queen because we cannot relinquish the image we have conjured up for ourselves. We want to be the fairest one of all, absolved of the need to repent; or perversely, we want to be the foulest one of all, beyond all hope of redemption and free from all responsibility. Our problem is, the mirror won't cooperate to show us what we think we ought to see! And so, we are caught up in a turmoil of anger, envy, jealousy, anxiety—all of which inexorably rob us of the true identity God offers us. And what is that identity? Simply, what the mirror is really telling us: that we are neither the fairest (above all) nor the foulest (beyond all hope). Rather, we are fair, which is to say, we are ordinary creatures, made good but always dependent on the grace and mercy of the One who truly is the fairest of the sons of men.

Having taken this step towards the willingness to live by faith, we then need to strive to live by the second principle: be teachable. Before I was a priest, I was trained as a high school teacher. At the beginning of every school year, I made a point of telling my students the same thing: success in my class does not depend on intelligence. All you need to do to succeed is to show up regularly and on time, do the work and ask for help. On that basis alone, even the least intelligent student could achieve a satisfactory mark and move on from there.

What is true about the classroom is true of life in the Church, where we are learning to be saints. What we need to make more saints in the Church are not more spiritual Elders or monasteries or PhDs in theology. We need more teachable people. We need people who show up regularly and on time, not just because it makes us feel spiritual or because we feel guilty if we don't, but because showing up is what you do if you want to be taught. We need people who are willing to do whatever is required, however mundane or simple, not because we are trying to fulfill some grand vision of the Lord or because we feel obligated, but doing what is required is what you do if you want to be taught. We need people who are not afraid to ask for help, to seek guidance and make efforts to follow the guidance when it is given, not because we are looking for a rubber stamp to our own agendas or because we are caught in some codependent trap, but simply because asking for help is what you do if you want to be taught. We don't need more intelligent people or more “spiritual” people. We need teachable people; we need to be teachable people if we want to cultivate within ourselves a willingness to live by faith, and therefore grow into the saints of North America.

Be honest—look in the mirror of truth and listen to the voice of the Spirit. Be teachable—by showing up, doing what is necessary, and asking for help. These are the steps towards opening our hearts and minds so that day by day, week by week, month by month, God can continue to nourish us in the womb of His Virgin Bride, shaping us into the measure and stature of Christ, so that beginning in this age and continuing into the age to come, we may emerge fully formed and perfect—holy ones, divine sons and daughters, Saints in whom God is truly wonderful.

A Reflective Response to Eugene Rogers' "Same-Sex Complementarity"

I am re-posting this article.

In a previous blog article—one of my “Responses to Basil”—I expressed dissatisfaction with the standard orthodox Christian arguments against same-sexuality that usually rest on a combination of three pillars: scriptural (or patristic) texts, long-standing customs and/or appeals to natural law. I argued that what Christians in a postmodern generation require is a vision of sexuality rooted in an experience of Jesus Christ that is both personal and consistent with that of the Christian community from the beginning. In other words, postmodern Christians need a sexual theology that is founded primarily in an orthodox Christology, and that only secondarily finds confirmation in the texts and customs of the Christian community, not to mention the broader biological realities of human life.

In 2011, Eugene F. Rogers wrote an article for The Christian Century entitled, “Same-Sex Complementarity: a Theology of Marriage” that demonstrates both the compelling possibilities of a Christologically-rooted sexual theology, as well as its potential pitfalls. In the article, Rogers interprets Ephesians 5 to propose that marriage is first and foremost a typological reality. “In both Galatians and Ephesians,” Rogers says, “the New Testament writer subjects ‘male and female’ to what Stanley Hauerwas has called christological discipline… Ephesians makes Christ and the church the realities referred to, husband and wife as the signs that refer.” In other words, marriage no longer exists merely to ensure social stability or produce children; rather, it serves the greater end of pointing to Christ.

According to Rogers, the Christological vocation of marriage means that the issue of sexuality must shift beyond sociological arguments or textual arguments and onto a new terrain, namely, “the mystery of Christ and the church, what icons can image them and what ‘male and female’ means for Christians.” He goes on to argue (taking up the poststructuralist thought of Judith Butler) that Christian tradition “has surprising things to teach us about how to expand the terms male and female—how to displace them from contexts in which they confine the realities of Christ and the church.” Specifically, he sees Christian tradition as disconnecting gender from its ‘confinement’ to the biology of men and women. Thus the New Testament may gender the Church as female (the Bride), but it does not restrict membership to women alone. Similarly, Jesus is gendered male (the Bridegroom) but His healing of humanity’s sins is not restricted to men alone.

If this is the case, Rogers says, then there is no reason why the gendered language of marriage cannot include same-sex couples because ‘male and female’ in the Christian understanding refers not to biological realities but to our calling to practice the self-emptying love of Christ for His Church, whatever physical forms our efforts may take. Rogers is clear to point out that he is not downplaying the importance of the body; embodiment, he says, is important because it provides the way (or rather, many ways, including same-sex, intersex and transgendered) in which gender can signify Christ and the church. As Rogers puts it, “A christological account of gender gives bodies more, not fewer, ways to matter.”

On the one hand, I agree with Rogers broadly that the question of sexuality and how it is to be practiced must rest on the ground of Jesus Christ. In his exhortation to the husbands and wives of Ephesus the Apostle Paul is pretty clear that his pastoral precepts and principles exist not for purely for the purpose of social stability, but refer to Christ and His Church. The ultimate purpose of sexuality is indeed as Rogers says to speak of or ‘point to’ a greater reality. In this sense, the Christian vision of marriage relationship is that of living, historical proclamation of the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ, a propagation of the Incarnation and the saving work of God in the life of the couple and the family.

On the other hand, I have real trouble with Rogers’ complete disconnection of ‘male and female’ from their contexts in lived social experience. For instance, he points out that in the Middle Ages, an abbot could be referred to as the “mother of monks,” and thus was gendered female. This is indeed a powerful use of gender in its symbolic sense, but from where does this power derive? Doesn't it flow directly from the human personal and communal experience of motherhood? In other words, isn’t calling a man a ‘mother’ striking precisely because we associate ‘mother’ with a complex web of concrete social realities? Likewise, doesn't the emancipatory meaning of referring to women as ‘sons of Abraham’ derive from a specific community’s experience that limited inheritance to men? And if we speak of Jesus as having breasts and a womb (as the Cistercians did), doesn't the astounding power of that symbol stem from the Church’s collective historical experience of Jesus as a first century male Jew? Isn't it the case that Christ’s embrace of both men and women stands out as radical and revolutionary precisely because he was so obviously a man?

When we sever male and female, mother and son from the lived experience of actual mothers and sons, men and women, we rob the symbols of their potential resonance. What does it mean to say, for example, that Jesus had breasts and a womb when it doesn't particularly matter if He was a man? Rogers says, “The analogy [of Ephesians 5] recognizes Christ and the church as the realities, not male and female gender. Male and female point to something else.” By using ‘not’ and ‘something else,’ however, Rogers deprives the gendered terms both of their experiential grounding and their signifying power.

All of this has implications for same-sex relationships. While two men or two women who are committed to sharing the whole of life together can attempt to typify the self-emptying love of Christ for His Church, those attempts will always derive their meaning from the prior existence of their heterosexual counterparts, which alone is rooted in the soil of social experience where ‘male and female’ and ‘bride and bridegroom’ draw their symbolic life. Put another way, the ways in which two men or two women can exist as ‘bridegroom’ and ‘bride’ will always need to be rooted in the experiences of actual men and women who leave their fathers and mothers and are physically united to each other in holy matrimony.

Rogers’ Christological approach justifies the inclusion of same-sex couples in the marriage rite on the basis that ‘in Christ there is no longer male or female.’ As I have suggested, this is a real problem in that it disconnects that the meaning of 'male' and 'female' from their contexts in lived experience. The problem with Rogers' argument, however, does not lie in the insufficiency of Christology as a way to understand Christian marriage; rather, the problem lies in viewing the Christological marriage apart from the social (and biological) realities that give 'male and female' their power to signify the union between Christ and His Church,

In fact, if we keep these experiential contexts in view (as we should), we end up drawing the exact opposite of Rogers’ conclusion: as long as same-sex relationships continue to invoke the ‘bride and bridegroom’ typology, they will remain derivative of their heterosexual counterparts, dependent on them for their significance. At best, such relationships can be regarded as pseudo-marriage; at worst, they are no marriage at all.