on friendship with the saints
‘We hear them preaching in our own language about the marvels of God.’ — Acts 2:11
It’s been a big week for saints’ days: St Bede on Thursday, St Philip Neri on Friday, Augustine of Canterbury on Saturday. Today: Pentecost, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles and the birth of the Church.
For years before I became a Catholic, my academic work was about saints. As an undergraduate, I wrote essays on relics, spent a term on Joan of Arc and wrote my thesis on Bede’s Martyrology; for my master’s, I took a paper called saints and sanctity and wrote my thesis on changing ideas of martyrdom in early medieval England. My work was all about typologies—inclusions and exceptions, edge cases, why categories of sanctity changed and what they meant to people. Though I became a Christian during this time, I never really thought about the saints as such. Even when I sent out a rogue prayer to Bede or Joan during my finals or, later, started to pray the rosary, I had no sense of the community of saints as a company of real people, their personalities and particular charisms more diverse than the typologies and topoi of historical study had led me to suppose.
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Through these years, meanwhile, I dragged anyone visiting Oxford into the Oratory’s relic chapel to see the collection of jawbones and femurs. More fascinating than these were the tiny slivers of bone, fragments of cloth and dust, dozens of them arranged into a single picture-frame reliquary, ringed with lace and labelled in tiny black handwriting so that you have to squint to make out the saint’s Latin name. Here was a continuation of the relic practices I’d read about in Merovingian Church councils, where the ambiguity and incredibility of the tiny bags of dust—never a totally comfortable matter for the Church—pointed towards the already graced and always redeemable nature of creation. Here was the final rebuttal to gnosticism—matter, rather than being evil, is shot through with holiness. Nature retains something of the goodness of Eden and points towards the even greater goodness of the world to come. But this way of thinking, despite the fascination it held for me, was oddly cordoned off, a medieval curio rather than an active part of my faith. My devotional life and my experience of Christian worship (in the Church of England) didn’t have room for a fully Catholic ontology where all reality is thronged with saints and angels.
In the days leading up to the Feast of St Philip Neri, I went to the Oratory for his novena. As the founder of the Congregation of the Oratory, St Philip has a special place in their devotional life. Unlike monks or friars, Oratorians don’t take vows of obedience; their fraternities are held together by the simple bond of love. It was to the Oratory which, after his conversion, Newman turned. His motto cor ad cor loquitur—heart speaks unto heart—sums up the Oratorian approach. The conviction and commitment of the Oratorians means that their preaching is alive and vital—able to hit at the heart. In a secular world, the fullness of their faith and its centrality to their lives has the power to arrest. As Louis Bouyer writes in his portrait of St Philip, ‘neither speeches nor arguments can awaken a living faith in those for whom Christianity has lost its meaning. Only contact with people whose daily lives are dominated by an intense and personal experience of the truths of the Faith can achieve such a result’. As I prayed the novena, I came to a new understanding of St Philip’s role in the Oratory. It’s not just that he’s an example, a literary figure, to be studied and emulated (though this is a way of coming to know him better). It’s the ongoing contact with him, the personal relationship with a man of overflowing holiness, that sustains the faith of those under his patronage. At vespers on the eve of his feast, as we venerated his relic and were blessed with it, I felt the glimmering threads of correspondence between this world and the next.
The feast of St Bede is the day before that of St Philip; fittingly, it’s Bede’s work which has shaped my understanding of the communion of saints and its relation to this world. In his treatise On the reckoning of time, written in 725, Bede took up Augustine’s division of the world’s history into six ages. For Augustine, Christ’s incarnation inaugurates the sixth and final age of salvation history, which will end with the second coming and the resurrection of the saints—the beginning of the seventh age, the life of the world to come. Bede adds an eighth age: the age of saints, which began when Abel, ‘Christ’s first martyr’, was slain by Cain, and will end when the saints receive their bodies back. This age runs in parallel to the sixth age; as history runs on, as persecution on earth increases and the eighth age is populated more and more by the saints, the sixth and eighth ages draw closer together. When they eventually touch, at the apocalypse, the seventh age will begin. Bede doesn’t give us a metaphysics, but in his lives of saints, his martyrology and his history of the English Church, he shows a created world thronged with points of contact between this world and the world of the saints: relics, angels, miracles, a landscape dotted with holy places.
Louis Bouyer, in his life of St Philip, draws a vivid portrait of a saint completely at home in the world, whose personal charisma and humour (he was known for his practical jokes and habit of making a fool of himself) drew people into his orbit. ‘No one could live in his company for any length of time without changing of their own free will,’ writes Bouyer. It was thus that he transformed sixteenth-century Rome, tramping through the streets with gangs of young people, drawing waifs and strays to the sacraments, prompting spontaneous confessions and conversions of life by his odd habit of seeing into the secret hearts of strangers, knowing their sins before they’d been spoken:
‘There he was, like another Socrates, with apparently nothing else to do but wander about the Roman streets joining in every kind of group quite freely, as ready to play quoits as to pass his time in any shop where customers, without any intention of buying anything, could talk indefinitely. Far from being put out by banter he soon earned a reputation for more than holding his own; his presence attracted the gossips and jokers who could be sure of entertainment in his company, the vague fear of being told the truth about themselves merely adding spice to the occasion.’
After passing his days in streets and piazzas, Philip retreated, secretly and alone, to the catacombs beneath the city, stacked with the bones of Rome’s early martyrs. A verse of a hymn to St Philip, sung at vespers on the eve of his feast, remembers these nights:
Noctes sub specubus, corpora martyrum
Quas implent, vigilat sedulus integras;
Ex ipsens satagens discere mortuis
Normam, qua bene viveret.
Spending his nights in the caves of the martyrs,
Eagerly watching with the relics that filled them,
Trying to learn from the bodies that rested there
A rule for leading a good life.
Bouyer’s description of this (translated by Michael Day) is worth quoting at length:
‘This strange buried world still holds intact, within its shrine of silent night and secret freshness, the early vanished life of Christian Rome. In this kingdom of the Dead, which his faith sees as a buried garden of God ready to burst out again in blossom upon the kingdom of the Living, Philip is as much, if not more, at home as in the sun-drenched streets where all we see is his gaiety… His surprising freedom of spirit in the frivolous world, where so many others, even saints, dare not venture without a host of safeguards, springs from his strange familiarity with this hallowed world of the catacombs; when he leaves them all the clamour of the world is drowned for him in the echoes of eternity. Invigorated by his contact with the martyrs, his thirst quenched at the very source of Christianity, completely dead to the world so as to live in this world as though he were already in heaven, he is so completely centred on the world to come that this transitory world leaves him untouched.’
The connection between martyrdom and eschatology has preoccupied me for years (and will be the subject of my DPhil thesis!) The martyrs are the first citizens of the City of God; their blessedness, in the Church’s canonisation process, doesn’t require confirmation by posthumous miracles because their manner of death is sufficient. Martyrdom is the crown of glory, the victory which wins the hundredfold reward. Their sanctity runs counter to all the impulses of the fallen will, which seeks security and self-preservation at the expense of others. In Thomist metaphysics, nature necessarily inclines to life through survival and procreation; this is true of all animate life. Martyrdom, in willingness to witness to the faith even to the point of death, is therefore necessarily supernatural: it points to our ultimate end, the life of the kingdom of God.
This was why it was so important to Bede and other early medieval martyrologists to show that the kind of witness embodied by the martyrs could continue after the persecution of Christians had ceased. This was holiness which went beyond natural virtue, revealing the supernatural order which could only be a gift of grace. This is why Bede set the beginning of the eighth age, the age of saints, with the martyrdom of Abel. Christ’s sacrifice, though located within history, inaugurated the possibility that the consequences of the Fall might be undone through all of time, reuniting even the son of Adam and Eve with the supernatural end that his parents had forfeited by their original sin.
Was it possibly Philip’s familiarity—even friendship—with the martyrs that allowed him to reflect something of their supernatural virtue, even without persecution? As Bouyer writes, ‘this astonishingly human saint was saturated in the supernatural.’ Approaching sanctity through a historical lens, I could see that all later categories of sanctity were patterned on martyrdom, which itself was patterned on the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. But without a theological lens, I understood this as the attempt of later Christians to show that the sanctity of the martyrs was still alive in their age—God was still with them; salvation history was still unfolding. With an eye on typologies, I missed the more scandalous part of sanctity: that each saint, with their particular lives and personalities, their quirks and charisms, their weaknesses and failures, becomes a channel for this supernatural grace. The natural and the supernatural aren’t opposed. God perfects nature, directing it beyond itself. The resurrected body is the same body, the resurrected person the same person. Philip’s particular human nature, correctly aimed towards its supernatural end, was a foretaste of the life of the kingdom.
At the Oratory, I have knelt sometimes for communion and looked up at the reredos of saints surrounding the altar, feeling their gaze as judgement, the words ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you’ turned into a cudgel of self-reproach. At other times, I have gazed at them with hope, seeing how wildly different, how unique to each person, holiness can be. I have been guilty of too pessimistic a view of human nature, rooted in negative self-image and a tendency to focus on my capacity for evil rather than my capacity for good. This was Luther’s sin, too. In his obsession with his own limitations and tendency towards sin, he gave us a reading of St Augustine (and, though him, St Paul) which strips natural goodness from the picture, leaving a human nature that’s utterly broken rather than merely wounded by sin. In this gulf between fallen humanity and God, there’s no room for the saints—whose holiness is personal, individual, building on their particular human nature. Relics become just bones and bits of dust rather than matter saturated with supernatural grace. The tendency of the Catholic imagination towards the macabre—skulls and bones and eyeballs on plates—isn’t an accident of aesthetics but a reflection of this metaphysics.
The capacity of nature for immense evil and for supernatural grace is difficult to hold in tension. Since becoming a Catholic, this has been my major preoccupation, bearing as it does so directly on my everyday life. After I first went to confession, I was terrified of committing a mortal sin in the hours before my confirmation and first communion. I have become much more aware of how easy it is to sin and how naturally my will tends towards it. Having received absolution in the confessional, it’s only minutes later that a mean thought about someone enters my head. As I leave the church, I’m impatient at slow walkers blocking the pavement and have to resist the urge to elbow past them. I had a decent sense of my big defects, but it’s only recently that I’ve been able to notice the small, petty, habitual ones which grind down my capacity for virtue, slowly redirecting my will away from God until I lose sight of Him altogether.
On the other hand, I now know that holiness is a real possibility within this life. The universal call to holiness means taking seriously the hope that the raw material of my personality, which is so faulty and geared towards sin, could eventually be fashioned into a saint. And as my devotion to particular saints has deepened, I’ve started to realise that it’s not a battle I have to fight alone. More than examples to emulate, the saints are alive in the kingdom, actively interceding for us. Salvation is a communal business. The Monday after Pentecost is the feast of Mary, Mother of the Church, reflecting her special role in bringing the mystical body of Christ into being, and her continued intercession for us, whom she loves. Pope John Paul II highlighted her role at Pentecost and her special intercession; as the Holy Spirit is poured out on us, the Virgin Mary ‘implores a multiplicity of gifts for everyone, in accordance with each one's personality and mission.’
If sanctity is a real possibility, there’s a duty to examine the gifts you’ve been given and the ways in which you’re called as a witness. The call to look at myself in terms of what I can give has started to rewire the self-loathing which has been my automatic posture for decades. Sometimes I look around at other people and think, they’re such good Catholics, what am I doing here? Of course, this is pride—thinking of myself as especially sinful, failing to see others as full and complex people with histories that may be more chequered than mine. To check this tendency, I have to remind myself that evil is only a privation of the good. My defects are not actually existing parts of me, but absences, empty spaces where virtue can grow. In my obsessive focus on my faults, I’ve fetishised them. In the pew, I remember Marie Howe’s line ‘So, I thought I had to become more than I was, more than I’d been, / but that wasn’t it. It seemed rather that / something had to go. Something had to be let go of.’
It was Luther’s scrupulosity—his uncertainty of having confessed properly and of having been forgiven—that ultimately led to his ‘tower experience’, where the realisation of salvation by faith alone (sola fide) suddenly broke upon him, reassuring him of his powerlessness over his own salvation. For Catholics, however, salvation can’t be pinpointed to a single moment of coming to faith or being born again. Salvation by faith, yes, but faith witnessed to, lived into, communicated to others, marred by sin and returned to through the sacraments, over the course of a whole life. In Friday’s homily at Holy Rood, I was reminded that perhaps the greatest gift of St Philip’s life is the lesson that confession works. The forgiveness it offers is real and effective, capable of transforming one’s life far beyond the capacity of the will. And, contra Luther, it works regardless of what I think or how much I like myself.
In the catacombs one night, Philip saw a ball of flame descend and enter his mouth, settling beneath his heart. When his body was autopsied, his heart was found enlarged and two of his ribs cracked by the size of it. Bouyer writes that the Holy Spirit’s presence within him ‘seems to have overflowed from his soul upon his body, foreshadowing the promised transfiguration of the resurrection.’ This same Spirit was poured out on the apostles at Pentecost; it has animated the Church, the mystical body, through the ages. It is within each Christian by virtue of their baptism. It allows us, as St Paul taught, to ‘become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.’ To meet people where they are, to speak in their own language about the marvels of God. We can do this because of the Spirit and because of our particular created nature, which together can bridge the gulf between the life of the kingdom and the life enslaved to sin.
In his devotion to the martyrs, Philip shows that holiness demands a supernatural grace that goes beyond created nature. But in his liveliness, his humour, his walks around the Roman streets and gardens, laughing and joking, he shows that nature is the ground for holiness—not perfect, but good. He drew people to God through the sheer attractiveness of his personality, which Bouyer calls ‘a deep personal sincerity which made him one with all men.’
On Pentecost, today, rose petals will fall from the oculus of the Pantheon, and Rome’s ancient temple-turned-church will be perfumed by the scent of the saints.
A Dominican Gallery by Aidan Nichols — a fascinating intellectual biography, through seven case studies, of the English Dominicans during the inter-war period.
Madoc Cairns’ essay on Maritain in the New Statesman.
Italian soft drinks like Crodino and Sanbitter (132 days sober, btw).
G.E.M. Lippiatt on Augustinian political history in First Things.
Tara Isabella Burton on tech-bro postrationalism in the New Atlantis (including a sad and emblematic anecdote about an effective altruist realising that he needs ‘friendships based on mutual affinity and understanding, rather than by screening potential friends for qualities that would “make them a good ally, which will contribute to you both working on existential risk together in an effective way.”’)
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