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Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time
Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time
Michael Plekon
University of Notre Dame Press, 2012
304 pp., $35.00

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Sarah Hinlicky Wilson


Solus Christianus, Nullus Christianus

On holiness.

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The subtler plot of Living Icons is Plekon's own critique of Orthodoxy, hidden within the telling of the stories of these great lights, along with his love song to it. The theological question at stake in the critique and the love alike is the question of holiness. Is it a matter of retreat, purity, preservation? Or is it a matter of risk, marginality, experimentation? Plekon evidently favors the latter view, but there is an inherent catch in choosing that option through the stories of the well-known, even if of mixed reception. At the end of Living Icons, Plekon mentions in passing that "it would require another entire book to tell the stories of the hidden saints in our communities." He was right; that book is the second in this series, aptly titled Hidden Holiness.

Here Plekon sets out "to explore the shapes of a universal and more ordinary, and thus less noticeable or hidden holiness, one founded on the baptismal calling of all to be prophets and priests, witnesses to the Gospel." Eschewing the heroic, Plekon presents faithful servants of Christ, the contours of whose lives will never a motion picture make. Unlike the vast majority of the canonized who are bishops, priests, monks, nuns, ascetics, and martyrs—the not-so-subtle implication being that you can't be a saint with a job, a mortgage, a spouse, or kids—Plekon goes looking for those whose words and lives show the enormous range of fidelity in our time, for "there is really no limit to the ways in which holiness can be lived."

At the very least, this means that holiness cannot be viewed principally as inherent virtue and the total absence of "sin and human qualities, eccentricities, phobias, sufferings—the substance of ordinary human life. Holiness is a struggle with the baggage of human existence, all the elements that make us who we are." For "holiness is supremely personal, even idiosyncratic." In this vein, we are treated to accounts of little-known but loveable persons who lived in Christ: Olga Arsamquq Michael, a Native Alaskan priest's wife and quiet healer of victims of sexual abuse; the artist Joanna Reitlinger; the pioneering theologian Elisabeth Behr-Sigel; the YMCA staffer and ecumenist Paul Anderson; and many others. Plekon's method here does not duplicate that of Living Icons with a chapter for each figure. Rather he follows a more intuitive approach, threading his way through these human stories, groping toward an image of holiness in our time. He echoes the thoughts of Simone Weil, who wrote: "Today it is not nearly enough merely to be a saint, but we must have the saintliness demanded by the present moment, a new saintliness, itself also without precedent."

If anything drives Plekon's illustration of holiness here, it is its universality of scope. Despite the ancient understanding of the holy as something "set apart," Plekon and his fellow travelers insist that in Christ this can never mean a distinction between different domains of life, different geographical locations, different tasks. Holiness demands to be everywhere: "If the Gospel does not become woven into everything human, it is not real, not made incarnate." Divine holiness is not too good to keep unsavory company—and this was, after all, a major scandal of Jesus' own ministry.

A reader may well begin to wonder at this point if Plekon's approach to holiness doesn't render the whole sense of the word "saint" meaningless. If holiness is for everyone, if God offers it everywhere, on what grounds do we call anyone a saint as if it suggested a distinction from others? Even if the figures presented in Hidden Holiness are less famous than those in Living Icons, they're obviously still recognized enough to get a write-up. Plekon himself admits, "The wave of interest in saints seems to lead to an impasse for the argument I have tried to raise here …. The saints who appear to really make a difference are the ones who light up the sky with their courageous teaching or witness, with the force of their extraordinary, heroic actions as well as their words." Can the gap be closed even further, from the saint-that-inspires-me to the saint-that-I-am-called-to-be? Plekon's own approach seems to demand it: "'Hidden holiness,' in the end, is neither magical nor theoretical, but personal and interpersonal—an invitation to follow Christ where we are."

And that brings us to the third and final book, Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time. "We will always lift up extraordinary, exemplary people in our traditions," Plekon realizes. "At the same time we must recognize that there are innumerable others, a huge cloud of witnesses, whose efforts to search for God and live out the gospel will never be widely known. But there remains a third category—saints in the making." These are the subject of this last installment, people (mostly) still alive and unlikely ever to be venerated, but they fit Plekon's definition of sainthood: "fallible humanity" in whom "Christ remained at the center." Working mostly through the medium of contemporary memoirs, Plekon examines the efforts of ordinary Christians to live with Christ at their center, however much their margins might fall away. This includes an explicit confrontation of toxic, destructive, and pathological eruptions in the church, matched with a critique of inappropriate valorization of suffering when housecleaning would be a much better option.

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