Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time
University of Notre Dame Press, 2012
277 pp., 30.0
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
Solus Christianus, Nullus Christianus
Michael Plekon has a penchant for the also-rans of Christian sanctity. Books by his favorites among his fellow Eastern Orthodox—Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Men—were burned by a Russian hierarch as recently as 1998. Dorothy Day has made it into the canonization process but amidst fierce resistance on account of her abortion, many lovers, and leftwing politics; Thomas Merton, prolific and beloved monastic writer though he was, probably engaged too much with other religions to get even that far. Etty Hillesum and Simone Weil were not baptized. Andrew Krivak left the Jesuits. Sara Miles, Darcey Steinke, and Barbara Brown Taylor openly confess their doubts, flaws, and transgressions—and have the slight impediment of still being alive. Even among the safely canonized, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Thérèse of Liseux earn more praise from Plekon for the pain of their unvarnished journals than for the bright and shiny image they've acquired in popular religiosity.
This is not plain old contrarianism on Plekon's part. He joins the ranks of other theologians who, starting in the early 20th century, have called into question the official procedures of canonization and argued for a reconceived notion of holiness. A host of problems attend the traditional approach, from such a fixation on miracles that the saints become inaccessibly other from their fellow Christians to a "cult of celebrity" looking for sensations over fidelity. Along with writers like George Fedotov, Nadia Gorodetsky, Jim Forest, Michael Mott, Gillian Crow, Elisabeth Behr-Sigel, Olga Lossky, and Thomas Craughwell, Plekon has charted the waters of a "new hagiography" much needed in the unprecedented world situation where we find ourselves today.
Plekon's quest to join in with other new hagiographers started at the margins of his own ecclesial community. Westerners are often little aware of the battles for theological direction taking place in the East, not least because one of the most intense battles is to what extent the East should even be in conversation with the West. A not inconsiderable number of Orthodox consign the whole lot to a state of unredeemed heresy and regard the faintest ecumenical impulse as treachery. To this attitude Plekon counterpoises—in Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church—the example of ten Eastern Christians, chosen for "their openness to the world, their creative yet ordinary ways of living out the gospel." Deeply rooted in and formed by the particular cultures of Orthodoxy, they nevertheless recognized that the Christian faith transcends every place, which in turn led them to a fearless openness toward the culture and faith of the West.
This makes Plekon's Living Icons of equal interest to religiously Western and Eastern readers. Most of the figures here understood themselves as living bridges between the divided halves of the church, whose calling was to enact Christian unity in their own lives and bodies. Fr. Lev Gillet, for example, a French Catholic who started his ministry as a Benedictine monk, joined himself to the Eastern church through the simple concelebration of the Eucharist with an Orthodox priest: no rebaptism, no renunciation, no rite of reception—nor would he ever say that he had left Catholicism behind. Lay theologian Paul Evdokimov earned himself the (not entirely complimentary) nickname "Orthodoxy's Protestant" for his commitment to evangelical freedom, engagement with social questions, and passion for the "interiorized monasticism" that is the calling of every Christian, the married included. Nicholas Afanasiev is the source of the now international, interconfessional "communion ecclesiology" and was the only Orthodox mentioned in the working sessions and drafts of the Second Vatican Council.
Plekon regales the reader with the lives and thought of these and other remarkable figures from the boundary line of East and West. There is Sergius Bulgakov, of whom it is said that "no theologian in the Eastern Church had produced a body of thought comparable [to his] since the fall of Byzantium," yet he remains virtually unknown and unstudied even among the Orthodox. Mother Maria Skobtsova (who did manage to make it to canonization on the strength of her death in a Nazi concentration camp) severely criticized the insularity of the religious orders of her day and sought in her own life to embody a new diaconally oriented monasticism. Gregory Krug, despite his lifelong struggles with depression, became a unique practitioner of "theology in color" as an iconographer. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff strove for a truly indigenized Orthodoxy in the United States, free from the disastrous ecclesiology that would regard it as merely "diaspora." Alexander Men, a Russian priest, renewed the preaching of the gospel in his homeland but in so doing made enemies and was cruelly murdered; he is probably more widely admired now outside Russia than within it.
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.
But the most remarkable aspect of this third book is how Plekon himself finally comes out of hiding. He has shown his loves and convictions through his choice of saints to present, but throughout the reader has suspected that an interesting account of his own hidden holiness has been held back. Now at last we hear the story: how as a young person Plekon attended minor seminary under the care of the Carmelites, professed friar vows, and set himself on course for a life of service in the priesthood—a trajectory that broke down in his early twenties when he left to pursue his life "in the world." Most of his story took place before the reforms of Vatican II were implemented, so Plekon grew up in a world where there was a strict divorce between holiness and worldliness. Perhaps the saddest part of all was the practice, then, of discouraging seminarians from emotional intimacy of any kind with anyone at all; holiness was treated as a matter of keeping oneself to oneself and God alone: "Emotional reserve, the distancing of oneself from others and from one's own feelings, having little to say about one's own thoughts, less even about one's personality—all of this was to some extent acquired in the formation I experienced in the Carmelites." It is no surprise that he and so many others couldn't stick it in the end, but one would expect to find the same problem in any Christian community that drives a hard line between individual and community, between the holy life and the ordinary life.
Through this meandering journey, Plekon ultimately paints a rich portrait of what holiness is and could be for all the body of Christ in the 21st century. As he writes, "Sanctity is not a moral achievement but more like a seal, a stamp, being marked and set apart as God's own." The stamp stays on us whether we are laity or clergy, young or old, married or single, working or homemaking, resting or fighting, succeeding or failing. But being set apart does not mean being set alone. Plekon does well to remind us of Tertullian's old adage: "Solus christianus, nullus christianus: There is no such thing as a solitary Christian."
Books by Michael Plekon discussed in this essay:
Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2002).
Hidden Holiness (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2009).
Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2012).
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of Lutheran Forum.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.