Category Archives: Saints

Ambrose and Sainthood

Thursday, First Week of Advent

Memorial of St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church


St. Ambrose is notable in church history. His influence is felt to today. When we say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” we quote him. The context was his discussion of liturgical and devotional practices, which were quite varied in his time.

Reading without moving one’s lips was also first recorded in history, by St. Augustine in his Confessions, as something Ambrose did. At the time and for centuries following, people read out loud even when alone.

Like any good bishop, Ambrose sought to uphold and teach the faith in the face of heresy and apathy. He wrote influential works. He baptized people, including St. Augustine in Milan.

But we remember St. Ambrose primarily because he has “saint” in front of his name. A saint is someone whom the Church has recognized as having outstanding virtue and faith. Someone worthy of emulation. There have been plenty of bishops who have not been so honored. There have been other great teachers who have not been so honored. St. Ambrose is part of an elite group. Currently, there are only 36 Doctors of the Church. All of them saints.

It is unlikely any of us will ever be listed among the Doctors of the Church. We, statistically speaking, will also never be declared saints by the Church. However, we are given a clear path to sainthood by our Lord.

To be a doctor, you must be brilliant. To be a bishop, you have to fulfill certain requirements. To be a saint, all you have to do is follow Jesus’ advice in the Gospel reading.

To slightly paraphrase our Lord, “If you want to enter the Kingdom of heaven, do the will of my Father in heaven.”

We don’t act without faith. We have to believe that our Father has a will for us and that it is worth doing. Then we must act on it. Then, and only then, can we expect to be granted admittance into God’s presence.

As we look at the lives of the saints throughout history, we see that same pattern. Faith leading to action, leading to approval by God. From Abraham to Ambrose to Aquinas and beyond, there is no exception to this pattern. They all were given different challenges and different tasks. But by having the faith to act, they prevailed and were acclaimed as saints.

But how do I know the will of God? That is a good question and there are two answers, because God has a general will for all of us as well as a specific will for each of us as individuals. If we don’t obey the general, we don’t stand much chance of  figuring out the specific.

God’s general will is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” If we seriously pursue that, his specific will has a way of becoming evident.


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Blessed Eyes

Tuesday, The First Week of Advent


“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see,” Jesus told his disciples in today’s Gospel. What, precisely, were they seeing?

If we look at the larger context, this exchange occurs as the seventy men Jesus sent out are returning and recounting their successes. We could say that this is a test-run of the plan to have 12 ordinary guys be the founders of the Church. They seem able to get on okay with nothing but the Holy Spirit.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you; but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Luke 10:17-20

Jesus is rejoicing that the prophecies we read in Isaiah — prophecies he read — are coming to fruition. Something is afoot. The rebellion is expanding. The powers of darkness are being driven back by this rag-tag group of disciples.

And blessed are their eyes, because they are witnessing it first hand. This is what angels, prophets, and kings longed to see. What a generation in captivity in Babylon longed for. What those around them were praying would come to pass. It was actually happening.

God was made flesh and dwelt among them.

The Holy Spirit was active, more active than anyone had seen in years.

What an awesome time to be alive.

It is easy to get historical envy. Wouldn’t it have been cool to live back then, to see Peter and the apostles with Jesus? Wouldn’t it have been awesome to be in the upper room? To hear Paul preach, to witness the church growing? To be able to seek out a Desert Father? To hear Augustine or Chrysostom preach? We could go on and on, right up to the present day.

And that is precisely my point.

Our eyes, too, are blessed, because they are also seeing what the prophets and kings of old longed to see fulfilled.

But our day? Well, our day is full of trouble and tension, distraction and apathy. It’s really not that inspiring of a time. That has always been the case.

Yet the Holy Spirit still infuses the Church. Individual believers still pray, worship, and serve to the glory of God. Saints are still being made; evil is still being fought.

The way is still stony, uphill, and lined with danger. God is still using ordinary people like you and me, just like he used Peter and Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew,
Thomas, Matthew, James, Jude, Simon, and Judas.

“But I’m no Peter!” you may exclaim. And neither are you a Judas, so take heart. Your eyes are blessed as well. Open them to see God working before, around, and in you. Your name may also be written in heaven.

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I Met a Saint Today

The first few verses of the twelfth chapter of Hebrews has long held a special place for me. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” is the opening phrase. What does it mean to be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses?

I had a thought the other day as I was completing a “wellness assessment” for work. The survey asked if I had people I felt I could turn to in need, if I felt I had enough friends, that sort of thing. I realized that I do; I have a multitude I can turn to anytime I want.

The Church has long held there are three categories of the faithful: the church militant, the church expectant, and the church victorious. The church militant is us, the faithful still “fighting the good fight”. The church expectant are those who have died and are awaiting glorification. And the church victorious are those who have already been glorified.

The amazing thing is, as we say when we confess our faith, we have communion with the whole Church — the communion of saints. What does that mean? It means that because we share one head — Christ — we are one body. Death does not remove us from the Body of Christ.

That means I am surrounded by people I can turn to, both physically living and dead. And I feel like I am meeting new people all the time. I was just telling my wife yesterday that I “met” a new saint. In this case, it was Saint Vincent of Lérins. He was a fifth century monk and writer of whom not a lot is known, but he wrote a work call the Commonitorium, which has been frequently translated and preserved through the ages.

The quote that caught my eye and led me to this particular saint was this:

“Yet teach still the same truths which you have learned,
so that though you speak after a new fashion,
what you speak may not be new.”

Commonitorium, Chapter 22

Good advice, and another way to state Jude verse three, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Our duty is not to be innovators of the faith, but transmitters. I am glad there is a cloud of witnesses so that I don’t have to make things up, but I can largely see what the saints before me have believed and taught. If I can but faithfully echo what they have passed on, I will have been faithful in my duties as a minister of the Gospel.

So I continue to read, study, and pray as I enjoy my ever-widening circle of fellow members of the Body of Christ. I look forward to the day when we can worship God side-by-side in a the great multitude in Heaven. Maybe we’ll get to chat. Or maybe it won’t matter, because we’ll finally be face-to-face with God.

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In the training I mentioned in a recent post, we also had to answer the question, “Who or what do you pretend to be?” Though our natural inclination as adults is to consider pretending to be a sin against the twenty-first century virtue authenticity, this is not always the case. Yes, there are times of “fake it ’til you make it,” but even these aren’t necessarily being inauthentic as much as acknowledging that some days we just don’t feel as energized about whatever roles we play.

If we only did what we truly felt like doing day in and day out, I would probably spend most days in bed eating cookies. Not a very healthy or productive lifestyle. Having enough discipline to do what we ought even when we don’t feel like it is a mark of maturity.

In the training, we discussed this phenomenon briefly: “Why is it that pretending is viewed negatively for adults?” We don’t deflate our 5 year old when he is running around pretending to be Superman. “What do you think you’re doing? You’re not a superhero; you’re a child! Get a grip!” On the contrary, imagination is the world of a child. Whether they are their favorite major league baseball player while at little league practice or a daring spaceship pilot as they ride their bike around the neighborhood, imagination and imitation are part and parcel of their day.

It is the imitation part of imagination that has special merit for us as adults. I picked up on this toward the end of the exercise of answering, “Who or what do you pretend to be?” I said, “Norm Abram, in my garage some weekends.” Norm is the long-time host of “The New Yankee Workshop” on PBS. He makes furniture mostly, and never (at least on camera) makes a mistake. I have learned things watching his show over the years, though I am nowhere near his level of skill when it comes to woodworking.

But Norm is not the only person I attempt to emulate. Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Merton, Michael Casey, and Dallas Willard are all Christians who I have tried to emulate either in writing or in speaking. I also try to emulate their practice as well. Am I pretending to be them? It depends on your definition of pretend.

I don’t dress up like any of them or try to speak in Latin or Greek as some of them did. I haven’t joined a monastery or become a college professor. But I do try to imitate them in sanctity, intellectual rigor, insight, and clarity.

That is what All Saints Day is about — being reminded of those who have gone before us who inspire us and whom we seek to imitate in some way. Not every saint speaks to every person. We each have different temperaments, vocations, and settings. But it is helpful to have some we can look to. We should have some from whom we can learn through their attempts to follow Christ, just as others will someday learn from us.

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How do you get to know someone? You spend time with them, you watch them, but more significantly, you interact with them. You talk to them, listen to them. You observe their reactions and actions to you and to the world around them.

How do you get to know about someone? You spend time reading about them. You watch them, read things they have written, examine things they have made. You might be able to observe how they interact with others.

What’s the difference? Relationship. To know someone, they must also know you. We can know about people who do not know us, but we cannot know someone who cannot know us. It does not have to be a peer relationship, but it seems there must be interaction in order to really know someone.

I know a fair amount about C.S. Lewis. I’ve been to the Eagle and Child, I know he preferred dip pens over fountain pens and abhorred typewriters, and I’ve read many of his books and books about him. But I don’t know him. In some manner, I don’t have the same knowledge as those who really knew him. I may know some things about him that his students never knew, but all of my knowledge is second hand.

Perhaps that is the key distinction. Knowing someone is primary source knowledge. Our perception isn’t mediated by a third party. Everything I have learned about Lewis has passed through another person, be it an editor, publisher, or writer. I lack any direct access.

With that in mind, let us consider whether we know or know about God. Do we have any direct interaction or does all of our knowledge come through someone else? Consider the Desert Fathers. Anthony and his spiritual descendants went into the desert to seek God. They did not chose the desert because there was a great library, church, or monastery there. Some of these things developed as by-products to their seeking, but they were not there to begin with. Many of the desert fathers seem to have had little access to the Scriptures. So how did they come to such knowledge of God?

Contrast them with others who have sought to know about God and had the assistance of scholars and priests, libraries and churches, and yet seem to have little, if any, relationship with God. What is the difference? There are certainly various motivations at work and trying to paint these two groups with broad brush strokes will miss that, but perhaps there are a few things I can offer as possibilities worth pondering.

The primary difference seems to be motivation. What is it we are seeking? Do we want to know God (and be known by him—if my definition above is correct, this is crucial) or do we want to know about God? If I am willing to know God, I am willing to take risks for the relationship. Studying about something is seldom risky. If I seek to know God, what if he makes demands of me? We see this happen when we read some of the “call stories” of the Desert Fathers (and other saints). They heard or read the Word, often just a small piece of it, and were moved to be obedient to it, often at significant personal cost.

If I seek to know about God, my motivation may be to have information to use for my own benefit. This is certainly a temptation for professional clergy. We need to have something to give to our benefactors if we wish to continue our employment. We are engaged in an exchange of information. Perhaps we should instead be engaged in an exchange of introductions?


To twist Thoreau’s famous introduction to Walden, maybe we need more mission statements for churches along these lines:

I went to church because I wished to meet God, to front only the essential facts of his life, and see if I could not learn what he had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not known him, or been known by him. I did not wish to know what was not him, he is so dear. I wanted to live deep and to throw myself at the mercy of God, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not him, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive distraction into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest level, so that I could focus on God, and seek his face, and gaze upon him as the angels do. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about him, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to live lives of liberty and the pursuit of their own happiness.

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Filed under Asceticism, Faith, Priesthood, Priorities, Relationship, Religion, Saints, Sanctification

Reflections on St. Matthias

On a recent trip, we visited the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew in Wells, England, and were able to take part in Evensong on the eve of St. Matthias’ Day. His day used to be commemorated in February, but was moved to the week between Ascension and Pentecost because that’s where his story happens in the first chapter of Acts. Both Matthias and Joseph (or Barsabbas or Justus—maybe he wasn’t chosen because they couldn’t decide what to call him?) were put forth as candidates. In the last instance of casting lots recorded in Scripture, Matthias was chosen.

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
‘Let another take his office.’

 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

Acts 1:12-26 (ESV)

Matthias was only elevated because someone else fell. He replaced Judas Iscariot, and it’s not an easy role to take over the reigns from someone who has fallen from grace. It often comes with the smell of suspicion still in the room. We know almost nothing about him outside of Acts, chapter 1.

Here’s the hymn we sang for Evensong:

The highest and the holiest place
Guards not the heart from sin;
The Church that safest seems without
May harbor foes within.

Thus in the small and chosen band,
Beloved above the rest,
One fell from his apostleship,
A traitor-soul unblest.

But not the great designs of God
Man’s sins shall over throw;
Another witness to the truth
Forth to the lands shall go.

The soul that sinneth, it shall die;
Thy purpose shall not fail;
The word of grace no less shall sound,
The truth no less prevail.

Righteous, O Lord, are all Thy ways;
Long as the worlds endure,
From foes without and foes within,
Thy Church shall stand secure.

Henry Alford (1810-1871)

The first two stanzas are worthy of introspection as a sobering reminder that we are never in a safe position. Just like soldiers in uniform are never totally secure from the enemy, neither are we as Christians. Even in a historic cathedral, the enemy lurks. God’s sovereignty, however, shines in verses three, four, and five. Even the deplorable wickedness of our sin cannot stop the plans of God. This is a good reminder on days when the world seems dark and getting darker. The church may be challenged and beleaguered, but God will not abandon his bride.

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All Saints Day 2011

The first of November is, traditionally, the feast of All Saints. I take a “reformed” view of the day, and, I think, the biblical one as well, that saint means Christian. Paul addresses us as such in his letters. Just look at the opening of most of his epistles and you will see him using the term to address those he is writing to.

The readings for the lectionary (of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer at least) for All Saint’s Day includes the beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel.

Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12 ESV)

Jesus’ words at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount are appropriate to reflect upon on All Saint’s Day because in them, Jesus illustrates that the Kingdom of Heaven–that is, “sainthood”–is open to all.

Often we hear these qualities lifted up as things to attain to, and this has a long tradition in the church. I think there is also validity in the view offered by Dallas Willard in The Divine Conspiracy. Namely that as Jesus sat down to teach, he looked at the crowds, and reassured them. He was not in an Ivy-League lecture hall. He was not sitting in a great cathedral. He was sitting on a Judean hillside surrounded by the common people, and a lot of the outcasts of society.

Jesus speaks to their unspoken concern, “Is this for me? Sure, he healed me, or my friend–he’s got my attention–but can I afford what he’s selling?” Jesus turns the world’s pecking order upside down, as he so often did, with the beatitudes. Those the world looks down on, marginalizes and even persecutes, those are the people my good news is for. Not so much for the all-together up-and-comers. No, this is good news for the down-and-out and the bent-and-broken.

Jesus, continues to live up to his name given by Gabriel–Immanuel. God with us. He is with us, so that we can be with him. He opens the Kingdom to all of us, so we can all become saints, and more importantly, children of God the Father. We celebrate our membership in the fellowship of the saints on this day, we are a part of the great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12:1. They have gone before, and we are following after. One day, each of us will be one of those who has “gone before.”

May we leave a heritage that is worth celebrating by future generations on this historic feast day of the church.

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