The Diversity of Holiness
The Solemnity of All Saints. Fr Simon Gaine preaches on the unity and variety found in the Communion of Saints.
It seems that God must be a great lover of variety. He is certainly a great lover of unity, but he also seems to like there to be lots of different things. You only have to look around at the world, at the universe he created, to realise this. As a matter of fact God has expressed his goodness in all sorts of different ways, in rocks, in stars, in a great variety of plants and animals, and also in the human animal in all its diversity, with its many languages and cultures, all sorts of different customs and traditions.
But we might want to ask why God should have done this. Because it isn’t necessarily obvious that he should have done it. It might be tempting to think that if God wanted to express his goodness, the best way to do it would be to create just a really powerful angel. An angel is a purely spiritual being, an immaterial being, spiritual and immaterial, just like God is. As such, an angel has an immense faculty for knowledge, and with that goes an immense power to love. Through its powerful knowing and loving it can represent the Wisdom and Love of the Triune God in a most pre-eminent way. Surely such a powerful spiritual creature, we might think, would be the best way in which God could express his own goodness in another. And indeed it’s true that God has created such a powerful angel, and more than one of them in fact: the Bible tells us of millions and millions of them.
And yet not even the most powerful angel can express all the goodness of God: even the most powerful angel falls woefully short of showing the goodness of God for what it really is, because it’s still only a finite creature, and God is infinite. So angels, however powerful they are, and however many they are, are never going to be quite enough to represent all the goodness of God in God’s creation. And so God creates all sorts of different things, each expressing God’s goodness in its own way, a mouse, a fly, just as much as an angel. Even the most humble mouse or fly or ant will have its own way of expressing God’s goodness, a way that not even the most powerful angel will have, and that way has value.
And today on the Feast of All Saints, we can see that it’s just the same with holiness. The order of God’s grace is just like the order of nature: God expresses his holiness in great variety. Jesus Christ is the Holy One of God, and yet through sharing in the holiness of Jesus there are many, many saints in his Church. Again it might be tempting to think that, after Jesus, one person of really great holiness would be good enough to express the holiness of God, our Lady for example. She is the greatest saint, the greatest disciple of Jesus, and you might be tempted to think that God would have expressed his holiness enough by making Mary so holy. And yet, just as a mouse or an insect has a way of expressing God’s goodness that an angel doesn’t have, so the lowliest Christian has their own way of expressing God’s holiness, a unique way that way has value. God’s holiness, Jesus’ holiness, is so rich that even a single great saint, the greatest saint, isn’t enough to express all of it.
So God expresses his rich holiness in a great diversity of saints: martyrs, confessors, married people, virgins, pastors, single people, monks and nuns, children, all following after Jesus. And yet, while he rejoices in this diversity of holiness, different ways of being close to God, God loves unity too. God’s creation is not simply a playground of diversity, as though difference were all that mattered. There are many different kinds of creature, many different species of plant and animal, and yet all are interdependent: they form a single universe, a single creation, where everything is somehow related to everything else, and ultimately to the goodness of the Creator.
And it’s the same with holiness, the same with discipleship of Jesus Christ in the Church. All the saints, all Christians, living all their very different kinds of lives, are united in faith and love of God. All are called to express their love of God in many different kinds of holy life, and that same love binds them all together into a single people, a single people for God. In the end it is love that makes us holy, the love that the one Spirit of God pours into the hearts of us all, elevating us to love God and each other in God, to love in a higher way that outstrips the power of our natural humanity.
But we should remember that when love makes us holy, love is making us holy, each one in the different circumstances of our own individual lives. The love the Holy Spirit gives us takes account of who we are and the individual circumstances of our lives, and it preserves our difference and yet unites us in this great variety, to be one with each other in God. God the Father and God the Son are distinct, and yet they are perfectly united in the Holy Spirit who is Love. We too, though very different, are united in the Spirit’s love. It is in this unity-in-diversity that we should fulfil this command of God in our lives: ‘Be holy as I am holy,’ says the Lord.
In England & Wales and many other parts of the world, the Solemnity is celebrated this year on the Sunday. Sermons for 31st Sunday of the Year can be found by browsing our liturgical index, or click here for a shortcut.
Image: detail of an altarpiece from the Church of San Domenico, Fiesole, by Fra Angelico, photographed by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.