First, a word about words. England, and thus its language, has a funny history. First it was settled by Germanic tribes: the Anglos, the Saxons, and the Jutes. In 1066, the French conquered, and pushed the German-speaking peoples to speak French. As a result, English is a funny mix of two languages.
This shows up in our religious vocabulary. Sometimes people try to draw a theological distinction, for example, between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost. But they are the same word. Spiritus is Latin, (esprit in modern French); Geist is German. The difference between Holy Spirit and Holy Ghost is only a difference whether you use the French/Latin word or the German word. Two words for the same thing.
The same is true of “holy.” Heilig is the German word. The Latin word is Sanctus, which the French make into Saint. “Holy” and “Saint” are exactly the same word. In Catholic theology (which is not principally done in English), there is absolutely no distinction. No distinction in Greek, or Hebrew, or in any other modern language. It’s just a funny part of English that we have a German and a French word for the same thing.
So what is a saint? Someone who is holy. Vatican II reminded us of the “universal call to holiness”: that is, everyone is called to be a saint – including you. That is what the word means. Part of the feast of All Saints is reminding us of the many ways to Sanctity.
But we still have not defined the word. Sometimes people say that holy means “set apart,” but I think this is misleading. First, because it seems extrinsic. The only difference between this cup and that cup is that this one is “set apart.” But the difference between us and the saints is not how they are used, it is what they are.
Second, holiness is not just in how we behave. Some kinds of Protestants use the word holy to mean that you don’t drink beer or play cards. There might be a right instinct in there somewhere, but again, it doesn’t go deep enough into the person.
The prophet Ezekiel says, “And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). The first important part of this definition of sanctity is that it is a thing of the heart. Certainly how our heart is has consequences for our actions. But holiness is about the heart, not just about our actions.
Second, it is a thing of the Spirit. The one who makes us holy is the Holy Spirit. Holiness is about relationship with God. And to reach the heights of that relationship that Christianity promises is a work of God. Only God can unite us to God. Only the Holy Spirit can give us holy hearts.
The tradition likes to talk about three stages of progression in the spiritual life. We should not get too hung up on these stages, but there is an important insight here.
The first stage is often called “purgative.” St. Thomas Aquinas describes this as primarily focused on avoiding sin. At the beginning, it seems to us that holiness means we don’t do bad things. That is a beginning, but it is not the end: we should stop sinning, but we don’t understand holiness until we move beyond.
The second stage is often called “illuminative.” Thomas describes this as focused more on being good. Goodness goes deeper than just avoiding evil. The saints aren’t focused on how much they can get away with. They want to do good, to be good!
But the third stage is called “unitive,” and Thomas says this moves beyond trying to be good, into a focus on someone else: love of God. Mother Teresa was truly holy precisely because she got beyond trying to be holy. She wasn’t looking at herself any more. She was always looking at God, at Jesus – and at “his most distressing disguise,” in the poorest of the poor. True sanctity is focused on Jesus, not on the self.
Today’s solemnity of All Saints reminds us that there are millions of ways to be holy. “Star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41): sanctity looks as different as the millions of situations life puts us in. There is no formula, only the love of God at work within us.
What would sanctity look like in your situation?