What is a Saint?

by Travis Pickell

In two works–Athanasius’s Life of St. Antony and the Rule of St. Benedict–we have a picture of Christian sainthood that, seen from our modern perspective, seem to hold together disparate aspects of human personality. On the one hand, each presents an ascetical attitude that seems overly obsessed with the mortification of sin and would seem to lead to a moroseness unbefitting for a flourishing human life. On the other hand, each shows hints of a deeper joy and unique (dare we say, eccentric?) personality that shines through.

Athanasius’s Life of Antony is a hagiography of the famous desert father, St. Antony. In Athanasius’s telling, Antony, upon hearing the words of the Gospel, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” does precisely that. He sells all that he owns, places his younger sister into a convent for safe-keeping, and retreats into the desert to wrestle with his demons—literally and figuratively. Antony’s asceticism was legendary (and perhaps exaggerated). According to Athanasius he lived in a tomb for nearly twenty years, surviving on meager portions of bread and water. At the end of this period, Athanasius present Antony in terms that seem consistent with a stoic sage: “He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.” At first glance, Antony’s achieved perfection seems to transform him into super-human figure—or, if not super-human, than at least less human, in the sense of being one to whom we might relate. “The state of his soul was one of purity, for it was not constricted by grief, nor relaxed by pleasure, nor affected by either laughter or dejection.” This doesn’t sound like someone most of us would want to be around. On the other hand, the text indicates that “Antony was loved by all.” He celebrated whatever was of worth in any person, and strove to put that into practice.[1] Antony was, in all likelihood, a peculiar fellow who attracted people not only by his legendary ascetic feats but by the quality of his personality and individuality.

This is important because Antony’s biography/hagiography had an enormous influence on the early medieval ideal of Christian sainthood. St. Augustine was famously influenced by The Life of St. Antony in his own conversion experience. Through Augustine’s Confessions, the ideal of the desert fathers continued to have influence in the medieval Latin church, and is reflected in the Rule of St. Benedict. Of note for our present purposes is the ladder of humility by which the Christian is exalted into sanctity. With each step of humility, the humble brother achieves new heights of ascetic discipline. Finally, in the twelfth step, “not only that a monk should be humble of heart, but also that his humility should be apparent in his physical appearance to those who see him… he should always have his head bowed, his eyes fixed on the ground, and should at every moment be considering his guilt for his sins and thinking that he is even now being presented for the dread judgment.” This would seem to be the picture of the morose Christian monk that is satirized throughout the middle-ages. But the end result, according to Benedict, is that “he now begins to keep effortlessly and naturally and habitually, influenced now not by any fear of hell but by the force of long practice, and the very delight he experiences in virtue.”

Above all, I believe, the aspect of radical asceticism is less essential to the Christian view of sainthood than the fact that the saint are those who have whole-heartedly lived in the light of the love of God, and are therefore more genuinely themselves, unique individuals. This does not mean that they are perfect, but that their life takes on a different tenor because it reflects the presence of God in a distinct way. According to Buechner,

“Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full…. Beneath all our yearning for whatever glitters brightest in this world lies our yearning for this kind of life.”[2]


[1] As will become clear, my own understanding of “sainthood” has been influenced by the writings of Frederick Buechner. With regard to the Life of St. Antony, Buechner’s writings, especially his Pulitzer nominated novel Godric, have illuminated the tension between the humanity of the saints and the literary genre of hagiography.

[2] From The Magnificent Defeat.