AS AN awkward teenager, I was not particularly interested in holiness, nor had I any desire to explore faith, but the story of Joan of Arc captured my imagination. What impressed me about her story was that she was of a similar age to me when she began her crusade. Joan, guided by divine visions and despite fierce opposition, counselled the heir to the French throne in battle. She was eventually burnt at the stake for heresy, and was exonerated and made a saint only after her death.
IN THOSE crucial teenage years, when my sense of identity and purpose was beginning to emerge, Joan’s story of courage and conviction spoke to the angst I felt about being young and not heard, and her bravery impressed me deeply.
The fact that Joan had a cause to fight for resonated strongly with my teenage self. Would I have the courage of my convictions before those who were more powerful and influential? Could I stand my ground in the face of opposition?
In her story I found something of my own. Although her youth resonated with me, I wondered if there were others from a similar cultural background to mine whom I could identify with. It seemed to my naïve mind that, because there were no immediately identifiable heroes of the faith, perhaps people like me did not figure greatly in the narrative of faith.
These are typical of two problems when it comes to reflecting on what it means to be holy and on representations of holiness. First, holiness is confused with human virtue; being godly is based on standards from the prevailing culture rather than seen as being in Christ and a gift from God. Many of us know of someone who communicates something of grace, whose presence exudes a distinctive inspiring quality. It is all too easy to idolise those who appear to have an extraordinary ability and to be specially “chosen” by God. We can be guilty of reading their stories as heroic tales, superhuman efforts that are out of the reach of ordinary Christians. What we find in the written accounts of their lives, however, is that they were interwoven with disappointment, tragedy, suffering, being misunderstood, failure, and tirelessly working without realising any sense of satisfaction.
IN THE early years of its existence, the Church referred to those who belonged to it as saints. Those first disciples from different nationalities, social classes, ethnic groups, and cultures lived in a radical new way that transcended their distinctions. Persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire followed, and the term became synonymous with those who were martyred or endured harsh treatment for what they believed.
Over time, the term was applied less to the majority of believers and increasingly to a select few, in recognition of their martyrdom, special acts of piety, humility, selfless service, exceptional wisdom, and miracles. Martyrs of the faith were especially esteemed, their tombs venerated, and relics highly sought after as they were seen to be endowed with miraculous qualities.
Holiness and other associated virtues became the preserve of the few rather than something that all could attain. The saintly life was held up as an example of grace, purity, and sanctification. Holy people became figures to emulate, and their representations, pictures, and wisdom writings were highly treasured as a spiritual resource by the faithful. Stories and images of the pious were drawn from a limited range of cultures. Most were male and hailed from Europe. A few originated elsewhere. Christian tradition made the briefest acknowledgement of the ethnicity, culture, and origins of those Early Church Fathers such as Augustine and Tertullian, who originated in North Africa but whose pictures took on distinctly European features.
Despite recent attempts to retell history from the perspective of those not traditionally included, the lives of black saints and holy people largely remained unknown outside their cultures and countries of origin. Nevertheless, those efforts to include a range of stories, wisdom writings, and images from diverse Christian traditions have led to a renewed interest in their lives, which have much to teach us about what it means as a diverse people to be committed to God.
THE call to holiness is just as important in our time. The all-pervasive presence of social media means that we have instant access to communication from around the world. At the same time, we are presented with images designed to appeal and gratify, that suggest the need for acquisition and constant entertainment. Advertising explicitly focuses on consumerism, where the individual is of primary importance, rather than expressing a widespread concern for others.
Holy people draw our eyes back to the purposes of God: to make disciples, love, inspire, and encourage each other in the body of Christ by mutually affirming one another. Their wisdom has its foundation in the dynamic life of the Trinity — the community we are invited to join and to be in fellowship with. Being saintly is a result of a shared recognition of holiness. Belonging to a diverse array of witnesses challenges our tendency towards self-defined piety; it shows us what holiness should look like, and, more importantly, that it is based on dependence on God and interdependence on one another.
AS KNOWLEDGE has increased, so has the desire to search for wisdom and a more meaningful spiritual engagement. People look back to more ancient ways of understanding the world because they recognise the deeper wisdom of God, who acted through ordinary human beings in extraordinary ways.
Although the saints in this book were very much of their time, their examples are still relevant today. The landscape of social relationships is continuing to shift. The resurgence of old divisions along socio-economic/religious/cultural and ethnic lines continues to mar our relationships. The proliferation of views based on fear, and the need to protect resources for the global minority rather than ensuring an equitable distribution for all, mean that we have become much more individualistic and insular.
It is by listening to a variety of voices that we hear something of the divine. Holy lives are laid bare as a witness to help us reflect on our own lives and ponder life’s deeper question about the inner world we inhabit with God, and that causes us to reach out to others. By viewing these diverse icons of virtue through the lens of faith, culture, and experience, our aim is to inspire by telling the unfamiliar stories of people who are not unlike us, yet who sought to be fully aware of God in their time, place, and culture.
A diverse array of saints says much about who we are, and, more importantly, that God’s Church is made up of people who journey together, extolling Kingdom values and looking to the complete restoration of humanity. Like the Early Church, the impact of such intentionality will not be lost on those around us. It is only by working together, allowing for those heart-to-heart encounters on the basis of mutual love and respect, that we can truly acknowledge that we are all made in the image of God.
The Revd Dr Sharon Prentis is the Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Affairs in the diocese of Birmingham, and Honorary Research Fellow at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion, University of Birmingham.
This is an edited extract from Every Tribe: Stories of diverse saints serving a diverse world, edited by Sharon Prentis and published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).