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What is a Saint? - Peter Kreeft

What is a Saint?


Saints are not freaks or exceptions, they are the standard operating model for human beings.

Why does the Church include All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) in her calendar of solemn feasts? Why does the Apostles' Creed include "the communion of saints" as one of the 12 essential articles of our faith?

Because, as Charles Peguy put it, "life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint."

Saints are not freaks or exceptions. They are the standard operating model for human beings. In fact, in the biblical sense of the word, all believers are saints. "Sanctity" means holiness. All men, women and children, born or unborn, beautiful or ugly, straight or gay, are holy, for they bear the image of God.

Saints are not the opposite of sinners. There are no opposites of sinners in this world. There are only saved sinners and unsaved sinners. Thus holy does not mean "sinless" but "set-apart:" called out of the world to the destiny of eternal ecstasy with God.

What is a saint? First of all, one who knows he is a sinner. A saint knows all the news, both the bad news of sin and the good news of salvation. A saint is a true scientist, a true philosopher:

A saint knows the truth. A saint is a seer, one who sees what's there. A saint is a realist.

A saint is also an idealist. A saint embraces heroic suffering out of heroic love. A saint also embraces heroic joy. (This is one of the criteria for canonization: Saints must have joy.)

A saint is a servant of Christ. A saint is also a conqueror greater than Alexander, who only conquered the world. A saint conquers himself. What does it profit a man if he conquers the whole world but does not conquer himself?

A saint is so open that he can say, with Paul, "I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient. I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance" (Phil. 4:11-12). A saint marries God "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death." A saint is also so determined, so stubborn, that he will die before compromising the truth, and will write credo in the sand with his own blood as he dies. (One saint actually did this.)

A saint is a sworn enemy of the world, the flesh and the devil. He is locked in mortal combat with principalities and powers. A saint is also a friend and lover of the world. He kisses this sin-cancered world with the tender lips of the God of John 3:16. A saint declares God's war on this world, sinking the cross into the enemy occupied earth like a sword, the hilt held by heaven. At the same time he stretches his arms out on that very cross as if to say, "See? This is how wide my love is for you!"

A saint is Christ's bride, totally attached, faithful, dependent. A saint is also totally independent, detached from idols and from other husbands. A saint works among these others money, power, pleasure as a married woman works with other men, but will not marry them or even flirt with them.

A saint is higher than anyone else in the world. A saint is the real mountain climber. A saint is also lower than anyone else in the world. As with water, he flows to the lowest places like Calcutta.

A saint's heart is broken by every little sorrow and sin. A saint's heart is also so strong that not even death can break it. It is indestructible because it's so breakable.

A saint's heart is broken by every little sorrow and sin. A saint's heart is also so strong that not even death can break it. It is indestructible because it's so breakable.

A saint takes his hands off the steering wheel of his life and lets God steer. That's scary, for God is invisible. A saint also has hands that move the world. He has feet that move through the world with a sure step.

A saint does not let others play God to him. A saint takes his orders from the General, not from the army. A saint also does not play God to others.

A saint is a little Christ. Not only do we see Christ through His saints, as we see a light through a stained glass window, but we also understand the saints only through Christ, as we understand eggs only through chickens.

The saints are our family. We are one Body. They are our legs and we are theirs. That's why their feast is our feast. As Pascal says, "Examples of noble deaths of Spartans and others hardly affect us... but the example of the deaths of martyrs affects us, for they are our members... we do not become rich through seeing a rich stranger, but through seeing a father or husband rich."

We become saints not by thinking about it, and not (certainly) by writing about it, but simply by doing it. There comes a time when the "how?" question stops and we just do it. If the one we love were at our door knocking to come in, would we wonder how the door lock works, and how we could move our muscles to open it?

Francis of Assisi once told his monks that if they were in the midst of the Beatific Vision and a tramp knocked at their door asking for a cup of cold water, turning away from the heavenly vision to help the tramp would be the real heaven, and turning away from the tramp to keep the blissful vision would be turning from God's face.

A saint is one who sees who the tramp is: Jesus.


Peter Kreeft. "What is a Saint?" National Catholic Register. (October 1987).

Reprinted by permission of the author and National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

The Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: You Can Understand the Bible, How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginners, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1987 National Catholic Register

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