How the concept of sainthood has changed
I recently read the Lausiac History of Palladius, a 5th-century work describing the ascetic exploits of the desert monks of Egypt and other places.
I was struck reading it, by how the idea of ‘sainthood’ has changed over the centuries. In this post we will briefly explore three different historical conceptions of ‘sainthood.’
“Today we generally use the word ‘Saint’ in a technical sense, as a formal title. In the UK, as in many European countries, that usage of the word is built into our language and culture.”
Today we generally use the word ‘Saint’ in a technical sense, as a formal title. In the UK, as in many European countries, that usage of the word is built into our language and culture.
Thus, I recently watched an episode of Sherlock in which Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) had a race against time to get to the church of St. James the Less (I think this one?) somewhere in London.
I myself frequently use the word in conversation in this technical sense, particularly of early, exemplary Christians: “St. Augustine, the fifth-century North African bishop,” or, “What would St. Irenaeus of Lyons say about this?”
“The word ‘Saint’ has not always been used in this technical sense since Christianity began.”
When I refer to such believers as ‘Saint,’ I am conscious that I am not doing so because they were exemplary: but simply because that is how their names have come down to us, and it’s convenient.
However, the word ‘Saint’ has not always been used in this technical sense since Christianity began.
As we shall see from the three historical conceptions discussed below, it was a usage which developed over time from a word which carried a related, but quite different meaning.
Sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church today
“The process of canonization, or declaring a person to be a ‘saint,’ has undergone considerable development in the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries. Today the normal procedure by which a person is declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church involves a careful investigation being made into their life, and the attribution of two miracles.”
The process of canonization, or declaring a person to be a ‘saint,’ has undergone considerable development in the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries. Often this has been in response to abuses. The general direction of this development has been towards centralization, so that today, it is the exclusive prerogative of the Pope to declare a person a saint.
Today the normal procedure by which a person is declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church involves a careful investigation being made into their life, and the attribution of two miracles — normally miracles of healing, on account of their relative ease of verification — to that person’s intercession.
On the way to being declared a ‘saint,’ a person is first elevated through a number of stages of recognition, with accompanying titles. First a person is declared to be Servus Dei, or a ‘Servant of God’; then ‘Venerable’; then ‘Blessed’; and finally they are canonized, or ‘sainted.’
All of this implies, of course, that the person being canonized has already died. Today those who are recently recognized as saints by the Roman Catholic Church are always those who have died.
So some recent, and well-known, examples of Roman Catholic saints are:—
- Pope St. John XXIII (died 3 June 1963; canonized 27 April 2014)
- St. Teresa of Calcutta (died 5 September 1997; canonized 4 September 2016)
- Pope St. John Paul II (died 2 April 2005; canonized 27 April 2014)
However, the process of ‘sainthood’ was not always so formal, or so restricted. Let us consider a 5th-century witness, Palladius.
Sainthood in Palladius’ Lausiac History
“In spite of its unpromising title, the Lausiac History of Palladius is in fact a lively and interesting account of the virtues, the wisdom, and the ascetic exploits of many of Egypt’s desert monks.”
In spite of its unpromising title, the Lausiac History of Palladius is in fact a lively and interesting account of the virtues, the wisdom, and the ascetic exploits of many of Egypt’s desert monks — besides ascetics from other parts of the world (Palladius himself was widely travelled), and those who lived a city-based ascetic life — in the fourth and early fifth centuries. It was written around 419 or 420 A.D.
As is often the case with this type of literature, it contains some surprising accounts of what its heroes and heroines got up to. A memorable incident in chapter 37 records how one holy ascetic, Sarapion, went to Rome and there invited an unnamed maiden living in seclusion, who had not left her house for twenty-five years, to walk more or less stark naked through the middle of the city. When she declined to do so, he apparently did so himself!
Palladius himself was born in 363 or 364 A.D. in the Roman province of Galatia. He embraced the monastic life when he was twenty-three years old, and then in or around 388 he set out to become acquainted with the Egyptian hermits. After spending about twelve years in several parts of Egypt, he left there for health reasons and eventually ended up in Bithynia, where he was consecrated bishop of Helenopolis. Of his death we have no details beyond the fact that he died before A.D. 431.
“For those who are familiar with the Roman Catholic concept of sainthood, on reading the Lausiac History one is immediately struck by the fact that Palladius speaks of saints as people still living in this life.”
Along with Athanasius’ Life of Antony, the Lausiac History is one of our principal primary source documents for the history of early monasticism in Egypt. It was a bestseller in its day, as demonstrated by the fact we today have ancient copies of it in Greek (its original language), Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic and Old Sogdian.
For those who are familiar with the Roman Catholic concept of sainthood, on reading the Lausiac History one is immediately struck by the fact that Palladius speaks of saints as people still living in this life.
Thus, in section 6 of his Foreword to the Lausiac History, he writes:
“But they [i.e., the ascetics] were snatched from the snares of the devil by the grace of our Saviour, the vigilance of the holy fathers, the sympathetic compassion of spiritual friends, and so were restored to their former virtuous life by the prayers of the saints [emphasis mine].”
The translator’s endnote to this paragraph even candidly admits,
“The word ‘saints’ here as well as in other places in Palladius is hardly to be taken as having the full meaning ordinarily given the word today [i.e., in the Roman Catholic theology]. The Greek ἅγιοι [hagioi] and the Latin sancti [both meaning ‘saints’ or ‘holy ones’] were frequently used in early Christian writing for members of the living Church on earth.”
Although a quotation in Latin from one H. Delehaye farther down the same endnote then virtually denies the propriety of this, claiming that,
“In the ancient books men, whether by their manner of life or even their merit, are called revered saints, though properly they are not saints.”
Similarly in another passage of the Lausiac History, Palladius writes:
“Now I have told this so that we may not be puzzled when we see holy people [or ‘saints’] falling prey to sickness.”
He even refers to specific, living people as ‘saints.’ Thus, in chapter 34 of the Lausiac History he relates that,
“Now an angel appeared to Saint [or ‘the holy’] Piteroum, the famous anchorite dwelling at Porphyrites, and said to him…”
It is not clear whether this Saint Piteroum is still living on earth, or has already fallen asleep, at the time of Palladius’ composition. However, he then has the women ascetics of the Pachomian women’s monastery at Tabennisi refer to Piteroum in the same terms:
“They seized [one of their number] forcibly and told her: ‘The holy [or ‘Saint’] Piteroum wishes to see you’—for he was renowned.”
Even when he ‘saints’ ascetics who have already died, they are often only recently deceased — such, for example, as “Saints Ammonius and Evagrius [who] told me this…” It is clear that these men have not been through any kind of formal process of canonization such as was discussed in the previous section.
What does all this tell us?
“As we have seen, the term ‘saint’ could also be used for specific people still living on this earth — and also more generally for ‘the saints’ still living.”
In its use of the term ‘saint’ the Lausiac History is a very typical example of its time. There was a widespread concern to honour those exemplary believers who had died in the faith (often for the faith), both in long past time and in more recent history. But clearly, as we have seen, the term ‘saint’ could also be used for specific people still living on this earth — and also more generally for ‘the saints’ still living.
It should be borne in mind that our word ‘saint’ is really synonymous with ‘holy one.’ The word comes from the Latin word sanctus, meaning holy; and before it took on its modern, technical sense as a title, it really was just used as an honorific: “the holy Evagrius,” and so on. More on this later.
Sainthood in the New Testament
If we now go back even farther, back to the New Testament itself, we find there yet another conception of sainthood.
To demonstrate this, take a look at a couple of passages from the New Testament:—
“To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus…”
Paul the Apostle, Letter to the Ephesians 1:1
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
One of these fragments is from the pen of the Apostle Paul; the other is from the pen of Jude, the brother of the Lord.
In both of these passages, the ‘saints’ are not just people still living in this life (as in Palladius): more than that, they are clearly the set of all believers in Christ.
“Paul’s letter is addressed ‘to the saints who are in Ephesus.’ This is not some élite club of exemplary believers — it is all the Christian believers, high and low, in that particular church.”
So in the Ephesians passage, Paul’s letter is addressed “to the saints who are in Ephesus.” This is not some élite club of exemplary believers — it is all the Christian believers, high and low, in that particular church.
Likewise in the Jude passage, the faith (= the message of the gospel) was once for all delivered to the saints — that is, not to some special exemplary bunch of Christians, but to all of God’s people who have trusted in Christ Jesus.
The words translated “the saints” in both these passages are ὁι ἅγιοι, hoi hagioi, literally “the holy [ones]” or “the holy [people]” (albeit in the dative in both passages: τοῖς ἁγίοις, tois hagiois, “to the saints”).
“The New Testament’s concept of a ‘saint’ is something much more inclusive than the later, restricted, technical sense of the word we saw earlier. It is a designation which belongs to every genuine Christian believer, right now, and however faulty their life.”
So the New Testament’s concept of a ‘saint’ is something much more inclusive than the later, restricted, technical sense of the word we saw earlier. It is a designation which belongs to every genuine Christian believer, right now, and however faulty their life.
How is this possible? How can all the members of a church, even one as un-exemplary as the Corinthian church, be called saints?
This works because, in the New Testament, sainthood is not something earned by outstanding merit or self-denial: rather it is imputed.
That is, God gives sainthood to all those who believe in and turn to Jesus Christ.
All those who turn to him are holy — that is, Christ has set them apart (which is what ‘holy’ really means) as an offering to God.
The idea here is closely related to the Old Testament sacrificial system, whereby the offerings made by the Israelites in the Tabernacle were ‘holy’ to the Lord (see, e.g., Leviticus 2:3; 2:10; 5:15).
Or as Paul puts it in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Jesus is our holiness:
And because of him [i.e., God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, …
1 Corinthians 1:30
Another translation says,
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God — that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
1 Corinthians 1:30 (NIV)
Here are three implications of this:—
- If you’re a Christian, then take delight in the fact that Jesus has already made you a saint of God. For those who know this, the idea that all of God’s people are saints through the work of Jesus is greatly liberating.
- If you’re a Christian but there are persistent sins you struggle with, do not despair! Jesus is your holiness: remember that, however faulty your life, because of him you belong to God. Your status as a child of God is dependent on him — Jesus our righteousness, holiness and redemption — and not on your own merits.
- If the New Testament’s concept of sainthood is not something you know, why not make a late new year’s resolution and read some of the New Testament for yourself? Why not read one of the four Gospels this week, or read through some of Paul’s New Testament letters, and find out more about what it means to be a saint of Christ Jesus? You can obtain Bibles, fairly cheaply, in modern translation, from most high street bookshops or online. St. Augustine was converted when he overheard a child singing, “Pick it up and read it. Pick it up and read it.” He then picked up and read part of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and believed. Why not follow in his footsteps today?
The translation of Palladius’ Lausiac History quoted in this article is Rev. Johannes Quasten, Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., and Thomas Comerford Lawler (tr.), Ancient Christian Writers No. 34: Palladius: The Lausiac History. © 1964 Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ. You can also read the Lausiac History of Palladius online at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/palladius_lausiac_01_intro.htm.
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Scripture quotations, except where otherwise noted, are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Rev. Johannes Quasten, Rev. Walter J. Burghardt, S.J., and Thomas Comerford Lawler (tr.), Ancient Christian Writers No. 34: Palladius: The Lausiac History. © 1964 Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ. p.7. (Henceforth ‘ACW 34’.)
 Ibid., pp.108-110
 Ibid., p.5
 Ibid., p.6
 Ibid., p.3
 Ibid., pp.9-11
 Ibid., p.19
 Ibid., pp.167-8. The comments in square brackets in this quotation are my additions for clarification.
 “in libris antiquis homines sive moribus sive etiam dignitate venerandi sancti appellantur, qui proprie sancti non sunt.” H. Delehaye, “De martyrologii Romani origine fontibus fide historica”, in Propylaeum ad Acta Sanctorum Decembris, Brussels, 1940: xvii. Quoted in ACW 34, p.168.
 Based on another translation, W.K. Lowther Clarke B.D., The Lausiac History of Palladius, SPCK 1918: ch. XXIV. (Henceforth ‘WKLC’.) http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/palladius_lausiac_02_text.htm#C24
 ACW 34, p.84
 Cf. WKLC, ch. XXXIV. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/palladius_lausiac_02_text.htm#C34
 ACW 34, p.97
 Cf. ACW 34, pp.92,95,96
 Ibid., p.98
 Ibid., p.83. For the life of Ammonius, see Ibid., pp.47-48 (assuming this to be the same Ammonius), where it is clear that he has already fallen asleep. For the life of Evagrius, see Ibid., pp.110-114, where it is also clear that he has by now fallen asleep. These passages are respectively ch. 11 and ch. 38 of the Lausiac History, which in WKLC can found online at http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/palladius_lausiac_02_text.htm#C11 and http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/palladius_lausiac_02_text.htm#C38.
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