Christians in my world are not known for their poverty. Which is strange because Jesus said crazy things like “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), and a host of other things about renouncing possessions, giving to the poor, etc. and his life was consistent with these teachings. But we live in a different day and age, myself and most everyone I know were born into relative affluence. What do we do about this? Do we find ourselves in the position of the rich young ruler who is told by Jesus to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor?” Perhaps.
Later in life Merton would repent from this [sectarian] attitude and embrace a radically ecumenical perspective. It is for this reason that he would later disassociate himself from his early autobiography, describing it as “the work of a man I have never even heard of.” There are lots of reasons and developments in Merton and in Catholicism for this change of heart. Other people could do a better job at tracing all that out. Merton’s own struggle with the ecumenical question—from skepticism to embrace—makes me want to engage with my own. And so here goes.
The more I pray the more difficult I find it to pray. I was taught to pray spontaneously, as if this were the only kind of prayer that was authentic. Written and rote prayers were almost automatically condemned as mere ritual without heartfelt meaning. I admire the concern for authenticity, but I must admit that I lack the imagination, the vocabulary, often the enthusiasm and desire to conjure up new words for God every time I want to pray or am called to pray.
It is against this unrealistic elitist conception of sanctity that Plekon tries to construct a better understanding of what it means to be a saint, a holy person (hagios). The brilliance of this book is that it is not an academic diatribe, neither is it a sustained theological treatise (though it is both academically sensitive and theologically deep). The method that Plekon chooses to think through sainthood is by thinking about actual saints as he sees them. Thus the book takes us through a host of biographies from persons across the theological and ecclesial spectrum—some living, some having entered their rest.
As I’ve suggested in some earlier book sketches, I think Protestants like myself have a lot to gain by learning from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the ways I’ve grown the most by listening to the Orthodox voice is the way I think about salvation. The way I typically heard the story growing up made salvation a matter of alignment, like applying for membership in the right club, and then a lifetime’s work trying not to get kicked out. And salvation was taught this way because of our underlying theological assumptions. Now, I’m not saying this is completely wrong, but I do think there’s some serious gaps and even errors in that way of thinking.
There are a set of Christian writers, poets, theologians who I trust because they are a combination of depth, clarity, and an even-handedness that produces insight. Rowan Williams is among them. And yet one need only look at this man’s majestic eyebrows to know that he is going to bring some extraordinary wisdom. You don’t get eyebrows like that without wisdom.
Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness New York: Doubleday Press, 1963. There are few more important persons and writers for our present world than Thomas Merton, for Christians especially, but in a way for the whole world. He was a libertine-turned Trappist monk who nevertheless considered his isolated vocation as a means to serve the world…
Hans Urs von Balthasar, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1988. Hans Urs von Balthasar, besides being in contention for most magisterial name ever, was a Swiss Catholic theologian in the 20th century. He is important for a lot of reasons, but primarily…