English is an interesting and polyglot language derived from many sources. People don’t seem to realize just how much the language used affects the thought process. But, the fact is, we cannot conceptualize without words. Words wind up carrying overtones and flavorings which go beyond the mere dictionary definitions.
The word saint derives from the Latin sanctus, which does mean holy. The early church did not write in Latin, but in Greek. Now, in Greek the word is άγιος (hagios), which also means holy. The difference is that that hagios carries the additional overtones of “holy one”.
In the Western Roman church the term saint carries a whole concept involving the whole canonization process. Emphasis on the legal proceedings, canonical court, devil’s advocate and all that stuff. Emphasis is put on outward and visible miracles and all that. Saint’s wind up being almost a different category from most humans.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church the whole understanding is different, not “saint” like a military title, but “holy one” as in participates in the Kingdom of Heaven. The sense is that, as in the New Testament, the saints are among us. Indeed, anyone who is or will be in Heaven is holy. There is no particular formal mechanism for canonization. A saint is declared as such when the people of some area decide that they are. No courts, no investigations, no formal legal proceedings. There are thousands of local saints that are not on any official list. A given saint may be placed on a national church’s calendar when enough people in that area decide to honor that person. This can result in otherwise unsavory people being venerated as “holy ones”.
I have met many living “holy ones”. There is one abiding characteristic among all – the overwhelming love that pours from them. You do not have any doubt that these people love God with all their might. You also do not have and doubt that you are loved. It can be rather overwhelming to be in the presence of these people. It draws like a magnet. It can also be frightening. Other than this holy and heavenly love, there is very little else that these people have in common. They may be genius, they may not have a full deck. They may be highly educated, they may be quite ignorant. They may be urbane and charming, they may have the manners of a pig. They may not even be housebroken. They are real people. They can even be people you wouldn’t want in your home.
Some of the Orthodox saints are rather unsavory, at best. St. Moses the Black comes to mind. One of the many African Saints. Oh yes, many people do not seem to realize that Africa had a ton of early church activity and that many of the early Saints were black. Anyway, Moses was a bad boy. He was an escaped slave, gangster, robber, and murderer. He was a huge, powerful and terrifying man. He and his gang attacked a monastery to pillage. Moses was so impressed by the abbot that he repented. Long, agonizing story short, he became a monk, a priest, and an abbot himself. He was martyred in 405 by the Berbers, at 75 years of age.
There are a whole series of “transvestite nuns”, a remarkable group, mostly women, who dressed as men and lived as monks in the Eastern church. Most of these are recorded from the 5th to the 9th centuries. Of course, in the current culture, we would assume that anyone who cross-dresses is also sexually active. This was not the case. These were people whose bodies did not match their genders, and in a celibate monastic life the gender of the body is somewhat irrelevant. There were also men dressed as women in the female convents. Somewhat less frequent. Not only did this not really bother the Orthodox, but note that several of these people are now recognized and loved as holy ones.
There is also the intriguing group known as “fools for Christ”. Юродивый is Russian for Holy Fool. The original inspiration is 1st Corinthians 4:10 – “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised.” There are all kinds of theology and discussion to go along with the whole concept. The fact is that a lot of these people did not play with a full deck, yet were nevertheless recognized as “holy ones” by the people around them. Contrary to the delusions of some, Harvard or Yale are not like Heaven. An IQ test is not required for entrance into Heaven.
The man known as St. John of San Francisco was John Maximovitch. He was quite recent and current, he only died in 1966. In the Roman way he would not even be eligible for consideration much before 2066. In the Orthodox Church he is a saint on the calendar of the Russian Church Abroad and has been for several years. His veneration began almost on the day of his death, his holiness was recognized during his life. He was Bishop of San Francisco and would frequently scandalize some of the more staid parishioners. He had no patience with social convention and would often interrupt social occasion to declare that there had been enough frivolity, it was time to pray. The children of his cathedral once made him a paper mache miter (fancy bishops hat). It looked pretty dreadful. He stopped the service, removed his golden brocade and jeweled miter, set it aside and placed the paper mache miter on his head. He did the rest of the very formal and beautiful service with this garish thing. He said that the children’s loving gift was far more beautiful and pleasing to God. Some of the stuffier parishioners were totally horrified. He would give his shoes to someone homeless and then wander into some important meeting in the Cathedral barefoot. In Shanghai when his church was closed by the communists he celebrated the services in the middle of the street using a card table. At considerable risk to his life, the communists had already martyred several of his people. He was loved all across the globe for his direct and loving (and tactless) approach to the Christian life. He served as priest or bishop on every continent of the world except Antarctica.
The Kingdom of God does not follow social convention. Neither do all the holy ones. Some very peculiar and surprising people have been models of faith and love. Maybe we need to rearrange some of our American notions of what is “proper”?