This reflection evolved during the return flight from Brisbane yesterday and the thought that guided me was the sheer resilience and strength of the saints and that the reality of the saint is so different from the sickly and conventional imagery that can sometimes be evoked at the thought of 'saintliness'. The reflection grew from there and with it a sense of the danger of sanctity - and the injunction to 'live dangerously' came to mind. I tried this thought out on Christine as we flew and she inquired whether I felt that the parents of St Hilda's girls attending the service tomorrow would think that they sent their girls to St Hilda's to be encouraged by the Dean to live dangerously!
Every year we meet here on All Saints Day and St Hilda’s naturally enough uses this Feast for All Saints to remember St Hilda of Whitby whose festival otherwise occurs too late in the year. What we know of Hilda from contemporary records is that she was extraordinary – descended from the Northumbrian kings, she led a religious community with great energy, commitment and wisdom. She was like a magnet in the north, attracting people by her character, and her faith. Of course you know all this - it's the mix of fact and legend that has been passed on over the centuries – what we don't know is the really interesting stuff: what made her become the sort of person she was; what difficult decisions did she make; what dangers or hardships did she face; what made her real?
I suggest that to be real is the critical mark of the Saint – not some sort of moral perfection – but someone with a rich inner life, a deeply developed character, a profound strength. Someone who is not caught up in themselves, or held captive by peoples’ opinion of them – that’s the rough out line I’d give for someone on the track to sainthood. My hunch is that you don't get to become that sort of person without having to take some risks. I bet Hilda took some chances, some real risks.
Which brings me to the second woman, the American novelist Anne Tyler who wrote a novel with the marvellous title of Saint Maybe. It is about – well you could say it is about family life – and about becoming a real person and the risks and persistence that task involves. I want to share with you one little exchange between two characters that gives us a clue about Tyler’s theory about sainthood: that it is fraught with risks; that it is about reality, and that this kind of reality, lived deeply is likely to look very odd to cautious, careful people. See what you make of this:
“You think I don't know what I'm up to, don't you,” Daphne said.
“You think I'm some ninny who wants to do right but keeps goofing. But what you don't see is, I goof on purpose. I'm not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe. … Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you've got!”
At the very least what I hear Tyler’s Daphne saying, is that real living is courageous; that it requires us to be willing to make mistakes, to get things wrong, and not to give up but keep right on trying. But I think she is also saying something more, something a little harder to put into words - there is commitment here, there is love and passion amidst all the uncertainty, I’d call it faith. Faith requires “all the life you've got.”
Which brings me to my favourite ‘saint’ – probably not a Christian – but details of that kind don't trouble God. Her name is Etty Hillesum. Etty was Dutch, she was Jewish, and she was caught up in the holocaust. She qualified as a lawyer, devoted herself to left wing politics, but when the Nazis invaded Holland she chose to stay with her people rather than escape; she chose to share their fate. She took a terrible risk. Through these few years something changed in her – she became less interested in politics, it was as if in the darkness of the Holocaust she chose an inward path. She worked tirelessly to help people but her true self, her reality was being formed within her – in the mess and the darkness, the evil, of the Holocaust – there God became her truth. To read her diaries and her letters is to catch a glimpse of a Saint being formed, grumpy, dissatisfied, but real and marvellous.
I think she wanted to be a writer – but all we have a of her are the vivid fragments of her diaries and letters. This creative drive was central to her but she redefined it: “I do believe it is possible to create, even without ever writing a word or painting a picture, by simply moulding one’s inner life. And that too is a deed.”
She seemed able to resist the compulsion of the ego to draw attention to herself. Her advice was: “Become simple and live simply, not only within yourself but also in your everyday dealings. Don’t make ripples all around you, don’t try to be interesting, keep your distance, be honest, fight the desire to be thought fascinating by the outside world.”
In the desperate times of the war and the holocaust, it may seem surprising that she turned from politics and judgement – and embarked on an inner transformation. She said: “Each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”
In another letter she said a little more: “I really see no other solution than to turn inwards and to root out all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we first change ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned.”
When I read Etty’s diaries and letters, it is the reality of her inner life that rings true and is utterly real. Like the brief comment:“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.” Or the sense of inner peace amidst the horror of the war, as when she says: “Sometimes my day is crammed full of people and talk and yet I have the feeling of living in utter peace and quiet. And the tree outside my window, in the evenings, is a greater experience than all those people put together.”
Perhaps best of all is her simple ambition to be real: “I don’t want to be anything special. I only want to try to be true to that in me which seeks to fulfill its promise.”
In 2013 pope Benedict XVI retired from office and in one of his retiring addresses he referred to Etty Hillesum, saying:“...I am also thinking of Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch girl of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz. At first far from God, she discovered him looking deep within her and she wrote: “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there, too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried beneath. Then he must be dug out again” (Diaries, 97). In her disrupted, restless life she found God in the very midst of the great tragedy of the 20th century: the Shoah. This frail and dissatisfied young woman, transfigured by faith, became a woman full of love and inner peace who was able to declare: “I live in constant intimacy with God"...”