A Saint: Both an Answer and a Contradiction

“The Spirit meets the burning questions of the age with an utterance that is the key-word, the answer to the riddle.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History

If there is such a thing as revelation, if God has made himself known in various times and ways and has made himself supremely known in his Son, then at some point every person who takes these things seriously has to attempt to answer some version of the following questions. How does the life of Christ come into the world now? What does Christ’s life have to do with our lives in the present? What does his work have to do with our work? How does his mission become our mission? We might simply call these questions of application or livability. I believe the gospel. I believe the creed. I believe in the risen and ascended Lord, but how do I live like it’s true? Or to put the question in Han Urs von Balthasar’s terms from his book A Theology of History, how does the norm of Christ come to norm our own lives?

In a chapter called, “Christ the Norm of History”, Balthasar proposes three ways the norm of Christ becomes our norm: Ascension, sacrament, and mission. Ascension, sacrament, and mission are all Spirit permeated, Spirit mediated realties that bring Christ’s time into our time and can make his norm our norm. To briefly sum these up, first, Christ’s time does not simply wait for us in the future, but by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit permeates the now, and this is for Balthasar the ongoing meaning of the Ascension. Second, the sacraments are means of grace precisely because the Holy Spirit makes sacramental presence a reality. The sacramental life nourishes the life of the Church, making life under the norm of Christ both a possibility and a reality . Third, the Church as the Spirit-filled body is called to mission and empowered to do so by the Holy Spirit.

To push the third point a little further, through the Church the Spirit bring Christ’s time, Christ’s norm into the world. In this context Balthasar argues that the mission of the church finds its most concrete expression through the saints, holy ones made holy by the Holy Spirit. Here is a long and beautiful quote to that effect:

“Whenever the Spirit takes the Church by surprise with these gifts it is going to be, in the main, by the proclamation of some truth which has a far-reaching meaning for the particular age to which it is given, in both Church history and world history. The Spirit meets the burning questions of the age with an utterance that is the key-word, the answer to the riddle. Never in the form of an abstract statement (that being something that it is man’s business to draw up); almost always in the form of a new, concrete supernatural mission: the creation of a new saint whose life is a presentation to his own age of the message that heaven is sending to it, a man who is, here and now, the right and relevant interpretation of the Gospel, who is given to this particular age as its way of approach to the perennial truth of Christ. How else can life be expounded except by living? The saints are tradition at its most living, tradition as the word is meant whenever Scripture speaks of the unfolding of the riches of Christ, and the application to history of the norm which is Christ. Their missions are so exactly the answer from above to the questions from below that their immediate effect is often one of unintelligibility; they are signs to be contradicted in the name of every kind of right-thinking —until the proof of their power is brought forth. Saint Bernard and Saint Francis, Saint Ignatius and Saint Teresa were all of them proofs of that order: they were like volcanoes pouring forth molten fire from the inmost depths of Revelation; they were irrefutable proof, all horizontal tradition notwithstanding, of the vertical presence of the living Kyrios here, now and today.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History

Saints are those who are so formed by the norm of Christ that their lives are at one and the same time an answer to the deepest questions of an age and a living contradiction to that age. G.K. Chesterton makes a similar point in his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, but he emphasizes how saintly contradiction can expand beyond the age in which it emerged and begin to convert another age too. In speaking of the Victorian fascination with all things medieval and with St. Francis in particular, Chesterton points to the enduring power of contradiction:“Therefore it is a paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas

We need such saints, these living answers and contradictions. And we don’t just need those who have gone before, but more desperately, we need the Spirit to form and empower such people now. To take one of a thousand possible examples, as much as we can and should learn from St. Augustine, we should also pray for ones like St. Augustine to emerge. We don’t just need the St. Augustine, we need our own St. Augustine, one uniquely formed and trained to speak to the burning questions of our time. And my conviction is that we should pray like such things are possible. We should pray like such people can and should exist. We should pray like such people are not fixtures of the past but possibilities of the present. We should pray that in the power of the Spirit we might become such people ourselves. To put it in a pithy, and possibly snarky form, we don’t simply need a Benedict Option, we need a St. Benedict to enact a way of living that brings the life Christ, by the power of Spirit, into our time.

Here is my question, in all honesty, and I would love to invite conversation around it—who are the people who stand in contradiction to our age? Who says a simultaneous no to the world and a yes to Christ? Who stands in contradiction, not in simple and oppositional belligerence, but as a counter-witness, as a beckon of light amidst the darkness? Who are those that point in word and deed to higher and clearer and deeper things?

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