Who are the holy ones of Christianity? Or more pointedly asked, “Who do you consider the holy ones?” In the beginning it was the Apostles, the people who had actually met and lived with Jesus. They saw the miracles, heard the teaching, witnessed the healings, saw the Resurrected Savior, and went to the ends of the earth preaching and baptizing. Surely, they were the holy ones – especially called by Jesus himself!
In time, the Apostles passed away and were replaced by the martyrs. Along the way, people forgot that martyria simply meant “witness.” Everyone was called to true martyrdom, the everyday-across-the-backyard-fence witness to Jesus as Lord and Savior. The basic call of a Christian witness was mundane compared to the stories of those whom, like Christ, were obedient even unto death. In the early and on-going persecutions, the spilled blood of martyrs became common and widespread. The stories of those martyrs were held up – “Surely, they are the holy ones!” And everyday martyrs became the saintly Martyrs, replacing the Apostles in the minds of everyday people as the model of holiness. In time, the persecutions were tempered and eventually passed into history as Christianity became the de-facto and eventually the official religion of the Empire. And now, who were the holy ones?
A new holiness emerged in the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the desert of Egypt beginning around the 3rd third century A.D. The most well-known was Anthony the Great, who moved to the desert in the late 3rd century and became known as both the father and founder of desert monasticism. By the time Anthony died in A.D. 356, thousands of monks and nuns had been drawn to living in the desert following Anthony’s example. One of the most well-known Desert Mothers was Amma Syncletica of Alexandria, who had twenty-seven sayings attributed to her in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Throughout the 4th and 5th centuries the stories of this new model of holiness spread throughout all of Christendom and had a major influence on the development of Christian spirituality and thinking. The desert ascetics replaced the now-gone martyrs at the pinnacle of holiness. “Surely, they are the holy ones! Giving up everything for Jesus, to draw closer, to know the mystical encounter with the Risen One!”
In time, the desert fathers and mothers formed the early model of monasticism, which in time became the Monastic movement of Western Europe under St. Benedict. Benedict’s main achievement, his “Rule of Saint Benedict,” is a set of rules for his monks to follow. It is a unique spirit of balance, moderation and reasonableness and most Christian religious communities founded throughout the Middle Ages adopted it. As a result, his Rule became one of the most influential religious thoughts in Western Christendom. It seemed a virtual playbook for holiness. Now there was no longer a need to imagine the ascetic life of the far away desert hermits. They now lived right here, up high on the Mountain of Monte Casino! “Surely, they are the holy ones – living closer to God in attitude and altitude! Following the way of holiness! The way only the few are called to follow.”
As civilization slowly devolved and eroded in the West, the aura of the holiness of the monasteries was magnified. While the everyday folk struggled to survive, the monks and nuns studied the Word of God, prayed for everyday folks’ salvation, and were the last light of goodness in an ever-increasing darkness of the Middles Ages. No “surely” about it. They were the last gasp of holiness in the world, closely followed only by the ranks of priests serving the towns and villages. Without them there was no hope as the utter destruction of civilization was carried on by the Huns and an array of Germanic tribes: Visigoths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Ostrogoths – all the ones you could never quite keep straight in high school history class.
As Western Civilization, communications, and the common life grew isolated and distant, slowly from the far corner of the world, not only did Irish monks and scribes maintain the very record of Western civilization — copying manuscripts of Greek and Latin writers, both pagan and Christian, while libraries and learning on the continent were forever lost — the monks left the monasteries and became the pereginatio — those who wander for Christ. This movement was captured by Thomas Cahill in his work, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” (Being Irish, I had to put a plug in for my people). In fact, the later Middle Ages were a movement of monks of all nationality beginning to move out to re-evangelize the people. “Surely, these are the holy ones, risking life and limb for the glory of God!”
By the 11th and 12th century, this idea of holiness on the move gave way to the great rise of lay-led movements of spirituality. The first was among the women of the low countries, the Beguines. Beguines were part of a larger spiritual revival movement of the 13th century that stressed imitation of Christ’s life through voluntary poverty, care of the poor and sick, and religious devotion – known collectively as mendicants. Perhaps the most lasting and notable mendicant movement are the Franciscans – also begun as a lay-led movement.
It was a moment in history when the holiness hierarchy began to become level and holiness was possible for common folk. But the movements eventually disappeared or became religious orders, reinforcing the idea that holiness is among those only specially called. The Protestant Reformations held up the common priesthood of believers and the call to holiness — but that wasn’t a “Catholic thing.”
There are more details in history, but those are the big movements, leaving us Catholics with the refrain, “surely those other people over there are the holy ones!” And then came Vatican II and Lumen Gentium.