The Unmistakable Homesickness of the Soul: The Quest for Holiness

William Edwin Sangster, a great Methodist preacher and writer, lived between 1900-1960. During World War II, he served as senior minister at Westminster Central Hall in London, England, the “cathedral” of Methodism. The basement became an air-raid shelter as soon as the German assault began. As space in the below-ground shelter was scarce, he and his family lived at great risk for five years on the hazardous ground floor. By war’s end 450,000 people had found refuge in the church basement. In 1949 Sangster was elected president of the Methodist Conference of Great Britain.

Worthy of admiration

It cannot seriously be questioned that it is a matter of major importance that the admiration of people be directed towards those who are worthy of the admiration. We grow like the people we admire. If the longing for holiness is to be quickened in people they must see, not only its perfection in the Savior, but approximations to it in the saints. Indeed, there are ways in which it could be perilous to see it only in the Savior and never in the saints.

To quicken the quest for holiness in people – which is the end of all religious nurture – four steps are necessary.

First, to convince people that it is God’s intention that man should be holy; that nothing less can satisfy his ambitions for his earthly children and that, keeping this fact in mind, a devout man may often murmur to himself, “He wills that I should holy be.” Secondly, to nourish in the people faith in the possibility of holiness. The difficult question of ultimate and ineffable perfection can be left aside if only because it involves questions of completeness as well as of purity, and stretches the mind into the vast aeons of eternity. But if the promises of the New Testament are kept in mind, and there are no mental reservations about the power of the Holy Spirit, the life of constant victory over sin by the might of God can be held before the people as a possibility in this life. We can say of all the powers of hell,

They cannot keep a blessing back 
By heaven designed for me.

The motive of perfect love

Thirdly, to hold perfection before the people in all its fulness in Jesus. In him every virtue is balanced with its complementary virtue!  The vices of good men are often shadows cast by their virtues. Because they are so morally strong, they lack tenderness. Because they are so generous, a proper prudence is wanting.  But in Jesus the balance and harmony are all there. This is perfection – the uttermost that can appear in a sinful world.

They were actions of the perfect if we recognize that our Lord was acting all the time under the motive of perfect love. To startle and recall the recalcitrant in the case of the Pharisees: to defend the Gentiles from the desecration of their Court of the Temple, and to impose discipline on the shabby traders, in the case of that illicit commerce. Love in conflict with sin must hurt to save.  His life reveals an utter perfection – i.e. a life moved always by a perfect motive even though it was moving in an imperfect world.

And it is just because he is himself in that world that the plain man finds Jesus’ example completely beyond him, and the need for the witness of the saint appears. Gazing on perfection in Jesus, sinful man is both abashed and abased. He hears the hammer strokes through the prayer of his Savior as they nail the suffering Son of God to the wood: “Father! …  Forgive them! … They know not what they do!”… and he knows he is looking on the holy and feels profane. Indeed, he feels the oneness of the human race and that his own fist swings the hammer which transfixes the hand that moved only to bless.

A voice awakens in his soul. “I could never be like that.  It is blasphemy to think it.  This is God and I am a sinner. I was conceived in sin, and the seed was tainted before I was conceived. I was shaped in iniquity, born into a wicked world, and I have drawn in sin with every breath. The whole mental and moral atmosphere of humanity is heavy with decay. And to this foul earth I belong, and within this body of death I am imprisoned, and I am ashamed even to lift my gaze to the One who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity.’”

By a strange contortion of the human mind the very perfection of our Lord’s example is used to excuse men from following it. His Person is extolled to explain the majesty of his pattern – and then pleaded to excuse human sin. God incarnate could live like that but not sinful man.  Need sinful man try? Need sinful man admit the obligation?

Sinful man is glad not to admit the obligation and praises the perfection of his Lord the more heartily now that he has excused himself to himself – and accepted the excuse!

Holiness is derived

So we come to the fourth step and see disclosed the great ministry of the saints. Their holiness is all derived. It is begotten in them of God – begotten in that very human nature which man in self-despair had recognized as hopeless and corrupt.

Look at the saints! Listen to the first martyr and his magnificent echo of Calvary: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge!” Pass in review the noble men and women of all ages who have “marked the footsteps that He trod” and come to sanctity.

God did this with tainted seed, shapen in iniquity, and begotten into a polluted world. Can anything be put beyond the power of the Holy Spirit? All the saints came of one diseased stock and some of them had brought forth fruit consonant with the stock from which they came. They had been open sinners, sensual, bestial and proud in it. They made a pagentry of their evil living. Like their precursors in the faith at Corinth, some of them had been fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, abusers of themselves, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, extortioners… but now they were washed and sanctified!

God did it! Now let the heart of man “deceitful above all things” and “desperately sick” deny the challenge of the saint’s example. If God could do this with men and women – and such men and women – might he not do something with me? Even me?

If those who had given hostages to evil, and trebled the carnality of nature by unholy indulgence, could be arrested, converted, washed and sanctified, is anyone beyond the reach of Christ’s redeeming and purifying power?

Augustine said:

To Carthage I came where a cauldron of unholy loves bubbled up all around me. I loved not as yet, yet I loved to love; and, with a hidden want, I abhorred myself that I wanted not. I searched about for something to love, in love with loving, and hating security, and a way not beset with snares…For this reason my soul was far from well, and, full of ulcers, it miserably cast itself forth, craving to be excited by contact with objects of sense…To love and to be loved was sweet to me, and all the more when I succeeded in enjoying the person I loved. I befouled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I dimmed its luster with the hell of lustfulness; and yet, foul and dishonorable as I was, I craved though and excess of vanity, to be thought elegant and urbane. I fell precipitately then…

And this was the man whom God made into a saint so mighty that he over-tops the ages, ranks as second figure in the great Evangelical Succession, and spreads the brightness of his sanctity through all the centuries since.

No branch of the church could exist without saints. Indeed, their presence is one proof that it is a true branch of the vine. Only God can make a saint. God, therefore, is in any branch of the church in which they grow. It would be a telling part of the answer of any Christians to those who would unchurch them, simply to say: “Look at our saints.” How the saint is defined, and whether or not precision in definition is possible, is a subject which must engage us later. Our present concern is only to stress the church’s need of saints. Not only is their presence in the church proof of God’s presence also, but a chief means in the education of those who come after.

The unmistakable homesickness of the soul

There is that in the soul of man which must respond to the highest in virtue. It may not respond at once. Human nature can easily be over-faced by examples too remote and austere. Moreover, human nature can easily deny God because the whole race has long been in rebellion against him. Yet there is that in human nature which calls out to the supreme examples of virtue: owns, as it were, the intention of God who made it, and feels the unmistakable homesickness of the soul.

And it is part of the service of the saints to awaken that homesickness of the soul in men and women.  It does not exhaust their service to our poor race. Taken in its wholeness, their service is many-faceted. They often bring a revival of religion. It was of revival that Lacordaire was thinking when he said: “O God, give us some saints.” All France went to Ars in the second quarter of the nineteenth century to see the most lowly-born and ill-instructed priest in the country because he was a saint. The church is revived by the power of the Holy Spirit through the saints.

The saints are the most convincing answer to atheism and agnosticism. They do not usually answer them philosophically. In some mystic way they make it impossible for others to live near them and disbelieve. In the mixed character of Voltaire – nobility and cynicism strangely blended – there was much mockery of religion.  But a contented atheist he could not be. Asked by a skeptical friend one day if he had ever met anyone like Jesus Christ, he lapsed into silence and then answered with awe-ful seriousness: “I once met Fletcher of Madeley.”

Nothing but an increase of saints will make the church powerful in the world. The Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life. As he comes to sanctify, so he comes in power. The world could not long ignore a holy church. The church is not despised because it is holy: it is despised because it is not holy enough. There is not enough difference between the people inside the church and those outside to be impressive. A church in which saints were as common as now they are rare would convict the world, if only by contrast. Sanctity cannot be ignored. Even a little bit is potent. So far from the gates of hell prevailing against it, it hammers on their triple steel.

The saints are the chief hope of reunion. They link loving hands while mere ecclesiastics eye each other with suspicion and moil for a formula. Deep calleth unto deep. All the saints belong to one communion. That truth is obscured now by church divisions but only in the Church Militant. When the saints meet at the throne in the Church Triumphant they meet with the ardor of love.

The Lord reflected in his servants

Holding up the saints before the people helps them in a dozen different ways. They see the Lord reflected in his servants. They see what God can do with human nature. The saints are not obstructions to Jesus but interpretations of him. Quoting Newman’s assertion, “and if Antichrist is like Christ, Christ, I suppose, is like Antichrist,” G.K. Chesterton says of St Francis of Assisi, “If St Francis was like Christ, Christ was to that extent like St Francis.” The overwhelming majesty of our Lord’s example is mediated through his servants and the impulse to deny the obligation to live by that pattern on the grounds of his Deity is thwarted.

“This you can be!” Unaware of it themselves, that is what the saints are saying all the time.

It would never occur to them to say it aloud. It is doubtful if they ever think it. One of the most gracious dispensations of God concerning his saints is their lovely unawareness of sanctity. The nearer they move to him, the more conscious are they of sin. If it were impossible at times not to note their own growth in grace, it were impossible also to forget that it was all by his power. If they could be persuaded to admit their progress and talk of it at all, the language of their heart would be this: “If God could do this in me, he could do it in anyone.”

More than that it would be unreasonable to ask of them.

[Excerpted from The Pure in Heart, A Study on Christian Sanctity, by W.E. Sangster (1900-1960), The Epworth Press, London, Great Britain, 1954.]

Top image of a man carrying a cross in a sunset landscape, from, © by  rghenry, stock photo ID: 88983740

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