We cannot concoct holiness on our own, decide what it looks like without examples, or try to become holy without other people. The goal is to be remade into God’s likeness, and we do so by imitating models of holiness.
When we read stories of holiness, we live vicariously through those stories, then we body them forth in our reality. The models become part of our imagination, our way of seeing how to live a holy life. For me, when I try to imagine how to be holy, I have a cloud of witnesses—from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima to Walker Percy’s Father Smith to Willa Cather’s Archbishop Latour to Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs.
You’ll notice in the novels that I have chosen to explore that these characters are not perfect; they are not goody-goodies, and their stories are not hagiographies. Rather, these figures exhibit the reality of our common sinfulness as they chase after holiness with greater and lesser diligence.
Some characters encounter saints along their journey and share the experience with the reader, that we may long for such sanctity. Others attain holiness at the end of their long, wayward lives. But none of these figures are satisfied with their self as it is; all of them desire holiness. It is the story of a life lived in longing for the holy that I most want to emulate.
In Dostoevsky’s last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, his rebellious nihilist Ivan Karamazov sets forth a convicting argument against God, complete with a host of newspaper accounts of suffering children as evidence against a good, omnipotent Creator and a narrative poem that illustrates Christ’s impotency.
How is Dostoevsky to defeat such a robust intellectual attack against God? He does so by recounting the life of a saint, his fictional Father Zosima, whose life was as full of sin and suffering as Ivan’s, yet who chooses love over winning the argument. His story bears fruit in the soul of his novice Alyosha, who has patiently listened to his brother’s account but finds his elder’s life more convicting.
So many questions cannot be answered in life, yet Dostoevsky’s story asks, Which life do you want to live? Do you want to imitate Ivan, whose world becomes smaller, narrower, more confused, and despairing as the novel continues? Or do you want to imitate Zosima, whose life freed others to cry out in gratitude at the beauty of the stars, to embrace and kiss the earth, and to shout “Hurrah!” at the hope of resurrection?
Worldviews, debates, and apologetics have their place in Christian faith. No one wants a church without the legacy of Thomas Aquinas or Karl Barth. But stories convert our desire for well-versed explanations. After we read Dostoevsky’s novel, we first hope to be like Zosima. Then we can think about why. When we read Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, we love Aslan before we ever analyze what the lion reveals about God.
In Dante’s Paradiso, the pilgrim witnesses a dance of two circling groups of saints in the realm of wisdom, the sphere of the sun. The rings are made up of 12 saints each, intensely bright, crossing one another in a circling dance.
One group represents those who reasoned through doctrines of the Trinity, the relationship between body and soul, and so on, epitomized by St. Dominic, a great doctor of church thought. The other group, whose prime example is St. Francis, loved through how they lived, with dramatized nativity scenes, stories of hermetic asceticism, and even the stigmata. In Dante’s description, these rings of saints flash
each other’s radiance like glass
each turning but in opposite career,
circling together as they cross and pass.
Not only do they reflect one another’s light, but each group tells the story of the other: Aquinas (who is Dominican) uplifts not his Dominican father but instead Francis, while Bonaventure (who is Franciscan) praises Dominic.
Their dance shows the reciprocal relationship between imagination and intellect, how these parts move with one another, not separately. Dante commands his reader three times at the start of canto 13 to “imagine” what he himself feigns to witness.
As a student of both Dominican and Franciscan education, Dante could portray both in his poem. Dante could not have penned this work of imagination without having studied both the disputations of Aquinas and the life of St. Francis. Because of Dante’s poem, I understand this relationship between intellect and imagination better than I might have through reason alone. When I consider the roles of these spheres, I imagine those bright dancing saints from Paradiso.
As we try to imagine a life of holiness, we need more than a definition, philosophical argument, or to-do list. We need an image. We need the stories that will compel us to follow the saints, that we might become saints ourselves.
When Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, was once seeking inspiration, she picked up two hagiographies and “closed them both with horror.” She records in her diary the sickening and false descriptions of the saints that she found and declares, “No wonder no one wants to be a saint. But we are called to be saints—we are the sons of God!”
Great fiction will not sugarcoat the internal work within the saint’s soul, her struggles, the grit and grime of everyday reality. When we are allowed to see through these saints’ eyes, we experience their desires and thus practice holiness alongside them.
Reading these literary accounts of sanctity provides an antidote to our preoccupation with our autonomous selves. We live through another’s eyes and experience their struggles and victories in following Jesus Christ.
We fill our hearts with stories of holy exemplars with whom we relate, love, and make friends: Flannery O’Connor’s crazy prophets, Eugene Vodolazkin’s holy fool in Laurus, Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, and Georges Bernanos’s faithful country priest. These stories of holiness may not be real in the empirical sense of the word, but they are more true than some of our knowledge of history or science. Their holiness attracts us and trains our imagination.
In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy, the priest prays for sinners but also for the publican and for the prodigal son from Jesus’s parables. These characters from Jesus’ stories have become invested with an unexplainable reality in the prayers of the church. So, too, have the saints whom I have met in novels. I pray I can learn from their faithfulness and live out such holiness in my own life, that my story of becoming a saint might be true.
This excerpt was taken from The Scandal of Holiness by Jessica Hooten Wilson, ©2022. Used with permission from Baker Books.