The saints next door

Will Ross reflects on the times he’s met someone of deep and powerful holiness – and how it affected the rest of his life.

I want to tell you about three people. They are insignificant and unknown and yet they touched my life and left a profound impression upon it.

As you read about them, they made remind you of some similar people in your own life – because I am almost certain you will have met people just like them.

Who are these people? They are what Pope Francis refers to as ‘the saints next door.’ And it seems they are everywhere.

The first of my three was called Dennis. A former teacher, Dennis used to spend hours every Saturday afternoon in our parish church.

I would see him there alone, close to the sanctuary, sitting with his well-used Bible resting on his lap, quietly conversing with the Lord. It was all done very modestly, for Dennis never sought to draw attention to himself. He just wanted to be with the Lord.

I always had the impression that while his body was on earth, his heart was somewhere altogether different. Conversations I had with him later on amplified this belief.

The second was a man who crossed my path for just a few moments while I was visiting one of the college chapels in Oxford.

I do not know his name or anything at all about him. Except for one thing. He prayed. He prayed with a quiet intensity that was almost tangible – so palpable that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

I saw one or two others carefully looking toward him that day and I wondered if they, too, had some sense of this.

The third is a man I follow on social media. He writes about his approaching death – he has already exceeded the time the doctors suggested he had left.

The honesty of his writing transfixes those who read his words. In him, I see a man in whom the grace of God is very clearly at work, so that even as he nears his end, that grace is alive and active – and it is touching many others around him.

Pope Francis wrote about people such as these in 2018, in his beautiful Apostolic Exhortation ‘Gaudete et exsultate’ (Rejoice and be glad), subtitled ‘On The Call To Holiness In Today’s World’.

He pointed out to us that holiness has not gone anywhere, that the need to become holy is as pertinent, as necessary, as ever. The Holy Father said he wanted to ‘repropose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time’.

Now, you might be thinking, ‘well that counts me out – I’m not holy!’. Except that it doesn’t count out you, me or anyone else – we are all called ‘to be holy and blameless’, as St Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Ephesians.

We may have read accounts of the lives of the Saints and thought to ourselves they were holy from the moment they were born.

Yet for most of them, holiness came at the end, not at the beginning. Holiness is a path we walk – one filled with numerous little stepping stones along the way, each one an opportunity of sorts.

Holiness is a process of ‘becoming’ that which we are invited to be. The lives of those Saints we read about often contained great deeds, daring journeys, miracles, martyrdom.

While we may be called to something similar, it is more likely that our path to holiness will be much more mundane – we will find the stepping stones to authentic holiness amongst the pots and pans of the kitchen, in our dealings with our spouses and children and with those who most annoy us, in the charity we must extend even when it may be hardest to do so.

Holiness generally consists not of the big things, but of numerous and repeated little things, done well over and over. And there are as many paths to holiness as there are people.

I think these are the lessons the Holy Father is trying to impress upon us. If we do choose to accept that ‘universal call to holiness’, it will be difficult – but it will be possible, because God does not ask the impossible and He grants the grace we need to do as He asks of us.

Pope Francis reminded us that ‘holiness is the most attractive face of the Church’ – and I agree with him. Such holiness is, I think, what I perceived in the three people I mentioned – and it is perhaps what is present in any similar people you may be thinking of as you read this.

Authentic holiness can be hard to define, but it shines as brightly as fireflies hovering above a field at dusk, gently scattering their warming glow upon everything around them.

Will Ross recently retired after more than 30 years as a nurse in the NHS, the last 18 years as a specialist nurse for dementia. He enjoys writing and photography.

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