When you review a book, you are supposed to summarize it, say what you liked about it, then offer some critical commentary. By those standards, this is about to be a terrible review. I have read Fr. Michael Plekon’s Hidden Holiness, and I am utterly, hopelessly in love! I wish I could stick to the formula and offer a level-headed response, but I am just too giddy.
Fr. Plekon is a priest and scholar, with an expertise the “Paris School” – a renaissance in Orthodox theology occurring in and among the emigres who were expelled from Russia after the triumph of the Bolsheviks. Plekon is especially interested in new criteria for saintliness for the modern world (see my summary of his presentation at the 2012 Sophia Institute Conference). For instance, he was a major advocate for the canonization of St. Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, a woman who ministered the poor, saved Jewish children from the Nazis, and was herself a martyr of the concentration camps. But she was also a controversial figure. She lived in the world and was an outspoken critic of pious religiosity, who could regularly be seen sharing a drink and a cigarette with her poet friends in Paris’ bars.
Most of the saints Fr. Plekon covers are like that. In other words, they are human! Utterly, gloriously, fallibly human! Hidden Holiness is not a book about spiritual heroes. It is a book about the power of God to work wonders in the ordinary. Plekon tells the stories of Olga Arsamquq Michael, the wife of an Orthodox priest who has become the subject of local veneration among the Yup’ik people, and of Paul Evdokimov, a scholar who preferred serving the poor of Paris to working in the academy (while still being a prolific writer). But, in a move that will surely earn the ire of traditionalists, Plekon includes names like Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton (plus a few Protestants) in the registry of the righteous. Plekon does put anybody on a pedestal. He places their sins and doubts next to their good works. Before reading this book, I had no idea that Mother Teresa felt abandoned by God for most of her ministry.
Plekon ties these stories together with his own reflections on the meaning of holiness, which is why I think he may include non-Orthodox Christians in this unofficial catalog of the saints. Of course this move also says something about his own ecclesiology. Some have suggestion that one way toward reunion of Christ’s divided church would be to recognize saints outside our own traditions.
Leaving aside the implications of formally canonizing someone like St. Francis, Orthodox Christians should not really have a problem with Plekon’s unofficial inclusion of non-Orthodox folks among the righteous. As a priest I know once told me (he may have been quoting someone else), “We know where the church is, but we do not know where the church isn’t.” We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses,” most of whom, the Orthodox Church teaches, are known only to God (Heb. 12:1). Holiness hides, and it is unpredictable! It resists molds and formulas. As Christ said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NKJV). God uses what we are, often in spite of who we are, which fills me with both humility and hope. It is humbling to remember that my spiritual labors (such as they are) are nothing without grace, but the good news of grace is that God uses many different kinds of people, none of them perfect, with spiritual warts, pious enemies, and personal doubts. We are all just clay pots (2 Cor. 4:7) – vessels of the Spirit of God – sometimes dirty and always fragile, but God can use us anyways.
Question: Which hidden saint do you think we all need to know?