Orthodoxy. The Sanctity of the Church
Fr. Sergei Bulgakov
The Church is holy. This quality of the Church is self-evident. Should not the body of Christ be holy?
The sanctity of the Church is that of Christ Himself. The word of the Old Testament:
"Be ye holy, for I am holy"
is realized in the New by means of the Incarnation, which is the sanctification of the faithful in the Church. The sanctification of the Church, accomplished by the blood of Christ, has been realized by the Holy Spirit, which was poured into it at Pentecost, and lives for ever in the Church. The Church is the House of God, as our bodies are the temples of the Holy Ghost. Thus life in the Church is sanctity in both an active and a passive sense: in the fact of sanctification and our acceptance of it. Life in the Church is a supreme reality in which we participate and by means of which we become sanctified. Sanctity is the very being of the
"spirit of the Church."
It may even be said that the latter has no other characteristics. Life in God, deification, sanctity, are the evident marks of the spirit of the Church, its synonyms. The apostolic writings call Christians
"All the saints"
— such is the name habitually given to members of Christian communities (II Cor. 1:1;
Phil. 1:1, etc.).
Does this mean that those communities were particularly holy?
It is sufficient to remember Corinth. No, this term applies to the quality of life in the Church;
everyone sharing in that life is sanctified. And this is true not only for the time of the Apostles, but for all the existence of the Church, for Christ is one and unchangeable, as is the Holy Spirit.
This question of the sanctity of the Church was asked, and the Church gave the answer, at the time of the struggle against Montanism and Donatism. The relaxation of the discipline of penance caused such a reaction amongst the Montanists that they, in overweening pride, began to preach a new doctrine according to which the Church should be a society of perfect saints. In the same way the Church rejected the idea of the Donatists, which made the efficacy of the sacraments depend upon the moral value of its administrants, thus undermining faith in the sacraments themselves. Warring against Montanism and Novatianism, the Church defined the principle that its membership includes not only the good grain but also the tares. In other words it is composed of sinners to be saved:
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us"
(I John 1:18). In opposition to Donatism, the Church decided that sanctification is conferred in the sacrament by all ministers validly constituted, not by virtue of their personal sanctity, but by action of the Holy Spirit, living in the Church.
The Church is objectively holy by the power of the life divine, the sanctity of God, of the angels and of the saints in glory;
but it is holy also by the sanctity of its members who are now living and who are now being saved. Sanctity in its primary, objective meaning is
to the Church, it is its divine side. And this sanctity cannot be taken away nor diminished. This is
grace, in the precise meaning of the word. Above all, the Church is called holy with reference to the power of sanctification it possesses. The action of this power extends to the life of humanity fallen in sin;
the Light shineth in the darkness. Salvation is, fundamentally, a
process, in which light is separated from darkness and sin is vanquished. In attaining a certain quantitative degree, victory over sin accomplishes a qualitative change as well, as a result of which the sinner becomes just and holy.
There are always many saints in the Church, but often they are unknown to the world. But the sanctity of any man, however great, is never complete sinlessness. Perfect holiness belongs only to God;
in the light of that holiness, He
"finds faults, even in the angels"
(Job 4:18). Hence the criterion of absolute sanctity is not applicable to man, and concerning man, only relative holiness may be spoken of. This ideal of human, relative sanctity should be obligatory on all the members of the Church. But then it must be asked, what is the degree of sanctity below which members of the Church cannot descend?
This consideration is the basis of a certain discipline in the Church whose exigencies are binding upon all. Different epochs show a corresponding difference in the rigor of definition of these exigencies. The sects (ancient and modern Montanists)
wished to limit the number of members of the Church by establishing the most severe rules (absence of
"mortal sin"). The Church, on the other hand, applied a more indulgent discipline. The question of greater or less severity in discipline has, in itself, great importance. Whatever the solution, it is always essential that personal sinfulness should not forcibly separate a member from the Church and from its sanctity. In the works of Hermas, for example, we find this characteristic expression:
"To the saints who have sinned"
(Pastor, vis. 11:24). What is of decisive importance is not complete freedom from sin, but the road that leads toward it. The man whose sin separates him from the Church remains in union with the Church so long as he follows the way of salvation and receives the sanctifying grace.
Certain members of the Church are cut off by the sword of excommunication, especially in cases of dogmatic deviations. But the great mass of those who are being saved and who are neither white nor black, but grey, remain in the Church and share its sanctity. And faith in the
reality, of that sanctifying life justly allows the Church to call all its members holy:
"Holy things to holy people,"
proclaims the priest, while breaking the bread for the communion of the faithful. To oppose themselves, in the role of saints, to the Christian world fallen in sin, as the members of some sects claim to do, is phariseeism. No one knows the mysteries of the judgment of God, and it will be said to certain ones who prophesied and worked miracles in the name of the Lord:
"I never knew you"
(Matt. 7:23). When we speak of the sanctity of the Church, it is first of all the sanctity conferred by the Church;
the sanctity attained or realized by its members comes only after that. It is indubitable that sanctity, true divine holiness, does not exist outside the Church, and is conferred by it alone.
From this it may be inferred that sanctity is generally invisible and unknown and that, in consequence, the true Church is also invisible and unknown. But such a conclusion, accepted by Protestantism, would be false, because then the Church would be considered only as a
of saints, and not as a power objectively given, a power of sanctity and of divine life as the body of Christ. This life is given, although invisibly, still in visible forms, and in view of this given, sanctifying power the Church cannot be considered invisible. It is given to the conscience of the Church, not to personal but to collective conscience, to know the saints within it who have been pleasing unto God and who have won, in themselves, the victory over sin. The Church has knowledge of them in their life. After their death this knowledge becomes certain, and that is canonization. Doubtless, many things still remain unknown to humanity, and in this sense it is possible to speak of the unknown Church. The idea is expressed by the Church itself when it celebrates the feast of All Saints, that is, saints known or unknown. But this limitation of knowledge is not the same thing as the invisibility of the Church. From the holiness of the Church it follows that there are instances where certain of its members are glorified for their sanctity. A vivid example of this occurs when the Church canonizes a saint. There comes a time when the Church changes the character of the prayer which relates to a certain person. Instead of praying for the repose of his soul and for the pardon of his sins, instead of praying
him, the Church begins to address itself to him, asking his intercession for us before God by his prayers. He has no further need of our prayers. At the moment of the glorification of the saints, during the solemnity of their canonization, there is a decisive and solemn time when instead of the prayer
the glorified saint:
"Give rest, O Lord, to the soul of thy servant,"
there is heard, for the first time, a prayer addressed to the new saint:
"Holy Father, pray to God for us."
According to the belief of the Church, the relations of love with the saints already glorified by God are not interrupted by death. On the contrary the saints, in constant relation with us, pray for us and aid us in all our life. Certainly their life — a life of glory and of divine love — knows neither division or isolation. They are in mysterious relations of love with the glorified Church and with the earthly militant Church. This is the
communion of saints. It is not a communication of works
which idea is not recognized by the Orthodox Church;
it is loving aid and assistance, an intercession by prayer, a participation in the destiny of the world. The exact means by which this participation takes place remains veiled as one of the mysteries of the beyond. The Church believes that angels guard the world and human life and are the instruments of Providence, that the saints take part in the life of man on earth;
but this participation is hidden from mortal eyes.