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Words sometimes remind one of the great glacial bowlders of a New England farm. They persist unchanged after the civilizations, the institutions, the systems of thought that formed their original settings and gave them meaning, have disappeared like the glacial ice-flow of which the bowlder was once a part. The traditional idea of saint is strangely out of place in a democratic age. For the saint in the classic sense is a spiritual aristocrat and presupposes a society with fixed and fundamental class distinctions. A democracy of saints is unthinkable. Orthodox Protestantism emasculated the idea of the saint by making it theological. Liberal Protestantism threatens to give the deathblow to the idea of the saint by trying to democratize it. The mediaeval saint was a specialist with social functions as definite as those of king, knight, gildsman, butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker. He was the conserver of values, the chosen and professional representative on earth of the vita contemplativa that was to be consummated in paradise. The saint was the source of spiritual power and social reform, the special receptacle of divine wonder-working energy, le religieux par excellence of the community.
The saint's social significance was, therefore, early recognized. Gregory the Great began the custom of collecting and editing the stories of their lives. Men lingered lovingly and devoutly over the records of their miracles. The sweet abandon of their acts of caritas and their piety, now mystical and contemplative, now militant and heaven-storming, fascinated the Middle Ages. In the absence of the mediaeval setting which has given the term its characteristic meanings it has for us today mainly a historical significance. The term “saint” is not one that we apply to our heroes; it is not in harmony with our scientific naturalism or our militant industrialism. At most it describes the sentimental and mystical side of religion or is retained as a technical term of theology. But for the best part of the history of Christendom the term "saint" described the highest ideal, moral, spiritual, and social, of the age. Saintliness was the last word in the catalogue of virtues.
Social psychology has taught us to look upon ideals, as these find expression in the types of personality of any group or age, not as mysterious creations of supernatural forces but as products of the period concerned. In proportion as we have a definite group or a fixed social milieu we find emerging within that group or particular social setting a form of objective morality which consists of settled modes of behavior or moral criteria sanctioned by society as a whole. These are not to be identified with social institutions such as churches, law courts, schools, clubs, industrial organizations, and the like. We have in mind rather the habits of thought, the organizations of sentiments which find expression through these institutions and which to a very large extent have created them. These general types are the product of the larger forces of the age which we sometimes describe under the vague term of the Zeitgeist. In this broad sense it may be said that the Sophist of the Periclean age, the Stoic sage of several centuries later, the saint of early Christianity, and the monk of the Middle Ages were the outgrowths of their times. To understand the saint of the early Christian community we must remember that we are dealing with a small group, at first little more than a Jewish sect. To survive this group had to adjust itself not only to the immediate social situation in Judaism but also to the policies of Rome. It was only one of countless other rival sects in an age when religious syncretism was rife. Hence there is hardly a phase of early
Christian morality that we do not find paralleled in other religious communities.
Two things dominated the thought of the early Christian, the eschatological ideas derived from the Jews and the opposition to the morality of paganism. The combination of these two forces led to a curious distortion of moral values within the Christian group. It caused certain passive virtues to take precedence over the militant pagan virtues. The Christian lived always under the pressure of the idea of another moral order in which present values would be utterly changed. He was thus ever projecting himself with his possibilities for the development of personality into an invisible transcendental order which he felt might at any moment arrive. The unseen things alone were real and eternal. The attitude toward civic virtues and civic activities was therefore one of passive indifference. The Christian was not opposed to the state. It simply did not interest him because he saw in it no means for the furthering of his ideal. It was passively accepted as part of the status quo but it occupied a place on the periphery of his interests. His citizenship was in another kingdom, a conception that afterward received philosophical elaboration in Augustine's “City of God.” Property was justified only as a means for the support of life from day to day until the coming of the new order. At most it was an instrument for cultivating the grace of charity, which virtue however only had value with reference to citizenship in the coming kingdom. Likewise the family was looked upon as belonging more or less to an interims Ethik for in the divine consummation there would be neither marriage nor giving in marriage. Hence the element of Weltverneinung always present in the Christian ethic.
The traits of character which fitted in best with this higher spiritual order must necessarily be of the subjective or mystical type. Since the spiritual consummation was in the hands of God and the individual could in no wise hasten its coming his task was primarily one of cultivating the passive virtues that would best fit him for membership in that kingdom. Hence the emphasis of humility, childlikeness, patience, forgiveness, love. A fighting faith was utterly without justification under the circumstances