About a week ago, Dustin Johnson won the US Open nearby at the Oakmont Country Club. It was close to miraculous that he made it at the last. On the fifth hole, his ball rolled a little bit backward. He told the official, and later on was told he might have to take a one-stroke penalty (which is a lot given this level of play).
The idea that he was given a penalty was, I thought, about the most extreme case of legalism I’ve seen in sport. How could a golf ball move like that? His club didn’t do it, because it moved backward. Some reporters suggest that it must have been the wind, or even the tight poa-grass blades springing back and forth. One columnist even said it must have been a ghost — I’m inclined to agree with him. In any case, Johnson should never have been penalized (and millions of fans are telling the PGA exactly that).
But the story has a happy ending. Johnson played beautifully, and so much so that his lead, established on probably the toughest back seven holes in golf anywhere in the world, extended far enough that the penalty shot didn’t matter.
He beat the legalism of the PGA by the beauty of his play. And that has a lot to say about salvation, beauty and the saints.
In popular thinking, “salvation” only means being saved from damnation, or hell.
But this is not the case. If that is all a person cares about — escape from damnation — then he or she will be disappointed.
Salvation is not later. It begins now. Salvation is not just escaping a bad end, but more importantly it is all about becoming a saint, just like the gathering of saints that we celebrate today on the Sunday after Pentecost.
We call this day “All Saints Sunday.” It is immediately after Pentecost because “saints” is exactly and only what the Holy Spirit does to humans who receive Him. We celebrate “All Saints” not only to remember the heroes and the heroines of the faith, and to thank them for their faithfulness. We also celebrate this day because “All Saints” tells us precisely where we need to end up. It is God’s Will — without a doubt — that we join with all the saints throughout time.
It is God’s Will that you and I become saints. Here and now. It is what the Spirit does.
So obviously, becoming a saint, starting now, goes far beyond an escape from hellfire. That will be no small deliverance, to be sure, but we confront death a lot sooner than the moment that we die. We confront death every day. We must, in every moment, move from the hell of sin to the peace of the Risen Christ.
This is why “becoming a saint” means much, much more than avoiding sin. Yes, to be sure, it is necessary to keep the Ten Commandments. We need to be honest, decent, sexually pure and chaste, loyal and faithful, hardworking, kind and generous, spiritual and pious.
But that is only the beginning of salvation.
Salvation is not just a matter of observing the law and fulfilling expectations. Salvation is the Holy Spirit gradually transforming you into something divine.
If we thought that salvation was only just following the rules, then we would be no better than the Pharisees. But the Lord, on one occasion, said that our “righteousness needs to exceed the Pharisees” (Matthew 5.20).
What does this mean? Obviously, it means to love, to forgive. It means letting go of old memories and old ways. We give charity generously and do not want any notice of our good works. Our church giving is not limited by the “tithe,” or ten percent. We Christians cannot hate anymore, cannot take revenge. The old tradition of “an eye for an eye” is strictly Old Testament stuff and has been rendered obsolete by the Cross. We cannot even be angry at human beings anymore.
That kind of lifestyle, or “ethic,” goes way, way beyond the Old Testament “righteousness of the Pharisees” and of all legalists.
But a “higher ethic,” or a “righteousness beyond,” really does not say enough about salvation, or the Holy Spirit’s work of making saints out of people like us.
A better word to describe salvation or “saintliness” is “beauty.” God’s “glory” is better understood as “beauty” as it exists in His creation. The process of people becoming saints is called “sanctification” (as protestants like to call it), or better, “theosis” or “deification.”
I like to call this process “beautification.”
The Holy Spirit is, essentially, the “Beautifier.”
A saint, then, is the most beautiful achievement of the Holy Trinity in all of Creation.
And part of the saint’s beauty, in turn, is that saints themselves, as agents of the Beautifier, cannot help but beautify everything around them. Saints, too, engage in “beautification” -- they, too, become “beautifiers.”
We see this today, especially in Orthodox saints. For example, when I visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, the “beauty of holiness” is obvious. The flowers bloom brightly. Everything is neat. All of nature seems to bloom there, and makes the air seem to glow.
The West reveres St Francis of Assisi and marvels at his connection with animals and plants, and the natural environment around him. But in Eastern Orthodoxy, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of such saints -- many of them live today at Mt Athos and other holy places.
This is not science fiction or exaggeration. This is real. Many, many have witnessed this, even coldly-objective scientists who do not want to believe have seen holy monks (like St Tikhon) embrace enormous brown bears, or holy nuns (like Mother Mary of Egypt) befriend ferocious lions, or holy ones on Athos today emerge from their huts to an awaiting crowd of squirrels, rabbits, little birds -- all of whom seem to recognize the restoration of Adam.
We make the mistake of thinking that the Uncreated Light of Transfiguration is like some sort of unearthly laser-beam or nuclear-flash kind of light that you see frequently in science fiction movies.
No, it is not.
Holiness is not revealed in spectacular, apocalyptic explosions or dramatic, ecstatic events.
It is revealed best in peace and beauty: the world might get bored -- but we are enthralled by the Light of silence.
The beauty of holiness is shown by the Holy Spirit -- in His project of beautification of you and me -- both inside and out. Inside, there is a growing peace and contentment as we grow older. There is a growing confidence in what we believe. There is love, hope, patience and forgiveness. There is maturity.
On the outside, there is organization, self-discipline, cleanliness, charity and service. There is quietness and meekness, solitude and helpful, encouraging speech.
It is obvious to everyone at St John’s (and all of Pittsburgh) that I haven’t a hope this side of Paradise to come close to the skill of Dustin Johnson. But despite my distance from his performance, I admire the wonderful skill of his drive, his chip shots and his putting on the green. I love the gorgeous splendor of the links at Oakmont.
So also do I love the beauty of our saints. I see them, hear them and pray to them as agents of beauty, artists of peace, announcers of joy, vessels of the Holy Spirit of Christ.
They give me hope in their friendship with me as I believe, pray and love.
And, unlike Dustin’s skill in golf, the saintliness of saints, the beauty of holiness, is something that I -- and you -- can do:
“I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13).
Come on. Let’s become beautiful together.
More importantly, let's beautify, in this legalistic world.