In the August/September issue of First Things , Matthew Milliner gave a delightful account of his visit to the Eastern Orthodox Monastery of St Anthony in Arizona’s Sonora Desert. At least, I quite enjoyed it—though, truth be told, I would have enjoyed it considerably more had it not included a brief exchange Milliner had with the monastery’s abbot:
“Is holiness possible outside the Orthodox Church?” I inquired. [The abbot] responded with tired eyes: “A measure of virtue perhaps, but holiness is not possible.” The Orthodoxy on offer at St. Anthony’s does not mince words.
No, apparently not. Jesus, of course, rather mysteriously asserted that the Holy Spirit goes wherever he will, so it’s good of the abbot to provide a clarification on this point: the Holy Spirit may go wherever he likes, it seems, so long as he confines himself to the right neighborhoods.
This is not, incidentally, the official teaching of the Orthodox Church (so few things are), and most Orthodox Christians would tend to regard it as the embarrassingly silly twaddle it is; but it is something that certain hardliners like to say. And, to be fair, I’ve heard something similar from one or two Tridentinist Catholics I’ve tripped over in a dark alley now and again.
Most of us know the rules here, of course: When some hoary-headed old mammal in monastic garb starts spouting nonsense of this sort, no matter how offensive we find it, we’re supposed to shrug patiently and smile a gently ironic smile, reminding ourselves that a dash of curmudgeonly sectarian insularity is frequently the inevitable concomitant of deep piety. But I don’t want to play along.
The wonderful thing about holiness, when you really encounter it, is that it testifies to itself. This is not to say one can never be deceived; it’s easy to mistake personal charisma for genuine grace, or to be misled by plausible charlatans—until, that is, one comes across the real thing, at a moment when one is open to it. Then one knows it for what it is: a quality of such lucid and incandescent simplicity and of such moral beauty that one feels simultaneously deeply happy in its presence and ashamed of one’s own failure to have realized it within oneself.
At any rate, I’m quite convinced I’ve met a small number of truly holy persons in my life. Some were indeed Orthodox; some were even Orthodox monks. Others were Christians of other communions. And still others were not Christians at all. And, if I were to try to say who the first person was who made me aware of what genuine sanctity is, I think I would have to point to a woman who probably never even set foot in an Orthodox church.
Her name was Mrs. Estelle Hayes, though in my childhood I only ever knew her as Aunt Susie, which was how my brothers spoke of her. She was a black woman who helped make ends meet by cleaning the homes of middle-class white people; having been born a little before the turn of the last century into the rigid caste system of segregated Maryland, she grew up without any opportunity for a more rewarding occupation than that.
The name Susie had displaced her proper name when she was still a baby. She had been born at the southern end of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where the whistles of the steam ships that sailed down the Chesapeake Bay from Havre de Grace and other ports were audible day and night. She had, it seems, a powerful set of lungs, and so her family started calling her after the ship with the loudest whistle of all, The Susie.
She entered my family’s life well before I was born, and by the time I came along she had largely departed from it, so my own contact with her was as fleeting as it was moving. She had helped my father’s mother keep house before my parents were married, and later began coming to help my mother once a week as well. She was still keeping things in order in the years when both my brothers were born, neither of whom ever had reason to suspect that she was not, in a strictly technical sense, one of their aunts.
I never met her husband, Al Hayes, who was a professional gardener among other things, but my father often described him to me as a fine gentleman with a great salt-and-pepper beard and impeccable sense in clothes (including a fondness for spats); and once I overheard my father remark that Mr. Hayes’s beard made him look a little like God. As I was about four at the time, I took this rather more literally than my father intended, no doubt, and for the next few years my mental picture of God was pretty firmly fixed as one of an older black man with a flowing white beard.
Aunt Susie had a strong and somewhat conservative personality, and a deeply generous nature; she was, most importantly, a fervent Christian who spoke of her faith with a great and convincing clarity. She had worked to earn registration as a practical nurse, and in the time she had free after cleaning houses and doing laundry she devoted herself to the care of others, visiting elderly shut-ins, preparing meals for the hungry, and generally bringing food and basic medical assistance to those most in need.
She was a physically strong woman, and seemingly indefatigable at the chores by which she earned her pay; but she was even more tireless at the end of the working day in performing works of Christian love. In her church, she was regarded as something of a saint.
There was something about her, moreover, that convinced one that her prayers were of a more powerful variety than most. When my parents lived in a house on a hill above Ellicott City in Howard County, my father used to pick her up from and then take her back to the streetcar in Catonsville just over the line in Baltimore County; and one evening, during a winter storm, the car went into a violent skid towards the tree line, and then just as suddenly straightened itself back into its lane before my father really had control of the wheel.
Over the rapid beating of his heart, my father politely inquired of Aunt Susie whether she had just been praying, to which she calmly replied that she had indeed, and that the Lord had taken over from there. Coming from her, it seemed simply a plain statement of fact.
In any event, that was all a little before my time. During my childhood, I heard a great deal about Aunt Susie, but I did not meet her until she came to dinner when I was about ten. I was deeply impressed by the warmth and forthrightness of her character, and naturally addressed her—as I had always heard was correct—as Aunt Susie. But, thereafter, I saw little of her.
My last encounter with her—one of the more indelible memories of my life—came a few years later, when she was dying in a somewhat dilapidated wing of the Women’s Hospital in Baltimore. We went to visit her in her room, and found her in her bed, lying on one side, much frailer and much smaller than she had been in previous years.
While we were there, a group of her parishioners from her church dropped in—to show their respect, dressed as though for services—and she insisted that we all pray together and join in some songs of praise. Since the charismatic movement had wafted through the icy halls of the Episcopal Church a few years before, my family actually knew the Pentecostal hymns that she wanted to hear, so we all joined hands around her and did as she asked.
It would be quite impossible for me to explain what the hour we spent there was like, or what effect it had on me. I can only say that Aunt Susie spoke about her love of Christ in a very clear and confident way, with a power that the weakness of her voice did nothing to diminish. From that day to this I have never heard another profession of Christian faith that seized me with such irresistible force. I am not a very emotional person, as it happens, but I was almost overwhelmed by the unutterable beauty that emanated from her.
Just as we were about to leave, Aunt Susie said that the Lord was telling her she would not see us again. We assured her that this was not so, and that we would be back before long, but she was quite certain that she was right, and so her last words to us had something of the quality of a valedictory blessing. And, of course, she was right; she died before we could make another visit to her bedside.
Anyway, I don’t really imagine I can convey what I would like to about her in a short column of this sort. I only want to make clear why I cannot listen to remarks of the sort made by the abbot of St Anthony’s with quite the seemly equanimity I probably should, and why I see them as being a little blasphemous.
To put the matter very simply, I am absolutely sure that Aunt Susie was a great woman, who probably did more good on many days of her life than most of us ever will really accomplish over the courses of our lives. But, more than that, I am convinced that she was genuinely a woman of resplendent sanctity, and one from whom the good abbot—had he had the good fortune to have known her—might have learned a very great deal indeed about what true holiness is.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.