“Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My
lord, you are the one who knows.”
He said to me,
“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress;
they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood
of the Lamb.”
Until this day a newly baptized person is given a white cloth symbolic of the white robe of baptismal purity. Since God’s Spirit called the Church at Pentecost, Christians are baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), with water in the name of and therefore by the power of God the Blessed Trinity, set free from the familial weakness and rebellion called original sin and given the Holy Spirit, the character of Christ, and the power of faith hope and love, washed in the cleansing blood of the Lamb of Calvary. The author of Revelation, the prophet John, was a Jew, who knew that before the sacrifice of the Messiah, for long centuries, in the morning and evening a lamb was sacrificed in the temple in expiation of the sins of Israel (Exodus 29:38-44), these daily sacrifices being the reiteration of the great salvific sacrifice of the Passover lamb.
The work of a lifetime for these white-robed saints will have included, as it does for us, exercising dominion over creation in a particular vocation, multiplying and filling the earth, the pursuit of our particular vocation. But it was just these tasks, good in themselves, rooted in the nature that God had made, that in the lives of those John saw had paled before the supernatural task of bringing the white robe given at baptism, by unfailing faith and the grace of the sacraments, unspotted into God’s presence when He had called them to Himself. The French poet Charles Péguy will ever be remembered for having written the obvious: “In the end life holds only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” For those whom John saw, life had been a comedy in the classic meaning of that word, a story with a happy ending, consummated in the marriage feast of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7).
In the text superscript the Prophet John describes God’s holy ones as those who have survived the time of great distress. It is characteristically human, especially in a society of abundance and safety, to think of the pursuit of holiness as a part of the good life, unfolding in untroubled fashion over seventy years among men and women of good will. But this has not been the experience of the saints. Perhaps when John wrote of a time of distress he may have had in mind the destruction of the temple and ruin of the Jewish homeland by the Roman general Titus in 70 AD or the persecution of Christians at Rome by the emperor Nero. Perhaps some who had endured such troubles were in exile with John on the island of Patmos near Ephesus. But these difficulties exemplify the words of Christ: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
There is no time that in the midst of certain hope that does not bring some distress to Christian life. At present, in the West, Christian profession brings no imminent fear of loss of life or loss of freedom, but this may change. Already Christians in Africa live in fear for their lives; in China opposition to the patriotic church brings swift punishment. A greater enemy of the Christian life than fear of the sword is the culture of affluence and comfort with which the West is surfeited. Add to this the confidence-destroying culture of relativism which denies the very possibility of truth.
In this moral climate, trouble inevitably comes to Christians. Despite the gifts given at baptism, the weakness of sin is done away, mitigated, and contained only through the long and persistent use of the sacraments, through discipline and patience. There is always the enemy within that must be defeated, those effects of fallen human nature, the moral undertow of previous defeats. those predispositions and circumstances that entice, those sins that in the words of Hebrews cling so closely that they make the race difficult (12:1).
And there is always the enemy without, for the very world that God loves, is infected with the evil that as long as time endures springs from the enmity of Satan and his rebel angels.. To strive for holiness is to engage the attention of Satan, who bedevils those whose life work it is to be pleasing to God. To seek holiness, to dare to be given to God, is, as is said in the liturgy of baptism, to repudiate Satan and his works. Be assured, he will notice your defection from what he considers his kingdom. He will surround you with a godless culture that makes devotion seem fanatical. He will arrange the disappointment of earthly hopes. Or perhaps he will give you a surfeit of the good things of this world so that you will imagine that you do not need God. There are many different demonic strategies for bringing the distress of the times to bear on those who aspire to the Christian life.
Perhaps the greatest danger is the quiet apostasy that comes from the death-inspired belief that the clever may successfully have a foot in both the kingdom of God and the world, forgetting that friendship with the world is enmity toward God (James 4:4). For ordinary Christians loyalty to one’s heaven-sent vocation does not mean wearing unusual clothing or making oneself a public nuisance in public every occasions but it does mean seeing one’s life as a consistent witness. The duty to bear witness is not obviated by its difficulty. Every Christian has a religious vocation. Feed your soul with prayer. Live a virtuous life in a corrupting world. Bear witness as a family. Keep Sunday holy. Have children. If it lies within your power, educate them to love God, which means outside the government system, which tends to alienate children from family and tradition.
And remember that immediately following Jesus’ warning that in this world His followers will have trouble there are these words: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Exactly what these encouraging words meant to Polycarp when the mob shouted for his death in 154 or to Thomas More when in 1535 he faced execution for defending the Church; how Christ’s words strengthened the resolve of Isaac Jogues as he was hacked to death by the Mohawks in 1646 or how these words comforted Elizabeth Ann Seton when in the 1830s her work was threatened by violent anti-Catholicism is part of their story, but we do know that when Christ sent His Spirit into this world His presence encouraged hearts and stiffened resolve to enable the saints of every age to survive times of great distress, and that not grudgingly. The Church has always remembered them. One can see in the list in the Roman rite the Church remembering: the glorious and ever-virgin Mary, the Blessed Apostles, Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogenus, John and Paul, Cosmos and Damian, and all the saints. Finally there were too many, so the Church gave up listing them in the Roman Canon and began to remember them day by day. And of course the known saints are one hopes a tiny fraction of those whose names are not known. Each of them made it through the stress of their time and now makes intercession for us in the presence of God.
These heroes we know, and thanks be to God for them. But it is also true that most saints, that great company whose names we do not know, are made saintly not through dramatic confrontation with the powers of the world but through the patience and fidelity they exercise in the face of the most obvious, and one fears often successful, stratagems of the Other Side: the nattering insistence that if God loved us, he would give us perfect peace now rather than the perfecting trials apart from which no one will see God. These trials are uniquely ours, in our time.
Dr. Patrick’s recent book The Making of the Christian Mind is
available from Amazon or St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN.