A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation.
On All Saints' Day it may be worthwhile to recall the difference between a hero and a saint. Samuel Wells writes the following in his intriguing book on Christian ethics and improvisation Improvisation: The Drama of Christan Ethics:
[Christians] are not called to be heroes. They are called to be saints. The word ”hero” does not appear in the New Testament. The word ”saint” occurs sixty-four times. What is the difference between a hero and a saint? Five difference present themselves.
To start with, there is a significant difference between the kind of story that is told about heroes and the kind of story that is-told about saints. The hero always make·a decisive intervention at a moment when things are looking like they could all go badly wrong. The hero steps up and makes everything tum out right. In other words, the hero is always at the center of the story. By contrast, the saint is not necessarily a crucial character. The saint may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten. The hero's story is always about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God.
Next comes the question of why the story is told. The hero's story is always told to celebrate the virtues of the hero. The hero's strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing: such are the qualities on which the hero's decisive intervention rests. By contrast the saints may well not have any great qualities. The saint may not be strong, brave, clever, or opportunistic. But the saint is faithful. The story of the hero is told to rejoice in valor. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith.
Third, there is what the story takes for granted. The definitive heroic icon is the soldier: who is prepared to risk death for the sake of a higher good. The noblest death is death in battle, for battle offers the greatest danger, thus requiring the greatest courage. The story assumes that in a world of limited resources, there is bound to be conflict at some stage so that good may prevail. But saints assume a very different story. They do not need to learn how to fight over competing goods, because Christ has fought for and secured the true good, and the goods that matter now are not limited or in short supply. Love, joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness - these do not rise or fall with the stock market. The saint's story does not presuppose scarcity; it does not require the perpetuation of violence. Whereas the icon of heroism is the soldier, the icon of sanctity is the martyr. The soldier faces death in battle; the martyr faces death by not going to battle. The soldier's heroism is its own reward: it makes sense in any language that respects nobility and aspires to greatness. The martyr's sanctity makes no sense unless rewarded by God: it has no place in any story except that of Christ's redeeming sacrifice and the martyr's heavenly crown.
Fourth, there is what happens when the story goes wrong. The hero is at the center of the story. It is the hero's decisive intervention that makes the story come out right. Without the hero all would be lost. So if the hero makes a mistake, if the hero bungles or exposes a serious flaw-it is a disaster, a catastrophe, probably fatal for the story and, if it is a big story, possibly pretty serious for life as we know it. By contrast, the saint expects to fail. If the saint's failures are honest ones, they merely highlight the wonder of God's greater victory. If the saint's failures are less admirable ones, they open out the cycle of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration that is what Christians call a new creation. A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows that light only comes through cracks, that beauty is as much (if not more) about restoration as about creation.
Finally, the hero stands alone against the world. The story of the hero shows how he or she stands out from the community by the excellence of his or her virtue, the decisiveness of his or her intervention, or their simple right to have his or her story told. The story of God tells how he expects a response from his disciples that they cannot give on their own: they depend not only on him but on one another for resources that can sustain faithful lives, and they discover that their dependence on one another is not a handicap but is central to their witness. Of those sixty-four references to saints in the New Testament, every one is in the plural. Saints are never alone. They assume, demand, require community-a special kind of community, the communion of saints. Heroes have learned to depend on themselves; saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith. The church is God's new language, and it speaks not of a country fit for heroes to live in but of a commonwealth of saints.
From Improvisation: The Drama of Christan Ethics (pp. 43-44)