What is the difference between a hero and a saint? I’m going to suggest five differences.
To start with, the hero steps up and makes everything turn out right. In other words, the hero is always at the centre of the story. By contrast, the saint may be almost invisible, quickly forgotten. The hero’s story is always about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is always really about God.
Next, the hero’s story is always told to celebrate the virtues of the hero. The hero’s strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing: these are the qualities on which the hero’s decisive intervention rests. By contrast 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 valour. The story of the saint is told to celebrate faith.
Third, the saints’ 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. The martyr’s sanctity makes no sense unless rewarded by God.
Fourth, if the hero makes a mistake, it is a disaster. By contrast the saint expects to fail. A hero fears failure, flees mistakes, and knows no repentance: the saint knows there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.
And finally, the hero stands alone against the world. The story of the hero shows how he or she stands out from their community. Yet of the 64 references to saints in the New Testament, every single one is in the plural. Saints are never alone. Heroes have learnt 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.
Revd Dr Sam Wells