Saint is a Christian concept. However, if we follow its various meanings from the Middle Ages to the present, we discover that it applies to faith traditions everywhere. There are, in other words, holy men and women in all faith traditions who conform to one or more of the meanings given to the concept of a saint. Anneke Mulder-Bakker has identified four meanings of saint-with different meanings being emphasized differently at different times in history.
In the Middle Ages, it was more common to experience certain objects, places, and persons as being intimately connected to the power and mystery of God, so that wearing a relic, kneeling in a Cathedral, or being in the presence of a holy person was, in effect, tapping into the great power in the universe that we collectively refer to as God. In the Middle Ages especially, saints had about themselves a numinous quality, and this was their main meaning. However, even today, one finds certain modern-day figures such as Gandhi and Mother Teresa evoking in others this same feeling of reverence and feeling of being in the presence of the divine. Since the Middle Ages, saints have also taken on the role and meaning of intercessor, especially for those who experience tremendous distance between themselves and God. In the Catholic Church, saints became specialists with regard to intercession-so that the faithful came to pray to St. Anthony to help them find lost articles or prevent shipwrecks and to St. Francis for the care of animals.
Saints, Mulder-Bakker reminds us, also serve occasionally as the logos for particular towns, communities, and geographic regions. For example, St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, and so ceremonies having to do with St. Patrick also have to do with being Irish.
However, in modern times, by far the most important meaning of being a saint is that of being a moral exemplar. Saints are good, extraordinarily good. Their goodness is so extraordinary as to be a mystery, a mystery explained, in part, as an expression of something essentially spiritual, not moral. This is how William James (1902) explained the saint's virtue and how present-day social scientists are beginning to explain moral exemplars.
James and present-day social scientists have found that for the moral exemplar, there often is a deep and abiding religious or spiritual faith underlying and sustaining the exemplar's extraordinarily virtuous way of life. For James, the saint is one who continuously feels himself or herself in touch with that unseen and benevolent power we refer to as God-and it is this constant experience of being connected that sustains a loving, compassionate, and just way of behaving, even in evil times. For the saint, then, faith and morality are not separate.
It is no wonder, then, that saints play a special role in the spiritual lives of many. They provide us with vivid, concrete models of who we should struggle to become. However, beyond struggling, we find in saints the comfort and hope that comes from realizing that there are those among us who have shown us humans who we really are-reflections of the sacred or divine.