What do you call a man like Sir Edmund Hillary?
A whole host of adjectives have been scattered around his remains; “modest, determined, humorous” seem to come up with some frequency. So does the noun “hero”. And the Nepalese have described him as a “father” to them.
He provided something rather special; especially to New Zealanders. More than one commentary has talked about how he was some-one we could all look up to. He was the sort of person we’d like to think we could be ourselves. And the fact that he was one of us meant maybe it was possible. That, of course, is what a father should be; a hero.
Losing my own father earlier in life – I was just about 18 – I have been more aware of that role in my life through its absence. I have noticed the occasions when I have become attached to other men, usually older men, through admiration. I have been conscious of a sort of “Hero-father” need in me from that time. Until then, that role was filled admirably by my own dad. When he died, I found myself putting others in his place in small ways; a friend here, an older colleague there, a church leader or a college lecturer when they met the criteria. Admiration for these other men filled a need in me and gave me goals and virtues to strive for.
Sir Ed has done that for a nation. Despite wide-spread cynicism and sickly celebrity culture, he’s stayed imperturbably gruff, honest, and approachable. And his achievements are unquestionable, including outstanding peak moments of sheer guts and determination, and decades of the long slog of generosity in a real world, mostly hidden from the sight of TV cameras and newspaper commentators.
What do you call a man like Sir Ed?
I wonder about the word ‘Saint’?
I’m on sticky ground here for a couple of reasons.
The first is the whole protestant aversion to anything with a Roman Catholic flavour, and for a long time, saints have been in RC territory. A Roman Catholic saint has to have been an outstanding character during their life-time, and to have provided evidence of saintliness by virtue of their ability to perform miracles – especially after death. Hillary’s achievements are fantastic, but aren’t so far removed from the realm of human possibility as to qualify as evidence of divine favour.
Recently the word saint has come to be used in a more scriptural way; the word in the New Testament is hagios – ‘the Holy’. It seems to imply a select group of very religious people who have managed to get close to God by virtue of their outstanding, well, virtue. A more biblical understanding, however, is that holiness is never something we achieve ourselves. It’s something God gives us. A free gift. Nothing earned. So all those who have received the Holy Spirit of God get to be called ‘Saint’ – ie ‘holy; not because of anything we’ve done, but because of the Holy One in us.
Was Sir Ed a ‘Holy One’, a ‘saint’ in this sense?
Who knows? The man wasn’t one to regale the world at length about what made him tick; it’s one of the things we admire about him. All we can do is hope that the one who made him has more mercy than he’s often credited for, and the one who laboured so hard around his maker’s mountains has the common sense to recognise his maker! Doesn’t sound like too much to ask, does it?
If there’s one thing I do know about God, it is that he so often gives mercy priority over judgement. And is there any doubt that Sir Ed, human as he was, represented in himself so much of what we look to find in God? Somewhere in that man’s life there has existed for years a clear picture of ‘God’-ness, whether or not he knew it by that name.
We can’t know for sure – we just have to trust God’s mercy.
So I’m not going to call Sir Ed a “Saint” without a clear warrant to do so. He’d probably object anyway.
Let’s settle for what we can all agree on. He’s a hero. That’ll do me.