Saints As They Really Are

Voices of Holiness in Our Time

Michael Plekon

Winner, Third Place, 2013 Catholic Press Association Book Award for Spirituality/softcover

In his new book, Saints As They Really Are, priest and scholar Michael Plekon traces the spiritual journeys of several American Christians, using their memoirs and other writings. These “saints-in-the-making” show all their doubts and imperfections as they reflect on their search for God and their efforts to lead holy lives. They are gifted yet ordinary women and men trying to follow Christ within their flawed and broken humanity—“saints as they really are,” as Dorothy Day put it.

Saints As They Really Are is the third book in Plekon’s critically acclaimed series on saints and holiness in our time. He draws on the autobiographical work of Dorothy Day, Peter Berger, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor, among others, as well as from his own experiences as a Carmelite seminarian and brother. Plekon shares the power of these individuals’ stories as they unfold. The book offers a strong argument that our failings and weaknesses are not disqualifications to holiness. Plekon further confronts the institutional church and its relationship to individuals seeking God, focusing on some of the challenges to this search—the destructive potential of religion and religious institutions, as well as our personal tendencies to extremism, overwork, pious obsessions, and legalism. But he also underscores the healing qualities of faith and the spiritual life. Plekon’s insights will help readers better understand their own spiritual pilgrimages as they learn how others have dealt with the trials and joys of their path to everyday holiness.

Michael Plekon is a professor in the department of sociology/anthropology and the Program in Religion and Culture at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is also an ordained priest in the Orthodox Church in America. He is the author or editor of a number of books, including Hidden Holiness (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) and Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (University of Notre Dame Press, 2002).

“This is the third in a progression of books by Michael Plekon that have served to expand our understanding of saints and holiness. In this new book, he has taken yet a further step in relating holiness to ordinary or everyday life by showing the contours of grace, or the harmonics of holiness, revealed in the Christian journey of a number of contemporary Christian memoirists. He shows how the gospel story of death-resurrection is written in the journey of ordinary Christians.” — Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints

“In this profoundly engaging and moving book, Michael Plekon looks at a range of contemporary writers who have charted their own paths in ‘holy living’ in the context of a fast-changing church and world. He introduces us to the three-dimensional reality of some of those who have explored God’s ways with us in recent decades and distills a great deal of significant theological and spiritual wisdom. And, above all, he boldly argues that what he has been describing is seriously good news about the future of Christian discipleship in the supposedly secular North Atlantic world. This is a book to unsettle us and inspire us: that is, it is a Christian book.” — Archbishop Rowan Williams

“Actual saints, Michael Plekon reminds us, don’t come with ready-made halos. They struggle and fail just as we do, endure bitter disappointments, and are at times nailed to the cross by the church itself. One of Plekon’s main themes is the problem of dysfunctionality in religious institutions. Too often those entrusted to lead ‘poison our hunger for God, discourage our desire to serve God and the neighbor, even disorient our vision of human relationships.’ Even so, saints—few of them formally canonized—continue to arise, partly thanks to the church, partly despite it. Plekon’s book challenges the reader’s very idea of sanctity.” — Jim Forest, author of All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day


“This is the third in a series of books on holiness and the adventures of people of faith as they put their spirituality to work in a world badly in need of love and repair. . . . These contemporary saints live messy lives of imperfection but stretch their souls and ours with their exquisite writings.” — Spirituality and Practice

“The format of the book is like a triptych. Two wings recounting these encounters frame a mesmerising central section, by far the longest chapter, in which Plekon recounts his own education as a Carmelite, first at school, then seminary—but he left before ordination. His criticism of the order is sharp, yet constructive; and the spiritual journey is told in a detail that leaves an indelible impression. Even today, he retains many positives in assessing his spiritual formation for life.” — The Church Times

“The heartbeat of this wide-ranging study is Plekon’s unwavering commitment to self-examination over fear, a desire to lay bare the search for God in every season of human life, even, if not especially, the sinful and despairing. . . . Each of [Plekon’s] favored writers, in very distinctive ways, gives us permission to examine both the wheat and the chaff of our personal and ecclesial lives for signs of God’s mercy and grace.” — The Living Church

“The most interesting pages—and the reason I would recommend this study to anyone interested in how personal narratives reflect the divine at work—are those in which Plekon shares stories of his own religious disappointment and spiritual aspiration during his years in Carmelite formation as a younger man. This is the bulk of the book’s middle. Plekon tells his story with honesty and careful attention—and without regard for self-image. He’s learned much from the best-selling memoirists to whom he devotes so much space elsewhere in the book. He offers up religious ugliness as well as the good and the beautiful and hopes to learn from it all. He acknowledges again and again the essential dichotomy of our existence as spiritual people: being human, we are fallible, proud and selfish, and yet God is teaching us to be like God. That’s sainthood. Or holiness.” — Christian Century

“Plekon ultimately paints a rich portrait of what holiness is and could be for all the body of Christ in the 21st century. As he writes, “Sanctity is not a moral achievement but more like a seal, a stamp, being marked and set apart as God’s own.” The stamp stays on us whether we are laity or clergy, young or old, married or single, working or homemaking, resting or fighting, succeeding or failing. But being set apart does not mean being set alone. Plekon does well to remind us of Tertullian’s old adage: _ ‘Solus christianus, nullus christianus:_ There is no such thing as a solitary Christian.’ ” — BooksandCulture

“The third book in Father Michael Plekon’s critically acclaimed series, Saints As They Really Are explores the lives of Dorothy Day, Peter Berger, Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, and Barbara Brown Taylor, among others, using these American Christians’ memoirs and other writings to shine light on their pursuit of holiness even in the midst of their doubts and imperfections. The power of their stories offers a strong argument for the author’s contention that weaknesses and failings are not disqualifying factors for holiness.” — Liguorian

“Plekon’s Saints As They Really Are is a continuation of his writing on saints and holiness. The book also includes some autobiographical material from the author’s life as a Carmelite seminarian and brother and now as an Orthodox priest. He stresses that saints do not have to be super-holy or without failings in order to lead a good life.” — Catholic Missourian

“This engaging volume explores the practice of Christian holiness amid the hustle and bustle of the real world. Plekon argues that Eastern and Western churches often grant the ‘official’ title of saint to radical ascetics who forsake responsibilities to families, congregations, and secular professions to pursue holiness in places walled off from the world. . . . This is an engaging book on the search of God and the holy amid confusing complexity.” — Religious Studies Review