Saints have flagellated themselves to death. They have lived on top of pillars and walled themselves up in tiny dank cells. They have denounced the Jews, levitated without visible means of support, indulged in sexual excess and wandered the desert. Naked. Nowadays their behaviour would immediately excite the social services, who would hasten to protect them from themselves and from the cults that engulf them. Instead of being revered, they would be more likely to be sectioned. Or maybe offered counselling.
Numbered among them are self-effacing spinsters, also known as virgins. There are soldiers, preachers and, especially, martyrs. Lawrence, for example, was barbecued to death by the Romans for his beliefs. After a while, he said, (allegedly): "You can turn me over now. I'm done on that side."
Elsewhere in the Empire, Adrian (himself a Roman soldier) was so impressed by his Christian captives that he joined them in prison. His wife Natalie shaved her head in order to disguise her sex and so visit him there. When his legs were cut off, Natalie prayed that his hands be cut off too, so that he might be even more saintly. After his eventual death, she kept one hand as a souvenir or, to use the technical term, a relic.
Besides being persecuted by the Romans, saints have suffered at the hands of Goths, Saracens, Nazis and Communists. Others have lived exemplary lives of holiness, either usefully in the world or in splendid and possibly futile isolation. In every case, their martyrdom, sacrifice or service has deemed them worthy of respect and honour.
In Christian teaching, they are not merely historical figures. Indeed, so one official line goes, the saints are with us, everywhere. Whether we like it or not, they are watching over us, praying for us and protecting us. We are especially in the care of our patron saint (the saint on whose day we were born), and also of those saints who care for our ethnic origin, our trade or profession, our homeland and any illness or affliction from which we may suffer - not to mention the saint after whom we are named. Sadly for those of us named Wayne, Tracey or Shane, there are as yet no protector saints of these names.
So, for example, if you were born on June 28, your patron saint is Irenaeus of Lyons, a native of Asia Minor who later became a bishop in the French town of Lyons. He was known for his writing against Gnosticism, his arguments against which were based on the writings of Saint John.
Besides his festival and your "name day", you might also observe the festival of the saint devoted to your particular job. So, if you are a teacher, you will mark the days of Catherine of Alexandria or Gregory the Great (sadly not to be confused with Gregory the Wonder Worker, the patron saint of forgotten or lost causes and of floods). If you're, say, Welsh, then you will also observe St David's day. Other aspects of life involve other saints. Being prone to chilblains, for instance, will ensure the care of Basillissa, a nine-year-old girl who suffered "scourges, fire and the beasts" at the hands of the Roman Emperor Diocletian.
This concept of a saint as a heavenly guardian is one that developed in the early centuries of Christianity. The word itself comes from the Latin sanctus, which means "holy". Originally, it was applied to any person or thing set aside for a sacred purpose. It did not imply high moral quality as it does now. For example, St Paul in his letters refers to the "saints" at Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae. By this term, he means all the committed members of the Christian communities in those cities. For some Christians today, that is still the first meaning of the term: the "believers", living and dead.
In the early years of the Church, saints became synonymous with martyrs; those who had "died in the Lord". By the 4th century, it had been extended to include confessors (those who had suffered but not died for their faith) and virgins - on the grounds that a life of sacrifice might equal one involving martyrdom. By the middle of the next century, the word was being used as we know it, in the singular as a posthumous title of honour.
Devotion to such individual saints has often verged on worship - something strictly against the teachings of Christianity which, of course, teaches that all worship is due to God alone. The official explanation (or excuse) for saintly veneration is that the saint is merely being honoured or imitated. However, the Church also explains, prayers and help may be sought from a saint on the grounds that they are close to God. Just as you might ask a friend to pray for you, so you might ask a friendly saint in heaven the same blessing.
But what puts you in that heavenly position? What, apart from martyrdom or a life spent performing miracles, determines who becomes a saint?
The answer seems simple: holiness. But little is simple in the world of hagiography (hagios being the Greek equivalent of sanctus). By no means every saint was perfect. The 4th-century bishop John Chrysostom, who could never be described as a tolerant feminist, believed women to be infinitely more wicked than men and once described them as "a necessary evil". He didn't like the Jews either, more than once proclaiming: "I hate the Jews."
For such remarks and for his persuasive preaching, he was given his nickname ("Chrysostom" is Greek for "golden mouth") - and made a saint.
Another saint, Mary the Egyptian, started life as the daughter of a rich family before running away to Alexandria and becoming a prostitute. When trade took her to Jerusalem, she became religious and took to wandering around the desert, giving up everything including clothing. So are saints simply sinners who kept on trying: trying to be good, trying to do what they believed God wanted them to do? Well, yes, but that can provoke a thunderous Roman Catholic response: "What about Mary, mother of Jesus? She was without sin."
The official definition is that a saint is someone to whom God has given a special gift. It might be the gift of loving God; of healing or teaching; it might be the gift of bravery or patience; the gift of wisdom or of being able to love the friendless or needy. The official term for this gift is "grace".
So who has the gift of grace and should become known as a saint? Not even that is simple.
During the first millennium (apart from key New Testament figures who were widely revered), there were different saints in different countries. This resulted from local congregations telling their own stories about Christians they had known and respected. These much-loved Christians became known as "saints" in each district.
As the veneration of some saints spread beyond their home territory, the papal hierarchy began to interest itself in the subject. Eventually the term "canonisation" was born: the process by which the pope declares a dead person to have entered heaven and to be worthy of veneration. The first such canonisation was in 993. By 1170, nobody was being named a saint without papal authority. The process usually takes some time - one of the longest being the case of Joan of Arc, whose manly ways delayed her acceptance as a saint by the Church until 1920, almost 500 years after she first heard her voices.
In the Eastern (or Orthodox) Church, saints still "emerge" by local esteem, the canonisation itself being formally pronounced by the bishop of that area. Strict Protestants, on the other hand, have always rejected the cult of saints as either popish, heretical or simply "non-scriptural" - on the grounds that nowhere in the New Testament is there any direct instruction to venerate the departed.
Meanwhile, as in so many matters, the Anglican Church attempts a delicate balancing act, rejecting both the exuberance of Catholicism and the denial of the Protestant churches. This resulted in provision being made in the traditional 1662 Book of Common Prayer for the observance of the gospel saints (for example, the 11 faithful disciples) and other heroes of the New Testament such as Paul and the first martyr, Stephen.
In recent years, it has expanded its calendar of those who may be "commemorated". First, in its 1980 Alternative Service Book, it embraced many of the martyrs and confessors of the early Church along with specifically British characters such as St Chad of Lichfield, the social reformer William Wilberforce and, more ecumenically, John and Charles Wesley. Its latest service book, Common Worship, further extends the list by including some Orthodox saints, more women (including the nurses Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell) as well as figures from modern times, one of the most recent being Archbishop Luwum, who was martyred by Idi Amin in Uganda in 1977. As yet, no one has promoted Princess Diana to the venerable ranks of saints.
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic church purged its list in 1969 of some of the more colourful characters. Notably, out went Christopher and George. The story of Christopher does, after all, stretch the imagination.
This legend has it that one night a giant called Christopher was woken by a boy's voice. The child wanted to be carried across a nearby river, there and then. As the boy insisted, Christopher put him on his shoulders and started to wade through the swirling waters. Gradually, the child seemed to grow heavier. "It's as if I were carrying the whole world on my shoulders," said our helpful giant.
"No wonder," replied the child, "for I am Jesus who saved the world from sin by taking the weight of all the sins of the world upon me."
Despite his removal from the official list of Catholic saints, many people still consider Christopher to be the patron saint of travellers and (these days) of motorists. The prayer said before a journey, "Saint Christopher protect", is a relic of the medieval belief that if you see his image any morning, you will be protected all day from sudden death. He is still widely revered in the Eastern Church.
St George, as the newly found patron of English football supporters, has had an even more dubious history. Because the story of his defeat of the dragon and his rescue of a fair young maiden is, at best, suspect, his very existence has been called into question. However, in the year 495, the pope did name George among the saints of the church and his courage has always been highly regarded in the Eastern Church and in Palestine. When English soldiers were fighting there in the wars popularly called the Crusades, they adopted this probably mythological Turkish soldier as their protector and, in the year 1212, George became the unlikely patron saint of England. Far from being our exclusive property, he is also a patron saint of Portugal and (whisper it not to the footballing fraternity) of Germany.
By and large, sainthood is an exclusively Christian concept. Saints do not exist within the other world faiths although Sikhs give similar respect not only to the founder of their religion, Guru Nanak, but also to the other 11 gurus who followed him. However, like Protestants, they take as their continuing authority their holy scriptures. Shi'ite Muslims, who believe true authority belongs only to the Prophet and his household, give similar and equally special respect to the Imams. This use of that name refers not to the prayer leader who delivers a sermon at Friday prayers but to the early descendants of the Prophet. These Imams are held to be masum or free from error or sin and, in Iraq, their prayers are sought by Shi'ites seeking healing.
In neither case can these figures be precisely equated with Christian saints. However, the title "saint" is sometimes used in a Buddhist context, where it may be applied to any individual, properly known as bodhisattva, who leads a life of special virtue, benevolence and holiness.
Judaism and Islam do, however, share three particular "saints" with Christianity although they do not grant them that title. These are the three non-human, angelic saints, the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael.
Michael appeared to humans in Old Testament times, speaking with Abraham and appearing to Moses. The Jews regard him as their special protector (which partly explains his adoption as a trade mark for Marks and Spencer). In more recent times, Christians have thought of him as the protector of their Church and also as guardian of high places - hence the naming of outcrops called St Michael's Mount in England, France and Italy.
The chief messenger angel, Gabriel, famously announced to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus. He is also especially important to Muslims, who call him Gibrail and who believe he dictated their holy book, the Qur'an, to the prophet Muhammad. The Archangel Raphael has always been thought of as bringing healing to this world.
Despite the various lists and calendars, there is no such thing as a single, authoritative register of all those beings, human and angelic, who have been named as saints. The approved Roman list contains some 4,500 names and it is far from complete. The continuing appeal of this diverse assembly may be dismissed as superstition, a phenomenon on a par with astrology. The true explanation of their appeal probably lies in the fact that, the angels and maybe Mary apart, they are demonstrably human in their weaknesses. Nevertheless, they have (in religious jargon) been promoted to glory, from which position they are ideally placed to act as reassuring guardians, protectors and, possibly, role models.
For the comprehensive, "official" Catholic account of any saint, the Catholic Encyclopaedia can be consulted at www.newadvent.orgcathen A somewhat more selective series of biographies is provided by the Catholic Information Network at www.cin.orgsaints
The Anglican Church's calendar is available at www.cofe.epinet.co.ukcommonworshipcalendarcalendarfront
One of the best British-based sources of information on Orthodox saints is provided by the St George Orthodox Information Service, The White House, Mettingham, Bungay, Suffolk NR35 1TP.
For resources on Orthodox saints relevant to key stages 3 and 4, try www.antiochian-orthodox.co.uk The Lion Treasury of Saints by David Self will be published by Lion next January
St Rose of Lima (1586 to 1617)
As her cheeks were so pink, they called her Rose. Her full name was Isabel De Flores Y Del Oliva and she was born in Lima in Peru. Hating her worldly beauty, Rose rubbed her face with pepper until it was blistered and wore a crown of rose thorns, pushed down hard on her scalp. She was made a saint in 1671, the first native American to be canonised.
St Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774 to 1821)
Widowed after just nine years of marriage in 1803, Elizabeth joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1805, moved to Baltimore and, in 1809, made her vows and became known as Mother Seton. She opened several day schools and, with other teachers, formed a community which became known as the Sisters of Charity. She was the first native-born citizen of the USA to be made a saint.
St Lucian Tapiedi (1921 to 1942)
He was born on the north coast of Papua. Lucian was taught at mission schools and then, in 1939, he entered a local teacher training college, qualifying in 1941. When the Japanese invaded in July 1942, Lucian stayed with a group of English missionaries. He was murdered by another local, in order to please the invaders. The remainder of the group died soon afterwards, six of them being beheaded by the Japanese.
Not only do people and countries have their own patron saints. So too do most trades and professions.
Sebastian (died circa 288) Tied to a stake (or tree) and used for archery practice by Roman soldiers.
Brewers Wenceslaus (907-929)
A Duke of Bohemia, famous for his mildness and murdered by his brother. The incidents in the Christmas carol are "a pious fiction".
Bus drivers Christopher Who may or may not have lived in the first half of the third century and who may or may not have been Spanish.
Comedians Vitus (died in 303) Associated with Sicily and his afflictions have lent his name to the nervous condition known as St Vitus Dance or chorea.
Florists Rose of Lima (1586-1617) Became a nun at the age of 20 and lived in her own garden shed.
Librarians Catherine of Alexandria (date unknown)
Was strapped by her would-be murderers to a spiked wheel, but it broke and the fragments blinded onlookers (hence catherine wheels) or Lawrence whose death on a barbecue occurred in 258.
Scientists and science students Albert the Great (1200-1280)
A misogynist German famous for wearing clogs who wrote books on theology, physics, metaphysics and ethics.
He gave up being a bishop because he thought he would be "more useful teaching in schools".
Mathematicians Hubert (died 727)
"An affable and shallow hanger-on at the court of King Pepin", who became a Christian while out hunting.
Musicians Cecilia (second or third century)
An upper-class Roman maiden, steamed to death in her own bathroom.