From a recently published essay collection on Saints, a zinger of a quote from French Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion’s “Invisibility of the Saint” explores the contradictions inherent in claiming to possess or even recognize holiness:
Yet it is plain to see that, unlike in the matters of heroism or intelligence, [the conditions for recognizing these traits] cannot be satisﬁed in the case of holiness. There are three reasons for this. First, no one can claim to deﬁne the concept (or the meaning) of holiness without running the risk of the most obvious of idolatries. Indeed, when a group or a faction declares someone a saint, their deﬁnition is restricted to what this group or that faction (and thus their respective ideologies) imagine as holiness, that is to say, their particular fantasy of perfection. Regarding such a saint, the idol of the theater, one must say what Molière said of Tartuffe: “He is a saint only in your fantasies.” Even the highest virtues, when people raise them uncritically to an alleged holiness, are debased to the rank of fancies that are often more monstrous than shallow. And the most indisputable ﬁgures of higher spirituality often risk being devalued when they become the involuntary recipients of homage in assumed and ideologized sanctity.
Then, since all idolatry actually results in self-idolatry, this idolized sanctity immediately presupposes that those who assert and define it claim to know what holiness means, hence they claim to experience it and consequently to incarnate it themselves. Yet, by an obvious fact in no need of justification, we know perfectly well that no one can say “I am a saint” without total deception. Through a performative contradiction that is intuitively irrefutable, someone who lays claim to sanctity disproves it in him- or her-self. Why can’t holiness lay claim to itself? Not only because one [imperatively] does not want to fall into massive trap of pride in one’s own satisfaction and self-affirmation, which is involved, but above all because holiness is [indicatively, descriptively] unaware of itself…The false prophet, like the false saint, always stands out conspicuously by the fact that this affirmation [of holiness] may never be questioned.