I’ll admit, sainthood freaks me out. I sometimes read the “Lives of the Saints” and wince through it. St. Augustine, rebellious in his youth and early adulthood, had a radical conversion (helped by the prayers of his mother, St. Monica, no doubt) and dedicated his life to study, writing, and deep prayer to the God he sought for in all the wrong places years prior. St. Francis of Assisi renounced all of his worldly possessions and a rich inheritance in order to live a life of austere poverty, preaching, prayer, and ministry to those whom the world viewed as gross & diseased. St. Ignatius of Loyola sacrificed a life of nobility, honor, and impressing women to take up the armor of God, living a life that sought to discern God’s will, and leading a company of men (known as the Society of Jesus) who sought to give the greatest glory at whatever cost. In more contemporary times, we have St. Therese of Lisieux, who entered the convent at a young age despite numerous obstacles, and who, when faced with physical frailty and realizing she could never do “great things” for Jesus, realized that she could give Him all she had and walk the life of holiness through the “Little Way”. Padre Pio spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with incredible devotion, and was the recipient of the stigmata, painful wounds in the hands which correspond with the wounds of Christ on the cross. And of course, we have the example of Mother Teresa, who ministered to the “untouchables” in Calcutta, opening hospitals and caring for the sick and most vulnerable, despite the incredible interior darkness and desolation she felt.
As I said, sainthood freaks me out. While it is comfortable for me to lob up a prayer to one of these saints and ask for their intercession to find a lost shoe or to do well on a test, it is not as comfortable for me to imitate their lives. If I am being honest, while I like the idea of being a saint, putting that idea in practice is another story. I sometimes wonder how the saints went to Confession and felt sorrow for their “little” sins when I screw up big time and can oftentimes justify my sins in my stubbornness of heart. Becoming a saint, for me, seems damn near-impossible.
I also look at this world with wary eyes and wonder how sainthood can really be achieved, when one can inflict violence on another simply by writing a crude comment on Facebook, or where lust has found a champion in the internet pornography culture. Greed, avarice, and envy are only a click away- I remember once following the Tumblr page, “Rich Kids of Instagram”, and marveled at how nice their lives must be when they can afford anything. Busy work schedules and our pleasure-first, prayer-second culture have resulted in a vast number of empty churches, and with each boring & uninspiring homily I hear, the temptation to hit the snooze button on Sunday mornings grows. “Sure”, I think, “sainthood is a great ideal, but that was back when life was easier and there were less distractions.” Ah, yes- the old nostalgic view of the past strikes again.
And yet, there is hope. As one Franciscan priest once told me in the confessional, the only difference between the saints & us is that the saints realized their need for radical dependence on God, and leaned on Him- while for many of us, we either don’t see/feel a need for God, or if we do, we tend to procrastinate asking for help as we sin to the tune of “I Did it My Way”. Thomas Merton, the famous monk and spiritual writer, once said that “To be a saint means to be myself”. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist philosopher, once wrote that “Purity of heart is to will the one thing”- the “one thing” of course being God. For me, the journey and example of the saints in heaven bring me back to one thought- that to become a saint is not something we do, but rather something we allow. Sainthood happens when we simply get the hell out of the way of God doing something new & exciting in our lives. Sainthood is us saying, “Okay, God, you know my strengths and my weaknesses. Use me for Your glory, and help me to love You and my neighbor- despite of myself.”
The thought that the saints were perfect is misleading. While, of course, there is a sense of repentance to their lives and “doing better”, we Catholics sometimes do a disservice to the saints by focusing solely on their victories and never their post-repentant failures, which, of course, were plenty. For example, I sometimes wonder if St. Augustine regretted leaving the pleasure-filled lifestyle of sex behind. I speculate whether St. Francis of Assisi ever lost his temper at his fellow brothers in Christ (hint: he did). I question if Mother Teresa ever sighed in frustration when a person she was ministering to smelt like a foul odor or was hard to work with. These musings are not meant to deconstruct the lives of these holy men and women, nor are they an attempt to de-mythologize their authentic Christian witness. But, of course, as humans, they were susceptible to daily temptation and did sin from time to time. The difference is that they relied on God during these moments, and when they did eventually slip, fall, or make a mistake, they turned to the merciful face of God, confessed their sins, and asked for His help to “do better”.
And so, how does one strive to be a saint in November 2016? Here are my three suggestions:
- Find a particular strength of yours, bless God and use it for Him.
Maybe you are a good listener to a particular friend, or maybe you have a desire to work with the homeless and those in need as the winter months approach. The examples are endless, but find your strength, and thank God for it. “Thank you, Lord, for giving me the ability to lend a listening ear to my friend.” Then, offer the gift back to God for His glory. “Lord, when I listen to my friend’s issues, help me to remind them of Your presence and to be a voice of compassion in their time of need.”
2. Identify your weakness & area for growth.
None of us are perfect, but we can only become better by identifying our areas where we fall short. It does our self-development no good when we do not admit our faults and stop rationalizing them. Perhaps we “sleep in” on Sundays because it’s our only day off, and we figure God understands and doesn’t really care. Maybe we have been using profanity lately and want to clean up our language. Maybe our hearts have been less pure than they should be, and we have succumbed to objectifying others for our own sexual pleasure. Whatever our faults and failings, admit them, and … realize who they affect. Our Sunday “sleeping in” and failure to attend mass spiritually starves us and is violating the 3rd Commandment- “Keep the Sabbath holy”. Looking at someone as a potential sexual conquest prevents us from seeing them as a child of God, and a brother or sister in Christ. This is why, when we pray the Confiteor at mass, we say “I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned”. Our sins do not simply affect us; their consequences extend to others as well.
3. Find a particular saint who is relevant to your life & your life mission.
Have a desire to work with schoolchildren? Read more about St. John the Baptist de La Salle. Do you want to become a successful journalist? Check out St. Francis de Sales. Are you an artist seeking to make a career out of your passion? Check out St. Catherine of Bologna. Similar to the Apple-trademarked phrase, “There’s an app saint for that.” When you find a particular saint relevant to your life and your needs, develop a spiritual friendship with him/her. Ask your chosen saint for their prayers daily. Read the story of her life. Talk to them throughout the day, and develop a devotion to them. God gave us saints as our spiritual friends, so that wherever we go in life, we are not alone in our desire to be a better person.
What would our current 2016 election campaigns look like if our presidential candidates followed these three guidelines? More importantly, what would we look like if we did the same? These past few months have been filled with hate-speech, vitriol, and anger. Fear and distrust dominate our political discourse. While I do not seek to explore the reasons why here, I do believe this- if we gave as little as five percent as much time and energy into our pursuit of holiness as we do into our obsessive following of the presidential candidates’ errors, then we would be a much different (and sanctified) society. If our presidential candidates are not trying to be saints, the least we can do is become them ourselves, and pray for the current state of our political arena.