Sainthood is something we should all strive for, especially during the season of Lent, when we are called to take especial care to purify our wills and align them with the divine will. According to the Catechism, all Christians ‘in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity’ (CCC: 2013), and according to our Lord, we are to become ‘perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Yet very few attain anywhere near this level of sanctity, and are far from being perfect in charity (which are essentially the same thing) – why is this?
Richard Baxter, the 17th Century English puritan theologian, surmised that the primary reason each one of us is not a saint, is because we do not wholly want to be one – our fundamental desires are for things other than the kingdom of God and its righteousness. The 20th Century Catholic writer Leon Bloy echoed this sentiment when he said that life holds only one genuine tragedy, and that is not to have become a saint. Wise words; and I think if we were each to look deep enough into our own souls, hard to argue with. Yet, I would suggest that there is possibly another dimension to this problem, and one that doesn’t contradict what Baxter and Bloy have said – I think a lot of people are put off the idea of sanctity, because the examples we have before us are daunting, if not slightly threatening.
Many of us have an idea that to be a saint one must be absolutely faultless – but to become perfect in charity, which is the essence of holiness, does not necessarily entail this. We hear snippets from the lives of the saints detailing extreme self-mortification or epic bouts of selflessness, and we can sometimes get the feeling that they are super-human, removed from the rest of us. But once one sets to actually reading some lives (or even synopses – Pope Benedict XVI’s Great Christian Thinkers is a good resource here) of the saints, both their humanity and the variety of personalities emerges very clearly:
‘The saint is the man or woman who gives himself, herself, to God heroically. And this giving, this loving self-offering to Him who is Holiness itself, is independent of such circumstances as occupation in life, social or other status, education, temperament, natural abilities or lack of them, The lives of the saints present a genuinely human variety of character and disposition…
…What St Bernard of Clairvaux said eight hundred years ago of a holy man’s relationship with his fellows is valid today, and it is an ideal which is open to all: he is “known to be good and charitable, living as a man amongst men, holding back nothing for himself but using his every gift for the common good; he looks on himself as every man’s debtor, alike to friend and foe, to the wise and the foolish. Such a one, being wholly humble, benefits all, is dear to God and man.”’
The Penguin Dictionary of Saints (1995), 3rd edition, pp.4-5, Penguin.
The words of Saint Bernard in the above passage bring us back to the words of the Catechism – the characteristic attributes of a saint that he describes are nothing more than ‘perfection in charity’ being acted out in daily life. All the saints share this one common factor – their love, of God and neighbour. How this love manifests itself is, as a comparison of their various biographies will show, bewildering in its diversity! Thus, we should not be intimidated by the idea of sainthood – learning more about the saints shows us that they were simply more responsive to the grace given them than others, and were likewise transformed to a greater degree. The way forward though, is the same for all – it is the way of love, and we are all called to it.
However, an important ‘disclaimer’ is needed here – nobody can make themselves a saint by sheer effort. The first step is to acknowledge that everything we receive, our whole existence, is a gift from God; and in recognising that all is grace, a constant outpouring of divine love, we can begin to love the source of that grace and let Him gradually supplant our love of self. This is something we can all do – cultivate a sense of gratitude (which, as Chesterton said, is the highest form of praise), and trust in the One from whom and in whom all things have their being. Once we thus place ourselves in His hands, who knows where and to what heights He might lead us?