Sainthood

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?

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4 thoughts on “Sainthood

  1. I was struck by something while reading this sentence: “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.” A couple of rapid fire thoughts came in succession – Nothing ventured nothing gained, no pain no gain, anything worth having is worth working for, if you work hard and make sacrifices then you can have (name your gadget, position, accolades).

    Having watched some of the Olympics, and having participated in a martial art in my younger years, it struck me that people will do all kinds of difficult and even daunting things in pursuit of a goal they think is worthwhile. What if all those Olympians devoted the same efforts to being saints?, and to your question, why don’t they (we) do that? I guess the answer is to be found in the understanding of the payoff – I mean we all, ultimately, pursue what we think is a good, even when we sin – it’s our disordered desires that cause us to choose the wrong things. Now, I’m not saying all Olympians are sinners because they chose Ice Dancing over Jesus. Well, maybe at some level I’m suggesting that… I’ll have to think about that for a bit.

    Anyway – clearly the risk/reward seems worth the time and energy risk vs the gold medal reward. But, being a saint always seems so dour. Or the reward seems to be so – final. As in, you get it when you die.

    It seems being a saint just doesn’t have the marketing campaign in place that allows it to compete as a viable life choice against all the other “goods” that we think we can have by working hard and making sacrifices.

    I think the saints would disagree. My guess is they would say, “the reward is now”. We just need better internal definitions of what matters. And of course, prayer and grace.

    • I completely agree, if I read you rightly in saying (and I’m taking the liberty of summarising everything you’ve just written above…) that we are put off striving to be saints because a.) the material goods of this world are more immediate and don’t require patience or trust in being able to receive them, and b.) we see our happiness as being in gratification of these immediate desires, and so the things of the world are much more attractive.

      I think the saints would disagree too – what they knew (and know) is that the true path to happiness is by losing your life that you may save it. They were open enough to God’s grace to let Him do the work in them to enable them to see with the eyes of faith, and know that we, paradoxically, only find ourselves and our true happiness in this relinquishment of self-satisfaction and obedience to Christ.

  2. I remember reading a wonderful little book that had recently been re-published by Fr. Paul O’Sullivan, “An Easy Way to Become a Saint”. The book is described as: “A very optimistic book showing how an “ordinary” Catholic can become a great saint without ever doing anything “extraordinary”–just by using the many opportunities for holiness that to most people lie hidden in each day.”
    http://www.amazon.com/Easy-Way-Become-Saint/dp/0895553988

    Wow, I thought, this is great… perhaps even I can do all this and please Our Blessed Lord by becoming a saint too!
    Well, I was pretty young then and far too big for my boots! 😉 What I wasn’t taking into account were my numerous faults that kept getting in the way. (How well Our Lord Jesus Christ knew the fickleness of His children when He said: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”!)

    Even so, I still think “The Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux is something everyone can do. No one is unable to become a saint if they put themselves entirely in God’s hands and allow Him to be their strength and holiness, using them as His instruments. We don’t need to be super-intelligent or talented to recognise our complete dependency on Our Loving God for everything that is good within us. It is ONLY God in us that can bring us to holiness. But He will not impose upon our Free Will; He leaves it up to us to open the doors of our hearts to His love. (And this will also mean accepting our own daily cross with humility and constancy.) Then, as St. Paul says: “It is not I that live, buy Christ Who lives in me.”

    • Thank you for the recommendation – I will look that up! I agree with you about Saint Therese’s ‘little way’, and have found it a most encouraging means myself. In fact, I see much common ground between her and Saint Francis de Sales (who I have found very helpful personally) in their respective approaches.

      Also, completely agree about what you have said here about sainthood in generally – I think people are put off the idea because they think it requires heroic acts of the will, i.e.; we still tend to think of it as something that is of our doing, not God’s. But the truth, as you say, is that it is only in the measure that we allow Him to be our strength that we can grow in holiness – I think it is this that all the saints saw, and what allowed them to go forward where others couldn’t.

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