“There is only one tragedy in the end: not to have been a saint.” -Charles Péguy
There’s an absolutely gorgeous church in the downtown area of the city in which I live. As you walk in, your eyes are drawn upwards to these beautiful paintings of saints. Each is portrayed wearing the clothing they would have typically worn during their lifetimes. Some are doing the particular work that they carried out on earth. Others are kneeling before a radiant image of Jesus, holding palm branches.
The paintings are lovely but also initially seem similar to ones I’ve seen in other churches, so they don’t give me much pause at first. What really makes me stop and consider them more deeply, though, is the realization that each person pictured is a North American saint. These people poured out their lives in service to others in Canada, Mexico, or in the US itself. Sometimes I find myself thinking of the saints as if they’ve existed only long ago in far-off places around the world. These images remind me, though, that every era has had its saints, and that every person, no matter their backstory or past failings, can be a saint, because the Holy Spirit is always powerful enough to overcome our weaknesses and make our lives into something beautiful. Always. In the end, the effect of these paintings on me is this: I experience this burning desire to BE A SAINT!
2020, and so far 2021 as well, have been tumultuous years indeed. Like the rest of us, I’ve been trying to find the best ways to navigate the pandemic, the contentious election season, and what seems like a never-ending news cycle of sadness, outrage, accusation, sensational headlines, and dire predictions. I feel a deep desire to, as the popular quote attributed to Gandhi says, “be the change you wish to see in the world,” to be a force for good in these days that sorely need it. I also often feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and desirous of just burying my head in the sand, a kind of spiritual listlessness that the Church describes as sloth or acedia. (If you’ve been feeling this way, too, I really recommend reading up on what sloth & acedia are and how to combat them -check out here and here.)
How are these topics of sainthood and the craziness of our current day connected? Because becoming a saint -- in other words, engaging yourself in the work of getting to know God & following His will in your own life -- is precisely the remedy to our woes!
First, as each of us cooperates with the Holy Spirit in our own situations, we become more fulfilled and at peace. Since we’re acting in accord with our nature - namely, that we’re made in the image of God and made for an intimate relationship with Him - this “realignment” of ourselves to be in step with our Creator truly forms us into the people we were made to be and feels amazing.
Pursuing sanctity also puts us back in touch with our deepest identities, which I sense is an effect we’re much in need of during this time of pandemic. Before COVID, it was so easy to mistakenly equate our core identity, who we ARE, with whatever we’re involved with, or what we DO. For example, “I am smart.” “I am a basketball player.” “I am pretty.” The issue here is not that being smart or playing basketball or being pretty is bad; it’s that we’re saying that this thing is the deepest, truest definition of who we are. It’s so easy to slip into this mindset without even realizing it - until, that is, we do poorly on an exam or don’t make the team or our appearance changes. Then, we feel crushed, depressed, and lost. COVID has made this oh-so-common by cancelling so many of the activities and events by which we were defining ourselves. But maybe this reality is a (painful!) blessing from God, in the end. Now, we can see clearly that these things that we do are actually wonderful gifts God has given us.. but they’re not our identities. What is my identity, then, and what is yours? We are beloved sons & daughters of God the Father. He chose us before we ever chose Him. He desires that we choose Him back and develop a relationship with Him - NOT because we can do things for Him or because He needs us. He simply wants us with Him because He loves us, as any good father loves his child. Saints know their deepest identities because they allow themselves to be reminded of it often in prayer. This is a key element to their ineffable peace and joy in the face of even brutal suffering in the world. God has adopted us as His beloved children for all eternity, and He never goes back on His promises. There’s no more consoling truth than this.
But this fulfillment on an individual level is not all that God has in store for us when we choose sanctity. Pursuing holiness means that we also necessarily change the world for the better in a profound and lasting way. A speaker I once heard remarked on the difference between typical worldly celebrities and the saints. While celebrities, even great humanitarians, are often forgotten relatively soon after they die, “the saints are on holy cards on people’s fridges 800 YEARS after they die!” Changing the world for the better is not accomplished simply by political engagement or social media debates. A saint makes an incredible impact on those around him because he acts and speaks with the power of God, Who makes human wisdom pale in comparison. A saint is naturally attractive -- she radiates peace, joy, and self-confidence because the Light of Christ is in her, and it reaches out through her to others. And each of us are made to become saints.
Let’s use this new year to take seriously our call to sainthood. Use the prompts below to help you examine your own life and then reach out to Jesus, Who is always faithful to us, in prayer.
- Is there someone you know who, in your opinion, really radiates holiness? What is it about this person that makes him/her different from others? How do you feel when you spend time with this person? What actions or habits does this person have that you could incorporate into your life?
- Would someone looking at your life from the outside -- your habits, behavior, schedule, friends, activities, media, etc. -- know that you are a disciple of Jesus? In which areas of your life could you follow Him more closely? Make a concrete resolution that will help you do this.
- Dare to use some time today to dream. Who do you want to be? What do you want people to say about you at your funeral? Think/pray/journal about this. Now, developing those qualities that you’ve identified doesn’t just happen on its own. (For example, if you want to be known as someone who is a great friend, you have to work on being a great friend!) Identify some specific ways that you can make at least ONE of your qualities more of a reality in your life. (For example, if you want to be a great friend, you could work on being a better listener or focus on cutting out gossip.)
- Read Luke 15:1-7 (the Parable of the Lost Sheep) and/or Luke 15:11-32 (the Parable of the Prodigal Son). Do you feel like you’re more like “the 1 lost sheep”/the prodigal son, or are you more like “the 99 sheep”/the older brother? Or somewhere in between? Talk to God about why you feel this way. Ask Him to convince you even more completely of your deepest identity: a son or daughter who is truly known and loved.
- Do you have friends who share your faith who you truly trust? If not, how can you meet some? If you do, how can you help each other to grow spiritually? (Ideas: make a group text chat where you encourage each other and hold each other accountable to prayer/virtue goals; read a spiritual book together & discuss; volunteer together; pray for each other regularly.)
Picture is Blessed Chiara Luce Badano