A few years ago I read a series of books about a character whose name was Odd Thomas. “Thomas” was his surname and “Odd” his first name, not meant as an adjective, but as the actual name on his birth certificate.* If one stayed the course by reading all the books in the series, it was obvious that this main character was aptly named. He was odd in the sense that while he seemed like a regular guy in many respects, he was different from most other people. He was not odd in a pejorative way, but rather, because he possessed a completely innocent and pure heart; he was compassionate, sensitive, and completely unselfish, a masterfully written adult character displaying amazingly little ego. Not naïve, though innocent, Odd was actually quite intelligent, becoming heroic by stepping in when few others would or could. He also had some strange gifts, such as the ability to see dead people as well as to talk with them, and he could see evil in whatever form it arose. If that sounds ridiculous or beyond belief, think again. Throughout the ages there have been many real flesh and blood people who have possessed some if not all of those talents. We call them Saints. If we truly step back and look at a few of the men and women who we deem holy, considering the gifts they received from God as well as the heroic, holy qualities they nurtured through prayer and self-sacrifice, you will see that they were odd in their own right. Therefore it is fitting to celebrate those holy ones, praying that we, too, would learn to become odd.
If we read good hagiographies, that is, biographies of Saints that are scholarly written and not overly embellished or exaggerated, we will find that the men and women who fell in love with Jesus and lived motivated by that love, heroically serving Him by serving others, often suffered because of people who did not understand them. Some did possess what might be seen as supernatural gifts, but most were simply people who lived the gospel as closely as possible given their personalities and the circumstances of their lives. Every one of the Saints was unique, and the diversity in their ranks offers us many examples of how to be holy. But what they all did was to allow themselves to become different, to grow into their gifts, while not conforming to the world. Being this way meant they were a bit odd in comparison to the rest. (‘Odd’ will be used throughout to mean ‘being outside the norm’.)
Take for example St. Bernadette Soubirous, (1844-79). She is among a small group of people throughout Christian history who have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary. Like all of the others who came before and after, she was ridiculed, humiliated, discredited, and ostracized for sharing the messages that were given to her and for claiming to have seen an apparition. Bernadette did not seek to see Mary or to have any kind of miraculous visions. She was not stupid, something often misrepresented in descriptions of her. Rather, she was an under-educated child from a family so poor that they lived in a tiny, one room, former jail that was abandoned because it was considered too nasty to keep criminals there. As it happened, she was with her sister and cousin one day, gathering firewood from near the river in Lourdes, when she saw a beautiful lady who indicated that Bernadette was to pray along with her. She prayed a Rosary with this lady, never asking exactly who she was. One of the other little girls told Bernadette’s mother, and who knows who else, what Bernadette confided to them about seeing the indescribably beautiful woman high up in the grotto area. From that point onward, Bernadette suffered greatly at the hands of everyone, from her own family to government and Church interrogators, all of whom disbelieved and discredited her. It was not until she had many other visits from Mary that the evidence was enough to change some hearts. In fact, when her pastor asked her to find out who the woman was, young Bernadette did not even understand the reply she delivered to him: Mary had told her that she was the Immaculate Conception, a term Bernadette had never heard before and did not understand even after the pastor tried to explain it to her. But from the time she saw something no one else could see, and from the time she delivered the messages given by the Beautiful Lady, Bernadette was deemed odd. Even after she entered a convent in Nevers until her death about a dozen years later, her own religious sisters treated her with suspicion, as if she was nothing but an attention seeker.
Other examples of very holy people who were odd in the sense that they possessed unusual spiritual gifts are Saints Benedict of Nursia, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, John Vianney, Joan of Arc, and others who we look to as mainstays in our panoply of Saints. Earlier I mentioned that the fictional character Odd Thomas could see evil “entities.” This was also an issue for St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, (1887-1968). He entered the Franciscans as a young man, already having had some mystical experiences of Jesus and Mary. Not only did he bear the wounds of Christ, (the stigmata), which caused great pain for fifty years, he could read hearts, knew things that were impossible for him to have known, talked with his guardian angel regularly, wrote in languages he was never taught, bi-located, and was said to have healed a few people. But what made him most ‘odd’ is that he had nightly battles with the devil during much of his priestly ministry. His sanity was tested, his stigmata were investigated, and his own religious order censured him based on the jealousy of another Franciscan in a high office with a well-placed lie. As a result, he was forbidden to hear confessions (his greatest gift), and was banned from saying Mass publicly for a number of years. In all this, he acquiesced obediently, even though he suffered greatly. Though he was eventually reinstated to all his ministries, none of this ever stopped him from continuing to do good works or living a holy life.
Some of the behaviors of the Saints might be difficult to understand, but then again, Jesus suffered from that same problem: His followers were challenged to comprehend what He was teaching and modeling. The truth is that it takes prayer and discernment, study and practice, to begin to see and hear the things of God for what they are. Most often we need to allow our faith to guide us, because frankly, the ways of God are far above our ways. To understand the holy we need to immerse ourselves in it, and to do that we must go beyond reading about holy people; we must try to become odd in our own right. That means that we need to seek holiness by committing ourselves to the process of coming to know Jesus intimately. To be holy, we need to stand against the culture which values self and grabbing for pleasure and goods rather than reaching out to others and sharing the wealth. To be holy, we need to put God first in all we do. We must allow God to reveal to us who we are and where our deficiencies lie; we need to let Him teach us humility, how to use our gifts, and that to be a loved sinner, (which is who we are), is the greatest gift in Heaven or on Earth. It means accepting that which we do not understand and it requires accepting that we may suffer for choosing to be different. Jesus said "no servant is greater than his master" (John 13:16) and therefore if people did not understand Him, we can also expect to be misunderstood.
The world needs more odd people; that is, the world needs holiness to transform it. We are continually being invited by Jesus to follow Him more closely and to continue the work needed to that end. The good news is that the Saints were (are) very diverse people, able to meet the needs of their particular time and circumstances, particular to their individual call. Therefore, we do not have to display supernatural gifts to be a Saint. We do not have to change who we are, but rather we need to change how we love. To be holy, is indeed to be different. While holiness is our universal call given us at Baptism, and it is something attainable by all, few seem to accept the challenge. But if we want to know joy, and if we want to know Jesus better and to truly fall in love with Him, we need to embrace His invitation to bring holiness into a world which is in need of generosity, mercy, forgiveness, justice, truth, and heroic love. How we do it will be unique to each of us, as each will respond with different gifts on different paths. Let us celebrate and embrace holy oddness, responding to the need by responding to Jesus.
May we embrace the challenge to be different, which means to live the gospel to the fullest! May we not fear being seen as odd or different, but rather may we allow God to form us into the holy men and women He has created us to be! May we persevere through the challenges that will come with trying to live a holy life! May the Holy Spirit and the gifts He has given shine through to those whom we meet! May the Saints and holy ones inspire us to discover our own holiness and put it into action! May the Saints intercede for us, guiding us toward Jesus! And may we follow the Lord Jesus Christ with ever perfected love! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be July 31.
* The Odd Thomas series was written by Dean Koontz who also happens to be Catholic. There are many Catholic overtones in the series, but one must remember that the books are a work of fiction and were not meant as a theological statement. Koontz said that he wanted to delve into what it would like for someone to be truly pure of heart and innocent when he wrote this character. Odd Thomas was not perfect and this is what made him realistic and rather appealing to me.
1. The first painting is called Landscape from Saint-Rémy by Vincent van Gogh. (1889) I chose this because the perspective seems slightly askew, and it is therefore an odd (different) point of view for the scene. Simultaneously it is quite beautiful and gives an air of peacefulness through the billowy clouds and the soothing, subtle hues of blues, greens, and a bit of gold in the landscape. Unfortunately the genius of van Gogh was not well understood during his lifetime either; he suffered from mental illness and therefore as a person, he was thought to be strange. I think that he saw things most of us do not see; that is, he saw beauty in his own way, and thank God, he left much of what he saw through his own 'lens' for us on canvas. A little information on this painting can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Landscape_from_Saint-R%C3%A9my_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
2. This is one of my photos, a closeup of a great blue heron, taken on the coast of Texas in Rockport. I chose it for this part of the entry because the way he is sitting with his neck craned looks a bit comical. It gave this magnificent bird an odd sort of look, an angle not usually seen, with his neck feathers a bit ruffled. It is a unique photo of a unique bird.
3. This is one of the photos of St. Bernadette taken during her lifetime. She is wearing the peasant clothing which was typical of people from the Pyrenees of France in the 19th century. She looks rather somber, but she did not like having her photograph taken. Remember, at that time one had to sit perfectly still for a number of minutes while the film was being exposed. This photo was taken when she entered the convent; her family could never have afforded, nor desired, photographs.
4. This icon is called St. Padre Pio Mother Pelican by Fr. William Hart McNichols. As mentioned in my previous entry, the pelican is a traditional Christian symbol for Christ who sacrificed Himself for our salvation and also feeds us with His body and blood, the Eucharist, which He left for us. In this icon we can see how Padre Pio allowed himself to suffer so that he could use the many gifts he was given; he freely chose to accept the ministry to which Jesus invited him. I chose this icon not only because I have a devotion to St. Padre Pio, but because we can see that even in his suffering there is a hint of joy on his face. To truly love Christ is to know joy. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of this icon you can find it in many formats at https://fineartamerica.com/featured/2-st-padre-pio-mother-pelican-047-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
5. I took this photo while hiking around Devil's Tower in Wyoming. The aforementioned rock formation was behind me and this was the vista away from it. I chose this photo because there is no clear path. One would have to discern the path to the road.
6. This is a mosaic of Jesus healing the hemorrhaging woman (Mark 5:25-34) and it is found on the ceiling of the Cathedral in Monreale, Sicily. I chose it here because it shows how Jesus loved: He was walking with His disciples on a crowded street and yet when He felt the power go out of Him, He would not go on until He was able to address the woman, commending her for her faith. He did not want to leave the scene without letting her know how much He loved her. Rather than being put out when we are asked to help someone, our way of loving needs to be different, like Jesus, who offered love in everything He did.
7. This is also one of my photos, taken in Bar Harbor, Maine. The reeds standing in the water of this pond seemed to stand out, 'daring' to stand apart in small clusters. Even the people hiking in the background seem to be alone on the path. The photo spoke to me of being willing to go where few others go in being true to our call to holiness, following Jesus in our own unique way, even if it seems odd to others.
Heart Speaks to Heart