I remember daydreaming about what it meant to be a saint when I was a child. I thought that it must have been really something grand to have been so perfected, going about all day in a trance, as if continually seeing the beatific vision. One only had to find a small book on the lives of the saints to see artistic renditions of such saints. They all had angelic faces, the hint of a smile, either with eyes looking upward as if in some sort of ecstasy or downcast in pious humility. Saints were described in only the most glowing of terms and seemed as if they came out of their mother's womb perfect and ready for some holy action. These stories did not do any of us a favor, because it seemed as if holiness was something that only a few lucky souls were blessed to be born with, as if they won some sort of "holiness lottery" before birth, leaving the rest of us a tad bit envious.
As I grew older my understanding grew to include the fact that many of the saints suffered a bit...okay, a lot... but they did seem to come into the world nearly perfect. Therefore, I thought, they had some extra “spiritual gene” to insure that they could suffer with grace. In short, I thought that their suffering really was not all that bad. But if this is true then it really was not suffering. How confusing!
What I am getting at is that when we are young quite often the saints are our first Christian heroes, after Jesus, of course. Therefore the idealized versions of their lives we read excited us into wanting to become holy, and to imitate Jesus as they did. The problem, however, is that as we grow we often keep those idealized versions of the saints stuck in our heads. We mature, but our vision of holiness does not. Then one day we realize that we can never be the way these people were depicted, so we give up the quest, telling ourselves that they did get that "spiritual gene" that we are missing. Therefore, we wonder, what is the point of trying?
The lives of the saints are fascinating, but the best thing that happened to me was reading some realistic biographies about them. I came to realize they all had feet of clay because, shocking as the realization was, they were human! It actually was a great relief to discover that they were not people who had it easier in becoming saints because they had some sort of extra proclivity for holiness. If you read carefully you will find that they all had weaknesses which they had to struggle to overcome. For example, they say that Mother Teresa (Blessed Teresa of Calcutta) was very stubborn. If not for that stubbornness there would have been fewer people taken out of the gutters to die in dignity, however. By her own admission, St. Teresa of Avila described herself as a party girl; a rather lazy one, at that. She spoke of her own unwillingness to do too much work at prayer until one day she felt so guilty that she begged the Lord to forgive her ingratitude and to lead her to more discipline. If not for that, she would have never reformed the Carmelites.
There was St. (Padre) Pio who had a bit of a temper sometimes. Who can blame him? He had very painful stigmata for 50 of his 81 years. While he seems to have been chosen for a life of redemptive suffering, it was Padre Pio who asked to suffer for others many times in his prayer. He did not choose how he would suffer, God did. Nor was Padre Pio a masochist. Rather, he allowed the Lord to mold him and use him on behalf of others. Worse than the physical pain was the treatment by others who were jealous of him or who misunderstood the stigmata he bore. He truly struggled with that for many years. Many people focus in on the miraculous phenomenon attributed to him as if it was fun, a spiritual “walk in the park.” On the contrary, every one of those phenomenon, such as bilocation and reading people's hearts, came at a great price. His holiness consisted in submitting to the gifts as a way of loving the Giver.
Another example is St. Bernadette who saw Mary at Lourdes. First of all, Bernadette did not ask to see Mary. She loved Jesus and Mary as much as anyone her age could, but she did not seek visions. Because of her love, she was pure of heart and open to seeing what many others will never see. Therefore God responded to her openness by letting her be the one to whom Mary appeared with an important message of repentance and prayer. However, she was not perfect. Bernadette was blunt and stubborn, and these characteristics were what proved the truth of her statements. She saw what she saw and that was that! She did not understand what the Lady said to her about being the Immaculate Conception. But she loved the Lady and dutifully carried out her instructions.
As to wanting to have visions, St. Teresa, (among others) tells us never to aspire to these things. Such phenomenon can be tricks of the evil one to take us off track. We are to seek the Giver of the gifts, not the gifts. That is, we are to seek God first and the rest follows (Matthew 6:33). Having such gifts is not as easy as one may think. Everyone who has seen a vision or who displays spiritual phenomenon suffers and the gifts become a burden. That is because others do not understand and so they ridicule. Or they see the one with the gifts as an object rather than as a person; they hound them and want to get something from them, giving the holy one little peace. It is no wonder some of them had character quirks, having to put up with so much misunderstanding!
The point is that saints are not perfect people and that is why I love them! If being holy meant being perfect we would all be sunk. There would be no reason to aspire to it because it would be impossible. It would be a childish daydream at best. True holiness is being fully human, which means it is messy. It means entering into life recognizing that we are not in charge. To be holy we need to love and to let that love expand and grow. The path will be different for each one of us because each of us is different. To love is not as easy as it sounds. It means we need to let God mold us, which entails letting go of our own ego-centeredness. It means trusting God so much that we follow His lead. But if we let ourselves truly fall in love with God, then our hearts will be moved to reach out to the poor and to recognize our own poverty, which is a poverty of spirit. We will be moved to do acts of kindness without thinking of them as holy acts. Love will motivate us simply because we will see the face of Christ in each one we meet. Love will swell our hearts with gratitude for the love we receive from God, such that we will want to share it. We will not need visions because we will indeed see Him everywhere. There is much joy in that!
Being perfect? That will never happen – not in this life, at least. Loving as much as we can despite our feet of clay? Attainable! But we have to do the work of opening our hearts to God and letting Him lead. We have to pray and spend time with the One we love so much. And if we really love Him, we will not see it as work at all. It becomes a gift to us to serve Him. That is the holiness to which we can all aspire and it is definitely attainable. I like it much better than “plastic sanctity” which is definitely not attractive. I love my saints with their feet of clay because they remind me that it is indeed possible to become holy. If the saints, with all their personal foibles, can attain holiness, then we can do it, too.
May we look to the saints for intercession on the road to our own holiness, that they may be our guides and our inspiration! May we pray that our hearts are filled with love which overcomes our human weakness! May we pray that we can fall in love with Jesus such that we can do what lovers of God do, which is to share our love with others! May we see the miraculous all around us, and be moved to gratitude! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of Jesus, where the Love we seek to share is found! Peace!
The top picture is St. Teresa of Avila from a holy card I have had since I was a teenager. (See what I mean?)
The second is an icon called St. Padre Pio, Mother Pelican by Rev. William Hart McNichols which can be found at http://www.standreirublevicons.com/gallery.php?action=viewPicture&id=176
The last picture is a photo I took in a church in Nova Scotia, Canada. This is part of a painting of the Holy Trinity which was in the cupola over the altar.
Heart Speaks to Heart