Raised in a strong Catholic family, I grew up reading and loving the lives of the saints. I knew from a young age that these people were close to Jesus, and I hoped that some day, I would be close to Jesus too. Our desire for sanctity, in itself, is a good thing – it’s a reflection of our longing for God and innate sense that our hearts are made for him. So looking for some sort of formula or solid role model to follow is natural. Hence the importance we place in our faith on the saints and their example. Over time, however, I realized that finding inspiration in the saints was different from finding a realistic and imitable example in them. Don’t get me wrong – there are many ways we can, and SHOULD imitate the saints.
But there are also some pitfalls we can fall into:
- We compare the heights of a saint’s love for God with the sinfulness we bring into the confessional – i.e. the best of them with the worst of ourselves. And then we wonder why we feel like an impossible mess.
- We hear about the mystical, supernatural experiences some saints have, and then conflate the supernatural experiences with holiness. So, if we’re not having visions by the age of three, we must not be doing a very good job, right?
- We believe that saints merit certain manifestations of God’s presence in their lives through certain behaviors. By imitating those behaviors, we hope to form virtue and merit God’s closeness as well. This is a partial truth. If we follow God’s will for us (which might look different than it did for a given saint), God will reward us with his grace and closeness – but that too, might look very different than in did in the life of a certain saint.
- We take things out of the proper context. I am sure an eight year old trying on the sly to imitate their favorite saint by doing a bread and water fast moves God’s heart. I am equally sure that the parent is correct in helping the eight year old understand that this isn’t what God is asking of them. Adults, we aren’t off the hook here – we do the same thing, just in more subtle ways. We need to discern, and help our kids discern, when it’s OK to follow a saint’s example in the particular, and when we need to extract the principle from behind the practice, but apply it differently.
Over time, I’ve shied away from using the term “holiness” in reference to people (canonized saints aside). Holiness, properly speaking, is an attribute of God, not man. God alone is perfectly holy. The rest of us are “holy” to the extent that we make room for God in our life. Holiness is not something we can control, command or merit; it is God’s gift to us, made through the gift of himself. In other words, we become “holy” by becoming full of him and orienting our lives toward him. As an ordinary Catholic, I think our focus should be less on whether we or others are “holy”, and more on how we can find God in and through our ordinary reality and how we can bring that reality back to him. Saints are real people who have done this, and have reached the end of their journey sooner than us. We hope one day to join them. Here are a few ways we can “keep it real” as we try to follow the Lord and learn from the example of people who have gone before us.
Find a solid definition of holiness. Personally, I like a description of holiness from Benedict XVI:
“Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness. (…) Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred, but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness.” (General Audience, January 31, 2007)
Learn about a wide variety of saints. There are as many paths to holiness as there are people. Getting to know how different people have found God through a plethora of circumstances, time periods and walks of life can help paint a more realistic picture that God is calling everyone to himself in different ways.
Get to know saints whose lives are similar to your own. Many popularized saints are religious mystics or martyrs. Admirable as their example is, most of us aren’t called to either of those realities. For moms, St. Zelie Martin is a great example. Her letters, compiled in A Call to a Deeper Love, tell of how she handled the grief of children dying young, the financial stresses of investments, the need to balance her business and family life, and – wait for it! – the frustrations she faced on days with little Therese was a very “difficult” child. Her example is aspirational, but down to earth. St. Gianna Beretta Molla is another great one for moms. Louis Martin was canonized alongside his wife, so there are great examples out there for the dads too! Thank goodness the Church gives us such wide variety of saints, so we can learn from all of them, but particularly those who have shown us how to find God through our own path in life.
Remember that it’s really all about the Lord. Sometimes, in reading the lives of the saints, we become primarily focused on the saint, and imitating their example – the way they prayed or talked to Jesus or the sacrifices they made. The saints are just the first followers, the ones who beckon to the rest of us and point us toward the Lord. What their lives tell us about the Lord is more important than what the saint themselves said or did. Hence very few of us are called to closely imitate St. Faustina, but we can ALL benefit greatly from what she taught us about Divine Mercy. Her greatest favor was not her personal example of holiness, but what she helped many of us discover more profoundly about God.
Look for saints who share similar strengths or weaknesses. Finding saints who have certain virtues we aspire toward or weaknesses we strive to overcome can also help us find the way forward on our own path to God. While I don’t identify much with St. Therese’s mystical experiences or life as a religious, I do greatly value her understanding of prayer: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” St. Jerome was known to have a short tempers, so while his hermetic piety and asceticism might be far fetched, I can turn to him for an example in learning patience.
Be YOU. Smiley face. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, unique and irreplaceable in God’s eyes. I firmly believe that, while the lives of saints can help point us in the right direction, the secret to sanctity resides deeply in our own heart. The vast majority of saints have never been canonized. They are people who lived ordinary lives and loved God in the ordinariness. People who experienced daily struggles and joys and brought both back to God. People who became more and more authentically themselves as they relied more and more on God. Perfection is impossible. Canonization is highly unlikely. But a life given to God day by day and hour by hour is something each of us can do until the day we fully rest in him.