One of the earliest accusations leveled against the Church by the Protestant Revolutionaries was that, by their veneration of the Saints, Catholics were guilty of idolatry. While there is no real threat of this for anyone with a proper understanding of the role of the Saints within the Church, there is a danger for all of us of idolizing them in such a way that they are no longer real. As we celebrate the Feast of All Saints today, it is a good time to examine this tendency in greater depth.
Hagiography is by nature sensational. The biographies of the saints, like the biographies of all great men and women throughout history, tend to focus only on those defining moments of their lives. There is nothing wrong with this per se, provided that we always keep in the back of our mind their ordinariness. God may have done something extraordinary with them, but it was only because they sought him in the ordinary. Like their Master, they had “no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him” (Is 53:2). Studying the lives of the saints is part of a healthy spiritual life, but we must always protect ourselves from the spiritual pitfalls that, if we are not careful, can ensnare us.
By idolizing them and forgetting their ordinariness, a golden maxim of the spiritual life can slip our mind. In a fallen world, becoming a saint is messy. It is never as clean as the Lives of the Saints makes it appear. The Lives of the Saints regale us with their extraordinary penances, vigils, and wonders, but spares us the boredom of their daily lives. Saints had to deal with difficult people, even in their own family, and they didn’t always convert them. The children of saints were not always angels, sorely trying their patience. Saints had bad days. This seems obvious but still is easy to forget. Forget this and we will either live a life of virtual holiness or give in to discouragement.
When we read the lives of the saints we are awed by their extraordinary lives of holiness as we should be. We cannot help but to desire to imitate them. But we should never try to imitate them in any of their habits until we have mastered one. The Saints never ran ahead of Grace. They always ran with it. All the initiative that they took was in response to God’s grace. They are proof not of human greatness but first and foremost of God’s greatness and how grace makes us into something we could never be otherwise. If we are running ahead of grace we will see what they did, imitate it and live a life of virtual holiness. Virtual holiness means living someone else’s vocation and not your own. It may look good from the outside, but it is not real holiness.
Likewise, discouragement is also always lurking, especially when we realize that our lives don’t look like the idealized versions of the saints. It finds its mark when we compare ourselves to those who are living the life of simulated holiness, pretending their lives are something other than they really are. Many Catholics I know avoid social media precisely because they are discouraged by the apparent perfection of other Catholics who share only idealized versions of their lives. I have often wondered whether 100 years from now when we read the writings of the saints of today whether there will be any Facebook posts or Twitter feeds among them.
How do we know the saints lived messy lives? Because the means by which we are made into saints, i.e. the Cross, is messy. It is heavy and we will sweat while carrying it. It has splinters and is rough against our backs, causing us to bleed. We will fall carrying it and very rarely look graceful doing so. It is ugly and public, even if in an intimate way. Jesus didn’t advertise His cross to everyone, but neither did He hide it from those “who looked upon Him Whom they had pierced” (Zech 12:10). The Cross was for Christ something tangible and real, not something that He simply “spiritualized.” The Cross for the Saints and those of us wannabe saints is also something tangible and messy.
This is why we should look to the Saints. They are the ones who picked their crosses back up and kept going. They ran the race and now sit as a Cloud of Witnesses spurring us on to carry our own. And they kept going for one reason and one reason only—they trusted the One Who handpicked it for them.
The Son of God had no reason to endure what He endured except that He loved each one of us. Everything He touched and did was made holy. He picked up His cross so that our own crosses would be sanctified and sanctifying. His Cross touches every other cross. He kept going because He was sanctifying my cross and yours, knowing with joy that we would gain glory because of the path He set out.
Our crosses are participations in His Cross. Like Simon of Cyrene we are invited to carry His Cross with Him. It was only when Simon accepted the messiness of the Cross—the humiliation of carrying a criminal’s cross publicly, the worry that he might somehow be lumped in with the criminal or mistaken to be a criminal by someone he knew—that he found its sweetness. Through his encounter with the Cross he wanted to be yoked to that criminal and even shared it with his sons Alexander and Rufus.
There is one further obstacle that bears mentioning and that is the distinction between what God wills and what He permits. This is a very important distinction on the theological level, but if the Cross is any proof, it is a distinction that should remain on that level. What He permits and what He wills are both part of His Providential plan. He has foreseen all the evils and decided how He would use them. God is so good that everything that comes in contact with Him, even evil, is put to good use. Therefore on the practical level we should not be so quick to make this distinction but instead to see all has having passed through His hands.
Once we concede that holiness and messiness can coexist we can only conclude that it is actually the mess that makes us holy. Whether the mess is one we have made ourselves or one that was imposed on us, it is what God has chosen for us here and now. Because He wills at all times for our sanctification (1 Thes. 4:3), we should not try to avoid it, hide it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead “not my will but Thy will be done.”
This doesn’t mean that we passively resolve to take our licks, but amidst all our efforts to clean up the messes we have a continual Yes to God for our current predicament. This clears the path for a true and lasting peace. If I have done all I can to resolve the mess and it is still there then I can rest in the knowledge that God has given it to me. If despite my best efforts, my son with Autism has a meltdown at the most embarrassing time then I can accept it with peace, knowing that God will not let that moment go to waste. St. Paul was right, we can give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess 5:18).
Christ did not come to take away our messes, but to sanctify them. Life is messy and God is good. This is the lesson we learn from the Saints. Saints embraced their messes, drawing all that God had for them in it. We would be blessed to do likewise.
Happy Feast of All Saints!