Do you want to be a saint – really? If one billion Catholics were really trying to be saints, wouldn’t the world be a rather different place? But what about us? Sometimes I think we’re afraid to be saints. Our image of them can be unreal, as if they were perfect from start to finish. Some seem sanctimonious, the kind of people who offer everyone improving advice, or are simperingly pious, or levitate while in trances, or live in a cave wearing animal skins. Glorious eccentrics, these Catholic saints, but not really the sorts of people you’d want your daughter to marry!
If the way some of the saints lived here on earth does not appeal, our image of how they live in heaven might be equally unappetising. Sitting on clouds, staring at God, singing hymns is not going to attract moderns who treasure individuality, variety and entertainment so highly.
Then there’s the problem that saints are expected to live exemplary lives. Like the young St Augustine who said “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet”, we might want to be holy by the time we’re old, but in the meantime we live a middling good and banally bad life. We’re weak and there are many distractions, and who wants penance in a consumer culture? Who’s up for virginity, missions and martyrdom in a postmodern world where nothing’s worth living for, let alone dying for? Who wants plenary indulgences when indulgence of a rather different sort is the order of the day?
Called to Holiness
Yet this month we celebrate the anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, a Council that famously called everyone to holiness. That might seem obvious to us, but to some Catholics, then as now, it sounded impossible. Holiness was for the professionally religious like Mother Teresa. She could be a living saint, die in grace and go straight to heaven. But for the rest of us it was more realistic to live a more second rate Christianity, hoping to scrape into purgatory by dint of the occasional Confession, a brown scapular and a few good deeds; we might hope the children remember to get Masses said for our souls so that after a fair stay in purgatory we get into the back stalls of heaven just before closing time!
But the Council had higher aspirations for us because Jesus does. We all know that if parents, families, teachers, coaches and political leaders set the bar low, telling us we’re not up to much, then that’s exactly how we’ll jump. But Christ and His Church set the bar high and tell us that by grace we can all get there. By God’s grace we are capable of great things. Some people’s virtues are obviously heroic are they are quickly raised to the altars; others are more ordinary but they tried and by God’s grace, though yet unnamed, they too are raised to the altars this day, All Saints’ Day.
Setting the bar high
What they have in common is: though holier than us, they were never ‘holier than thou’. Though they set the bar high, they never thought us only capable of less. They want us in the front row, in this life and the next. Sure, they did brave deeds, taught wonderful truths, were pure-hearted and meek-spirited, gentle and merciful, suffered for justice and peace (Mt 5:1-12). But in all this they were ordinary human beings – ordinary human beings who did these extraordinary things or who did ordinary things extraordinarily well. They were open to God working in them and through them and became transparent to that grace in them. People knew and still know they would get closer to God by getting closer to them.
Do you want to be a saint? If being a saint sounds boring or impossible to you, I suspect it’s because you don’t really know any. Today’s your invitation to meet them. Get yourself a saints’ book, look up a good website, have a look at the variety of saints that are out there. Get to know your own name-saint, or your confirmation saint, if you don’t know her or him well already. And start talking to the saints. You might find theirs is exactly the club, the communion, the parish you want to join.
If you are still wary, remember this: tomorrow and all November we recall all those we’ve loved and lost. We pray God’s mercy for all of them, for an eternity of rest and flourishing, of unimagined joy and glory. Dare to dream that tomorrow for them and by your little prayers and offerings help that to happen. And that you might be reunited with them in that happy place, dare today to hope for that for yourself, too. Start now: live as the saints lived and live yet, venerate and imitate them, and let God do the rest …
This article is originally found on pages 12-13 of the printed edition.