Is there a more oft repeated phrase in contemporary American Catholicism then “Be a saint”? In our lukewarm land it is our go-to phrase for trying to inspire our paralyzed pews to become activated, engaged Catholics. We all need to realize how great we are called to be and this is a great place to start.
But, it is only a place to start. It belongs to the beginning stages of discipleship. Not a few of us have noticed how this phrase has limits to its fruitfulness. At first it drips a mesmerizing juice, but then it turns to a dry, bitter rind. And, at that point, frankly, we need to discard it.
Why? Because sooner or later it turns into this: ‘Am I doing all I can do to be a saint? I really don’t know if I am or not. How am I doing on the spiritual journey? How am I to know? Am I bearing as much fruit as possible? What more should I do? Should I just do what all of those saints did? I don’t know what else to do, but I still sense myself to be not anywhere close. But – ahhh! – I am supposed to be a saint!’
I, I, I. Me, me, me. Those sound like really pure, holy questions, right? They can be, in small doses. But when the enemy gets us obsessing with the ‘I’m supposed to be a saint’ mantra, he can work our minds into a self-focused dungeon that curves in on itself. That robs our joy. That’s not sainthood.
The plain fact is that the saints are the people who most of all didn’t care about becoming saints. They cared about doing what the Lord wanted them to do. They cared about becoming Jesus’ faithful friend. At a certain point they grew to stop looking at themselves, obsessing about ‘how they were doing’ and analyzing whether they were firmly on the path toward sainthood. The saints just forgot about themselves completely, without even trying. That’s just the natural fruit of love.
This isn’t to say that seeking spiritual wisdom and guidance along our journey is for selfish people. Not at all. This is simply saying that it all comes down to the center of our gaze.
If we abandon our gaze toward the Face of Jesus and respond to the movement of His will and His Spirit within us, then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, we can only ever attain to where He takes us anyway. On the other hand, if we gaze at ‘how we’re doing’ all the time and make of ourselves our own project, we will be exquisitely frustrated. Paradoxically, we are only revealed to ourselves if we stopping looking at ourselves and look at Jesus.
So, perhaps, we need to be more careful in having the drumbeat of our life be ‘I must become a saint.’ Perhaps that isn’t for us to worry about. Instead, there comes a time when we must make sense of the path of our lives by saying, ‘Lord, I am very small; I just want to love you, be your friend, go where you want me to go and love where you want me to love. The rest, I surrender to you.’ It won’t all make sense along the way, because:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. (Isaiah 55:8)
But, may we remember how Beatrice describes Heaven to Dante:
Indeed, the essence of this blessed state
Is to dwell here within His holy will,
So that there is no will but one with His.
In his will is our peace – it is the sea
In which all things are drawn that it itself
Creates or which the work of Nature makes. (Paradisio, The Divine Comedy)