“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Leon Bloy (from La Femme Pauvre)
In the late fifties, Catholic Elementary schools had several objectives, including providing a sound education, preparation for higher education, and formation through the moral and doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church.
Underneath these general and global objectives, however, were two objectives that were the hopes and dreams of many educators and parents: That little Bobby or Mary or whomever would one day enter the priesthood, monastery, or convent and become a saint. That was the end-all of twelve years of education. As examples to emulate, we all grew up learning the stories of dozens of childhood saints who made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.
The Catholic Schools efforts in making priests and nuns were largely successful through the early twentieth century up until the mid-nineteen-sixties. I have a half-dozen school mates from a small class who today are priests or nuns. The thought of becoming a priest stayed with me in my elementary years, and the idea of priesthood appealed to me. I really did want to be as close to God as possible. But when adolescence and puberty were in full swing, I promptly traded the concept of celibacy in for the prospects of adventures in romance.
Yet I continued through the years to revere those who made radical commitments to God and to a way of life so separate and different from the society that was emerging in the sixties. I spent many weekends at a Benedictine monastery where men gave their lives as witness to a level of consecration not seen in the modern world.
My problem was that I wanted both lives. I wanted a life with the joys of marriage and family, imbued with spirituality and mystical union with God. I did not see a both/and choice. It was either/or.
The concept of becoming a sort of super-spiritual human, or saint, continued to fascinate me during my years in the Christian Charismatic Movement of the seventies and eighties. I followed the “Super-Pastors”, the Mega-Churches, and leaders of the prophetic movement as if they held the key to becoming a “beyond” normal human.
I don’t regret these years. Most of my wrong ideas about what living a spiritual life is I produced on my own, but I did so in the milieu of these highly charged spiritual movements.
In the late nineteen- nineties I hit an existential crisis of faith. I came to a place where all my religious education and experience had come to nothing, or so it seemed. I was powerless to be that “saint” I had always admired in others. Religion and spirituality lost their appeal, and yet I knew If I had nothing, I would not survive this world.
As seems to always happen to me when in my depths of doubt, the old ZEN proverb returned “When the Student is ready, the teacher will appear”.
The Teacher was Thomas Merton, followed by several others within his stream of Spiritual understanding.
Two books have transformed my idea of “sainthood”, “holiness”, “wholeness”, and ultimately the intended destination for humans-both written by Thomas Merton; The Seven Story Mountain, and New Seeds of Contemplation.
Reading these books introduced me to the concept of Holiness = Wholeness, or more precisely, to become a “Saint” is to simply grow into that person God always intended me to be. That’s it.
“ For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore, the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” T Merton New Seeds of Contemplation
Saying this in another way, Herman Hesse writes: “ Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”
In a memorable scene in Merton’s book The Seven Story Mountain, Merton and his close college buddy Robert Lax were walking down Fifth Avenue one day when Lax asks: “What do you want to be anyway?” Merton hesitates, and says, “I guess I want to be a good Catholic.” “What you should say,” Lax declares, “is that you want to be a saint.” “How do you expect me to be a saint?” Merton asks. “By wanting to,” Lax answers. “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. All you have to do is desire it.”
“We are meant to be holy, all of us. “We’re all called to be saints.”
In his wonderful biography of Robert Lax , “ Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, Michael N. McGregor describe Lax as a poet and writer who lived a life of adventure as a circus traveler, and then as a solitary on the Greek Island of Patmos, where St. John the evangelist was banished. He was described by his friend Merton as “possessing a kind of solitude, simplicity, and peace that passes human understanding. Some have even said he was the one who became a saint. None of this would have meant much to him except perhaps as inspiration to others. What he-and Merton-found, he thought, was his own way of walking. His own way of singing the song. His own way of being”.
Artists seem to be even closer to understanding the true essence of becoming a saint-one who has allowed themselves to be who they are meant to be:
“when you meet a certain sort of older person-one who knows the story of her life, who sees herself whole, and who now approaches the world with an earned emotional security and gratitude”. Bruce Springsteen
Saint Augustine famously opened the door to the idea of Holiness =Wholeness when he said;
“Love God, and do what you will: whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace; whether you cry out, through love cry out; whether you correct, through love correct; whether you spare, through love do you spare: In all things, let the root of love be within, for of this root can nothing spring but what is good.”
Sounds a lot like Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians 16:14, “ Let all that you do be done in love.”
And, not to leave out another favorite writer of mine, Frederic Buechner:
“Doing the work you’re best at doing and like to do best, hearing great music, having great fun, seeing something very beautiful, weeping at somebody else’s tragedy-all these experiences are related to the experience of salvation because in all of them two things happen: (1) you lose yourself, and (2) you find that you are more fully yourself than usual.”
Here is a beautiful Psalm that ensures me I have always been known, and that I have a chosen path.
Ps 139 You discern my going out and my lying down;you are familiar with all my ways.Before a word is on my tongueyou, Lord, know it completely.For you created my inmost being;you knit me together in my mother’s womb.I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;your works are wonderful,I know that full well.My frame was not hidden from youwhen I was made in the secret place,when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.Your eyes saw my unformed body;all the days ordained for me were written in your bookbefore one of them came to be.
Here is Gods wish for all of us:
“until we all attain to the unity of faith
and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood( and womanhood)
to the extent of the full stature of Christ…living the truth in love,
we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ,” Eph 4:9–15
If this is His wish, we can be assured we can ask for it as well, and it will happen. There is nothing more required to become a saint than your own desire to be who you were always meant to be.
That is a relief, and gives to me the freedom to continue to unfold into my life as it is given me. That is what saints do.
Originally published at http://bobtoohey.com on October 25, 2020.