Why Do I Want to Become a Saint?

After my last entry, I got to reflecting anew upon why I want to become a saint. It’s been my life goal for twenty years or so — long enough, that is, that I forget on a daily basis why I came to it in the first place. However, though my memory is poor for external events, it tends to serve me very well for internal experiences.

Of course, the best reason to become a saint is because God wills it. Indeed, there really is no other way to strive for sainthood ultimately. It’s not about us; it’s about glorifying His ineffable goodness. But we can be inspired to desire this path from a number of lesser paths that come together like rivulets merging together in a river before it pours out into the sea.

I think my first inspiration was reading the stories of the Saints. Not long after I was confirmed, I watched the movie The Mission, and fell in love with it. In perhaps my first personal historical research project, I went to the library to take out as many books as I could about the history of the Jesuits and St Ignatius of Loyola. I’ve always been attracted to intelligence and courage, so this order bore a lot of natural attraction for me. The public library had a surprising number of books on Saints, and I remember being indebted to it for Patricia Treece’s biography of St Maximilian Kolbe as well. I found more books at our parish library, too. I read many different kinds of books, ciphening out information from books less than perfectly friendly towards the Church, and sifting out inspiration from the sometimes somewhat cheesy accounts written by simple, earnest believers. In the end, I got what I wanted: stories of men and women who had lived lives remarkable for their love for God and neighbour. It was impossible not to be seduced by their holy examples of courage, resilience, humility, and love! If the Bible seemed inaccessible to me as a young teenager, these stories revealed Christ to me like stained glass windows commute the sunlight, each in its own individual way. I admired the Saints; they were heroic. I wanted to be like them.

So there was the romance, but there was also the practicality of dedicating one’s life and efforts to holiness. After all, if death and taxes are the two inevitables in life and one carries over consequences into eternity, it only makes sense to be particularly well prepared for that. I’m not one of those people for whom Eternity has been a source of anxiety. I did try to think my way to understanding it as a child, but I eventually learned that the understanding of Eternity, as with so many other mysteries, is not something we grasp through mental exercises but more through life experience, for these mysteries are embedded in the world around us, and especially in our souls. So I looked at the Truth of Eternity calmly and reasoned simply that I ought to pack my umbrella — strive to make the necessary preparations, that is. Adventures appeal to me (they demand courage!), so knowing that this one promises to be a good one so long as we’re prepared was good enough for me.

Another reason I wanted to become a saint was that I’d gone through a philosophical phase when I was ten or eleven, thanks to my Dad. I loved reflecting on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and how this trinity, so to speak, was one in God, and I suppose in my little child way, I adored that and desired to be united with that above all. Sin and sorrow over the years to come only served to strengthen that yearning.

These are my roots, or some of the bigger ones. It’s remarkable, I note now, how formative those years transitioning from child to teenager are, or can be. They set me on the path I’ve been struggling to follow since, influenced the choices I’ve made, the renunciations I’ve made. It would seem, too, that though I have changed a lot since then, my foundation remains the same: I want to become a saint because it is the heroic and admirable path, because it is the best life investment a person can make for the long term, and because God is so dang attractive I can’t help myself.

The Power of Symbols

Last Sunday we entered church and found our icons, pictures, statues, and crucifix masked with purple cloth. My son was very upset by this, but so was I, small matter that this happens every Lent! I spent the Mass feeling uneasy and unsettled – where could I rest my eyes? When I go to Mass, I look more at the religious art that adorns our churches than anything else. When the mind wanders, as may be relied upon, the artistic and symbolic depictions of significant people and events in my Faith serve as extra aids in keeping my attention on God, rather than my grocery list (although they by no means prevent my drawing up grocery lists). We have very nice art in our church and I like looking at it all, but in every church I visit, it is the crucifix that captivates me more than anything, and it is that upon which I fix my gaze for most of the Mass, as it facilitates an ongoing conversation with – and meditation upon – Christ, and the mystery of His almost incredible love. When, on Sunday, the crucifix was veiled, I spent much of the Mass feeling like a child lost at a family reunion: I wasn’t scared because I knew my parents were there somewhere, but I was a bit anxious because I couldn’t see them, and my eyes darted everywhere.

The veiling of the church art is an effective means of reminding us just how powerful our representations and symbols are. It made me reflect upon how empty the world would be without Mary, St Joseph, St Michael the Archangel, Divine Mercy, etc., etc. – but first and foremost: without Christ! Then would I be lost indeed!

On Thursday, I met with the counsellor who is helping me address my anxiety and insomnia challenges, and she gave me a page out of a book and spoke with me about the idea that in order to overcome anxiety, one does better to face the source of anxiety immediately than to avoid it or ignore it. Avoidance defers the moment wherein the anxiety will be addressed, allowing the anxiety to build.

“Because we are scared to feel fear, we avoid whatever triggers it. It’s the avoidance that locks the phobia [or anxiety] in place…. It’s not the fear that stops you. It’s fear of feeling the fear that stops you…. If you can let yourself tolerate feeling fear, the feeling gradually decreases…. what you really need to do is face down the fear.” – Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan (p. 173)

Reading Greenspan’s thoughts, I remembered the crucifix. After all, the representation of a man dead or dying from torture is essentially the representation of all those things we fear most: death, humiliation, vulnerability, loss, abandonment, betrayal, absolute poverty, nakedness, shame, heartbreak, defeat. Greenspan’s book presents the message of facing down one’s fear through a New Age-Jewish-Buddist mindfulness lens, but the idea is at the heart of Catholicism: there is no greater symbol in our Tradition than that of Christ crucified upon the cross. In our homes, in our churches, around our necks, on our keychains, on our dashboards, and tucked away in just about any ready nook, cranny, or pocket, we face our deepest fears on a daily basis. Better even than the acclimatization to fear (“affect tolerance” is apparently the term used by psychologists), Christians are given a real reason not to fear. “In the grand scheme of things, what’s the worst that could happen?” “Hm, well, the Powers of Evil could conquer the Powers of Good. They could even kill a God who, crazy as it sounds, is a fool for love over mere creatures!” Well, The Worst Thing that could happen in The Grand Scheme of Things did happen, and evil was still completely and utterly defeated, for the Crucified Christ became the Risen Christ, gloriously triumphant, having endured the greatest pain and humiliation.

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.” – Numbers 21:8, a prefiguration of the Crucifix

I have many fears, and many thoughts make me feel anxious. I fear the death of those I love most, I fear raising children poorly so that they prefer sin or worldly comforts to God, I fear the stack of dishes that piles up in the sink and the floor covered with toys and food that the children have dropped, I fear the judgement of those who read my writing and of those who see my lazy or indulgent grocery choices at the check-out counter. And my heart still aches from the death of my son, and from sundry injuries past, missed opportunities, regrets. There is fear and there is grief and there is the temptation to despair, and all this Christ has taken upon himself and given us a symbol that encompasses them all to gaze upon in wonder, knowing how they were not merely faced by a brave man, but thoroughly transformed.

When Catholics gaze upon the crucifix, we gaze upon all that is the worst in this world. We bring our pain and humiliation, our brokenness, grief, and defeat, and face the darkness with Christ. Through Him, with Him, in Him, we not only grow unassailable in the face of the apparent threat of the tyranny of evil, but we find the darkness transformed into light. The “emotional alchemy” that Greenspan writes of? The High Alchemist is the Holy Trinity.

Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

New Year’s Focus: Praise

On December 31st, the Ghost of Facebook Past revealed to me that over the past decade that I’d been on Facebook, two recurring New Year’s resolutions have been to cut back on anxiety and to cut back on Facebook. Now, one charming aspect of having a relatively poor memory is that I frequently experience surprise; I suppose I could find it humiliating, and occasionally I do, but more often than not it’s refreshing, perhaps especially because in other areas of my life I exhaust myself with my tenacity. So on New Year’s Eve, as I was warming up to rise to the traditional invitation to change my life for the better, much to my surprise and horror and amusement, I discovered the same old resolutions hanging up from years past like wives in Bluebeard’s closet.

Moreover, unlike those noble folks who resolve, say, to exercise more in the new year and spend New Year’s Day jogging, the Ghost returned to me on January 1st to reveal that I had failed in my resolutions on the very first day.

OK. Assessing the situation, I can see that neither my own strength of will (or lack thereof), nor my pleading with the Lord to pour out His grace on me, nor even my determined resolutions made quasi-public for the sake of accountability are getting me anywhere. It’s time to fight my demons with a new tactic:

Praise.

As the Catholic Church tends to focus more on the Sacraments and rote prayers, I haven’t had a great deal of experience with the spiritual practice of praise beyond the Glory Be and the Praise and Worship songs that were sung at the youth retreats I sought out since I was a teenager, and that my soul felt some attraction to but my intellect and musical taste often recoiled from. Indeed, it is largely thanks to those retreats led by NET Canada that I was taught to have a conversational relationship with God, something my soul thirsted for. I knew about praise but I didn’t really practise it. Probably the closest I came to it was in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when Jesus sits on the altar in the form of the Eucharist and we just sit in silence, gazing at each other in love (this is really quite impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it; the first time I encountered Adoration it seemed very strange indeed).

Recently my husband and I moved to a new home only steps away from a parish run by the Companions of the Cross, a congregation of priests whose charism is charisma: they are the charismatic branch of Catholicism and place a strong emphasis on healing and praise. When we first arrived at the parish we marvelled at the almost jarring marriage of the sort of enthusiasm in music and preaching that we associate with our Protestant brethren with the incredibly beautiful solemnity of the altar attended by incense and Gregorian chant that we associate with pre-Vatican II Catholicism. We quickly fell in love with our new faith home, however.

Driven by the desperation severe physical pain can bring (yay, gallbladder!), I attended a healing service our church offered in the fall. There I had an experience unlike any in my life hitherto, replete with speaking and singing in tongues, but I was also given my first real lesson in praising God.

Now, for all that I’ve benefitted from the laid-back culture of my upbringing on the West Coast, I’m a somewhat uptight individual. Catholicism’s structure suits me. I thrive on rules and obedience comes easy, relatively speaking. I also embarrass easily. Raising my hands up to the Lord in the sight of others, daring to sing whatever harmonies might come to my head without a score and at the risk of hitting a wrong note, letting tears fall in public, and just letting myself relax my grip in general are all the sort of actions that my pride is constantly patrolling to keep in check. And I think a lot of my anxiety stems from this need to feel like I’m in control. So waddya know, the Lord seems to have led me to a parish that offers me what I would call an Ignatian antidote, namely, to combat an error, practise its opposite (this is not wisdom that was confined to Ignatius by any means, but it was in an Ignatian environment that I first studied it objectively).

The antidote to my anxiety, I believe, is praise. It is also, I suspect, the antidote to much of my pride. Score! Two great hurdles in my life to be combatted with one and the same resolution!

What is praise?

I want to differentiate between praise and other holy activities such as petition and thanksgiving. It’s good to ask God for what we need and to thank Him for all He’s given us and all we trust He will give us. However, praise is different. It is, essentially, using our words to express our delight in someone and our admiration for him.

Upon reflection, I do this a lot in my life — I praise my husband and children constantly. Aren’t you wonderful! How are you so handsome/cute? You are so good! You are so loving! You are so precious! How kind you are! How thoughtful! You are the best husband/*name-of-child* in the whole world! I am so blessed to have you in my life! It’s a habit I learned from my mother, and it does a lot to build relationships up. Moreover, if I force myself to praise someone when our relationship is suffering, it does a lot to strengthen and renew the relationship. It recognizes the inherent and essential goodness of the other.

How often, though, do I praise God? You are wonderful! You are merciful! You are all kindness! The source of all happiness! I adore you! I bless you! I praise you! And so forth.

My mother-in-law, when I shared with her the events of the healing service, shared with me a story from one of her Christian encounters: that a man who was resolved to praise God in everything was at a fancy dinner and spilled a drink across the white linens and even on the hostess’ dress. In response, he praised God for allowing the humiliating episode to happen. The hostess at first was, understandably, a little put out, but in the end his witness to the love of God attracted to her convert to Christ, too.

This story inspires me: first, the man’s first response to disaster is praise; second, he makes his praise public. My response would have been to let the event affect me negatively, and I certainly would not have first praised God openly. While I’m not ready to introduce the latter into my life, it’s high time I embraced the former. When minor disasters strike in my life, my response is to panic, cower, run, rage, despair — anything but calmly accept, trusting that God is in control. When I look at my current state objectively, I see that I’m rejecting a lot of opportunity to grow in the love of God and others, simply by my failure to praise Him in all things.

This year, then, in the attempt to give greater glory to God and to overcome those obstacles that hold me back from becoming the person He made me to be, I intend to practise praising Him in all things, but especially in those moments that I’m tempted to despair or grow despondent, or when I feel a surge of anxiety.

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
which he has granted them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love. – Isaiah 63:7