How to become a saint – how my perspective has changed

I’ve always been captivated by the stories of the Saints. My earliest memory is one of fascination and some horror as I flipped through an old illustrated book of Saints for kids, observing the wide spectrum of gruesome ends depicted and fixating on the beautiful dresses that adorned the queen Saints (my favourite pictures in Andrew Lang’s fairy tale collections were likewise those of elegant princesses). From there, I grew to a crude awe of Saints like Padre Pio and Joseph of Cupertino, whose lives were a series of unfathomable miraculous events. I kind of wanted to be miracle-working Saint Superhero. Ultimately, I wanted to feel special and be special. I was charmingly naive to the real toll of bearing the stigmata or the humiliation of levitating in view of others. It was an awkward, immature stage of spirituality, much in line with the awkwardness and immaturity of those early teenage years.

Then I watched The Mission and fell hard in love with the Jesuits, St Ignatius, and the idea of doing great things for God. St Maximilian Kolbe was a great hero of mine as well. I wanted to bring the love of Jesus all around the world, fight like the bravest of spiritual soldiers, and perhaps die a martyr’s death. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam! I was ambitious for the higher things, right? Or so I thought.

My voracious appetite for spiritual reading led me to discover the Church’s supreme estimation of the interior life. I had a new aspiration: to become a contemplative, preferably a cloistered one, a Trappist or something if I were really heroic. I’d read little pamphlets about the slightly insufferable Thérèse of Lisieux, pamphlets that made me feel guilty if I didn’t replace the toilet paper roll if I finished the last one (dang it, conscience! Ignorance is bliss!), and I figured I’d better buckle down and learn to appreciate her. I couldn’t really get through the autobiography. It was far too simple for my sophisticated soul. Thérese got put on the back burner while I fell in love with God through St Augustine, some guy who had beat me to my trick of writing letters to God, and some eighteen centuries earlier, at that!

Eventually, as an undergrad, I encountered von Balthasar’s Two Sisters in the Spirit. What a gift that book was to my all-too sophisticated soul! It was essentially an intellectual translating Thérèse’s simple spirituality into a language a mind hampered by excessive sophistication could understand. This opened my soul to a whole new world of simplicity and humility, and I dove deep.

But I still wanted to be a great Saint. I wanted to do something for God. I wanted to be something for God. I wanted to change the world! Looking back, I am alternately embarrassed and charmed. I am a little ashamed of my blind pride, but I am also charmed by an enthusiasm that I see in my young son: that drive to be the superlative human being in all endeavours. It’s an adorable, trusting, childlike but yet immature stage of faith: instead of “when I grow up, I’m going to be the strongest and the fastest!” it was “one day I’ll be the holiest! I will be the poorest in spirit! the purest in heart! I will do great things for God!”

And, you know, Josemaria Escriva urged people to set as their goal to become great saints. However, there’s striving to become a great saint and there’s striving to become a great saint. One busies itself with becoming great, and the other becomes a beggar.

In recent years, I have not had as much time to devour holy books. I also have three children, so I can no longer spend long hours in prayer. I don’t really even have much time to build an interior life. My life is no longer conducive to my making myself a saint —thanks be to God!

I am a beggar. I am busy just trying to survive on the streets of my life. In between ensuring three small children are properly dressed to venture out into the increasingly cold weather and cleaning up the mess of food fallen under high chairs that children in impoverished countries would happily devour but sadly meets the compost bucket instead, I say, “help me, Jesus” and “I love you, Jesus” and “help me to love you more, Jesus” and, most beautiful of all, “thank you so, so much for your love for me, Jesus!” In five years of marriage that has included twins, stillbirth, unemployment, mental illness, and a perpetually messy home, I have grown in touch with my utter weakness and helplessness, but I have also discovered the greatest joy of knowing that Jesus loves me. Jesus is crazy about me. And what’s more, Jesus is the most incredibly, profoundly, heartbreakingly, terrifyingly beautiful thing I’ve ever caught glimpse of, and I could just sit in awe of his majesty, the burning, blazing furnace of his love.

I am not a great saint. I am not sure I ever will be one, but honestly, I don’t much care anymore. If it pleases Jesus to use me in some way that I am one day upheld as a model to the Church, so be it, although the thought amuses me seeing as I can barely offer up chocolate for a day for some intention at present, nor do I have any discipline of daily prayers. If it pleases Jesus to let me remain a simple soul who struggles daily to overcome her weaknesses and give him glory, who lives in relative obscurity for the rest of her life, that is fine. I only ask that I might share Him in some way with others, that I might make Him known and loved. How I will do that, I can’t determine: circumstances determine that. On the other hand, how I will do that is quite simple: I will bask in his love, and he will in turn allow that love to leak out of me as I go about my daily business.

My interior life is this: on Sunday, I go to Mass and receive the Sacred Host. Jesus takes up residence in the tabernacle of my heart, and I essentially ask him to make a monstrance of my eyes. And that’s it. I go about my daily life. I try to live a good life, but I’m currently in a season of healing. I am praying that He might lead me one day to a season of more active spirituality, one in which I can take on penances out of love for him, but for now I need to know His love for me, and I need to glory in it, and I need to adore Him, and He’ll do the rest. And I do know this: I know that He will lead me to heaven so long as I keep going to Mass on Sundays and avoiding mortal sin, so ultimately, whether I’m a great Saint or not, He has promised to transform me into a saint.

I love you, Jesus.

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.

Teetering on a brink, an answer comes

Last night, my husband and I had the opportunity to talk a little, and we discussed the day’s homily and got onto the topic of the Narrow Gate Christ speaks of, and how the purifications of Purgatory are reportedly more painful than any purifications we might endure in this life, and this brought me to a place of frustration I’ve been heading towards for some time now:

“I’ve been trying to become a saint since I was something like twelve years old, and look at me! I’m still impatient, still moody, still irritable, more irascible than ever, and I still crave the regard of others! For all my striving, I don’t seem to be getting very far. It’s like there is a delicate balance of making an effort and relying upon God’s grace, and I can’t strike it. Recently, I just feel like giving up trying. Maybe the secret is to nag God: hey, God, I need more grace because, as you can see, I’m still pretty pathetic and not getting anywhere, so if you want me to become a saint, you better give me a lot more help!”

Shortly thereafter, we acknowledged the hour was late and we should go to bed, and on my way, I picked up one of the most densely inspirational books in the way of Christian living that I know, My Daily Bread, written by the Confraternity of the Precious Blood. I flipped through and landed upon the following – it was a bit of a tollelege moment, if you recall St Augustine. Each chapter begins with the (imagined, yet arguably inspired) voice of Christ, followed by a reflection, followed by a prayer.

“Son, the grace of devotion is not just a holy feeling, nor is it a religious mood. It is an intelligent attachment of your will to Me and to whatever I command or desire of you.

2. This is a very great grace. I will grant it to you if you will make a sincere effort to turn your back on whatever hinders your spiritual progress. You must empty your heart of all useless interests in order to make room for Me.

3. Often it is such a small matter that prevents one from obtaining this grace. Misguided self-interest cuts many people off from this glorious gift.

4. I desire you to have this grace. It will make you loyal to Me in all things. If you do not have it yet, it is because you have not yet prepared your soul for it. Pray for it and labor for it. Gain control of your feelings and unreasoning desires by acts of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Above all, begin a determined battle against the outstanding faults in your daily life.

5. With this grace of true devotion, you will find many things easy which now seem difficult and impossible. You will never again lose sight of My power, wisdom, and love, and you will consider it a privilege to follow My Will.

THINK: If I make a firm and persevering effort to abandon my foolish love for unnecessary distractions, God will give me the gift of devotion. From then on, I will no longer depend on feelings or moods, but will follow God’s Will intelligently and faithfully even when I do not feel like doing so.

PRAY: My loyal and loving Saviour, you lived an earthly life of devotion to Your Father’s Will. By self-giving action You made reparation for my many acts of disobedience to His holy commandments. By self-giving action You also proved Your love for me. You gave me an example of true devotion. Grant me the grace of true and solid devotion to You, so that I may prove my love for You by self-giving. No matter how I may feel, let me do only what is pleasing to You. I desire not only to avoid all sin, but also to do many little extra things for Your sake. Make my devotion like Yours – a constant self-offering which will prove my love beyond all doubt. Amen.

My Daily Bread, Confraternity of the Precious Blood (1954), Book 2, Ch. 13

It can be hard to find a good spiritual director. I’ve had the guidance of a number over the years, and only one felt like a perfect fit for me, and he I only enjoyed the companionship of over the course of a three-day retreat. Jesus has not left me orphaned, though. When I was a teenager, I prayed that if He would not send me a spiritual director, then would He please send me the books I need when I need them and guide me thus. I have often noticed Him answering this prayer, and this was surely yet another instance.

I need to continue striving, but I need to refocus. I need to assess my life objectively, and I need to do things the way God wants me to do them rather than the way I want to do them, for my will’s discernment is still often clouded by “misguided self-interest.” In the past few months, it’s become clear that I need to make time to be alone, something that used to be easy but with three children is a challenge. I’ve started taking Saturday mornings to myself while my husband minds the kids, and it’s been a wonderful time to recollect myself and look objectively at my life and try to bring some intelligent order to it. I suspect my next sabbatical should be devoted to my spiritual plan of life.