More About Becoming a Saint


It seems that the first step toward becoming a Saint is deciding to do so. It seems probable that the majority of us in St. Blog's have consciously or unconsciously done so. So, once you've decided what it is you are called to, how do you go about achieving it?

There are several difficult points in this whole formulation, probably more than spelled out below. Here is a start on some disconnected thoughts having to do with the pursuit of holiness.

(1)The very first decision you face upon opting for holiness is the question of your motivation. Why do you wish to become a Saint? There are several possible reasons, all with a psychological validity, but all with different degrees of spiritual efficacy. The worst reason is the selfish one, which will act as an immediate obstacle to your pursuit. You want to be a saint because people will then remember and perhaps even venerate you. Everyone can see immediately what the problem with this is so I will not continue. But I have come to believe that there is a small element of this in most beginners on the road.

The second reason is because you are commanded to do so by Our Lord and Savior. This is a much better motivation, very close to the best, because it is related to the best. But if we act merely under commandment, the will flags and the pursuit fades. We soon are trudging down the road of sanctity in a way that reminds me of one of La Madre's quotes, "Lord, preserve me from sour-faced saints." Pure obedience and doggedness can lead very readily to becoming a sour-faced saint--or, in other words, not much of a saint at all.

However, if that obedience springs from and is constantly nourished by the best motive, it is nearly certain that you will succeed. Naturally, the best motive is sheer love of God. We become Saints out of obedience that springs from our desire to do everything possible for the beloved. We love God so much that we fear to offend Him--not fear in the servile sense, but fear in the sense that we never wish to cause pain to the one we love. I am only now beginning to open up this mystery myself. I have always wondered about the meaning of "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." And certainly some conversions and some part of our turning to God comes from the sense of what He could do if He chose to. However, (and I may be very off-target here) what fear of the Lord is likely to turn into, particularly if it is to be fruitful, is fear of offending the Lord--not because of the consequences meted out by God, but because of the pain it would cause both God and the true lover of God. Obedience that proceeds from and is fed by this spring of love is the well-spring of sainthood.

(2) How do we get to this point of being true "lovers of God?" I would propose that the essential element is self-emptying--"I must decrease so He may increase." And this self-emptying occurs most often through detachment. I will not say that there are not other means; however, it would seem that so long as we are attached to any of the created things of the world, we inhibit progress toward God.

How might one achieve detachment? It would seem to me that there are a great many ways--numerous paths delineated throughout time by different Saints. Let us examine very briefly two that often show up here--Carmelite and Dominican. I will start with the spirituality about which I know nothing, but describe how I believe it to work in part. It would seem that Dominican spirituality is predicated on knowing God thoroughly and intimately through the works of the intellect. These works of the intellect cannot be done without affecting the will. As we come to know and understand better, we gradually learn to leave behind what does not honor God. Seen from outside and interpreted with this Carmelite's mind, I see the Dominican path as a way of gradual detachment from our own agendas and a gradual emptying of self through glorying in what can be known of God. Please understand, this is sheer speculation but I would call it "detachment through knowledge." It is not Carmelite because the detachment comes more in a "via positiva" as knowledge is an essential good. In this sense, I see Dominican and (forgive me John d) Ignatian Spirituality quite closely related. In some sense it is like Jacob wrestling with the Angels--eventually, after enough wrestling, the pathway is opened up to pure and serene surrender. The intellect is sated and one can continue to pursue God's will in a new and uplifting way. Dominicans who have struggled to this point are supremely equipped to tell others of the Glories of God, and thus their charism of preaching.

Carmelites on the other hand pursue a "via negativa" in a shroud of silence. (Though one would not know that by visiting this blog.) Detachment is an active pursuit, aligning your own will to God's through identifying and releasing yourself through the sacraments and prayer from the bonds that hold you in. I have talked some in the past about the Carmelite way of detachment, and will probably do so more in the future. For the sake of abbreviating this post, let me say simply that the Carmelite way of detachment is more like a waltz than wrestling. We seek to know God not necessarily through the faculty of the intellect, although there is nothing wrong with really knowing Who God is, but through Love. As Thérèse said, and the recent Carmelite rule repeats and admonishes all Carmelites, "My vocation is to be love at the heart of the church." Thus, in the body framed for us with Christ as the Head, metaphorically we might see the Dominicans and Jesuits as the "brains" of that body, providing the faithful with good reason for faith and achieving union with God and deep and pervasive Love for him. through truly knowing him. We might see Carmelites, Franciscans, and other contemplative orders as the "heart" of the Church, seeking God somewhat through knowledge, but mostly through ardent burning love. Now, this is merely metaphorical, and it does gift short shrift to the importance of Love in both Dominican and Jesuit vocations, and it does diminish the critical importance of the intellect in the contemplative vocation--but it is for illustration only.

(3) Now, with regard to this second point, people have developed a million and one very clever, very useful means of avoiding the detachment that leads to doing God's will and to sanctity. One of these is hinted at by the quote from Dorthy Day that Mary offered in a comment box below. Paraphrased it says something like, "Don't call me a Saint, I don't want to be dismissed so easily." That is, we have constructed paper Saints--really unholy images of otherworldly sanctity that lies outside the realm of what a real person in the real world could possibly obtain. We look at the real accomplishments of Saints and say, "I could never do that. They were so holy from the very beginning." You know the kinds of things that might spring to mind when you read the lives of the Saints. There is really only one response to this obstacle and that is to crush it. No, you could never do that, I could never do that (whatever it may be), but then why would God want me to--after all I am not that person. My path to sanctity will not be the same, whatever is accomplished in the course of it will be uniquely the expression of God's grace working on the talents He has granted the individual. We should not look at the saints and despair at their actions, reactions, or accomplishments. We should look at the saints as individual mirrors of God's all-encompassing love. Thus, when we see Thérèse smiling at an unlikable nun, we should not think, "I cannot do that," but rather, "Lord, show me how you would like me to bring your love to the world." It may not be your vocation to smile at unlikable people, but rather to help the underprivileged, to assist those who have lost their way, to smile at those who have been confined to nursing homes and psychiatric facilities. Do not despair, but see first the love and know that the same love, the same Holy Spirit lives within each of us and is capable of expressing itself in ways miraculous--if we will get out of the way.

Another way we throw up obstacles for ourselves is that we become attached to the method rather than the goal. Thus it is entirely possible for a Dominican to be one of the great scholars of the age and yet to have that scholarship and study not ever touch his heart. We can have wonderful Carmelites so engaged in omphaloskepsis and nearly fetishistic pursuit of detachment that denial becomes the whole point of what they are doing. Neither the cultivation or the intellect nor the pursuit of detachment is an end, both are merely means to the same end--Union with God and a life of holiness. However, if we do not keep our reason for these pursuits clearly in focus, they quickly become an end in themselves. There is no point to detachment if it leads merely to endless self-examination and scouring to get out this or that tendency. Detachment should very naturally make room for God as we remove the clutter of self, God fits more naturally and more evenly into our lives. So too with intellectual pursuits in a different way. As we come to know and understand and revel in the glories of He who created all, as we get a sense of the complexity and brilliance of the Divine Way, we cannot help but more away from our own things and toward those that He has designed. And I'm sure this works for any number of other ways of approaching God. But we need to clear the path. When a method becomes an obstacle, it must be cast aside no matter how fond we are of it. If Teresa of Avila had spent all of her time detaching herself, she would never have had time to establish her foundations that changed forever the face and character of the Carmelite Order.

I've gone on quite a while here already, so I'll leave off, but I hope it is with some sense that each of us has the means to achieve holiness. We cannot do it on our own. In fact, given our stumbling steps, I would say most of us are just learning to walk. So we cannot take more than a step at a time. And the first step is to cultivate through sacraments, prayer, scripture reading, meditation, and growing selflessness an ardent desire to be God's presence in the world, not for our own sakes but for the sake of the world and for the sake of the many we see about us floundering and without hope.

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on June 24, 2003 8:07 AM.

Pepys Online was the previous entry in this blog.

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