Just google “saint” and look at images that come up – you will see an array of stern looking men and women, with their hands in various “holy” poses, with their heads illuminated by perfectly shaped halos.
Should it surprise us then that no one wishes to be a saint anymore? On the other hand, French Catholic novelist Leon Bloy famously said, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” How do we square the practical aversion we have towards sainthood with the theoretical understanding of it being non-negotiable?
Perhaps it is us that need to change – a radical conversion of our image of sainthood must be in the works. We begin at the start. What, or who then, is a saint? Put simply, a saint is one in whom holiness is present. In Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation he speaks about the saints “next door”, referring to you and I:
I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant. Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbours, those who, living in our midst, reflect God’s presence. We might call them “the middle class of holiness”.
(Gaudete Et Exsultate, 7)
Here we see a very different perspective of sainthood, one which is attainable by you and I. This middle class of holiness is deeply rooted in the reality of our lives – it takes place amidst the mundane daily tasks and the recurring struggles we face. It would be depressing indeed if the only way to attain sainthood would be through heroic martyrdom – whether it is by being roasted alive over a burning fire or being fed to a pack of hungry lions.
It is in this regard that we can take a leaf out from the book of St. Joseph’s life. He had all the marks of “the middle class of holiness” – he did not have any supernatural gifts, he did not perform any miracles, he was not martyred (tradition has it that he died a natural death in the arms of Jesus and Mary) – in fact, his saintliness is so hidden that he does not even utter a single word in the Gospels! St. Joseph just discharged his duties quietly and faithfully, persevering till the end as the virtuous guardian of Christ. It should thus bring us great encouragement and comfort that after our beloved Mother, St. Joseph is the second most highly regarded saint!
This hidden, yet powerful way of holiness as living saints is what we should all strive for. Pope Francis quotes St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) to put this point across:
Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed”.
(Gaudete Et Exsultate, 8)
A last point must be made at this juncture – that there are no cookie cutter saints, and correspondingly there is no cookie cutter way of holiness. St. Joseph was a saint, and was holy, only because he was who he was created to be. From the beginning of time, God chose Joseph to be the guardian and teacher of His son Jesus, because of what Joseph could uniquely offer. No one else could be the earthly father of the incarnate son of God. In the same vein, each of us too, are irreplaceable in terms of who we are called to be as saints in this world. That in itself should give us a great joy and hope in being lovingly chosen by God to live as saints!
To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by labouring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.
(Gaudete Et Exsultate, 14)
If any trace of hesitation in us to commit to saintly living remains, it may point to a lack of humility on our part. Perhaps we are unwilling to walk the unglamorous journey of living holy lives right where we are. Instead, we wish to be whisked off to have an exciting mission overseas, to found a glorious religious congregation, to “do something great” for the Lord. We only wish the cross that is visible, that is extraordinary – only then is it worth our effort and our lives. The so-called “middle class of holiness” is beneath us. None of this can be further from the truth! The Church is built upon the hidden and ordinary sacrifices of million of saints, none of them whom we will ever know in this life on earth. We are called to join that number. The question is, will you?