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On Becoming a Saint
Michial Farmer

There is only one tragedy in the end,” says a quote usually attributed to Léon Bloy or Charles Péguy: “not to be a saint.” The panoply of saints in the Christian liturgical traditions reminds us that our goal—our telos, the thing we were created for—is to join them; our purpose is to become saints, which is to say to become like God, which is to say to become perfect (while still remaining finite). In more formal theological terms, we might say that our ultimate goal is to be totally sanctified—made perfect, made fully human at last, the rift of the Fall bridged at last, once and for all. It is the work of a lifetime, and even more than that if Purgatory exists. St. Ignatius of Loyola tells us that everything in the universe was put there for our sanctification, and that we must cast aside everything that doesn’t help us accomplish that purpose. Thus the process of becoming a saint, as the Book of Hebrews says, demands that we “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely” (12:1, NRSV). This is the fundamental task of our lives. It also happens to be the most difficult thing in the world.

There are a number of contradictions—or let’s call them tensions—in the process of becoming a saint. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton says that it is fundamentally a matter of asking to be a saint, and he says that this is one prayer that is always granted (Merton, 1999: 260–261). In that sense, becoming a saint is a simple thing. But simplicity is not facility, and I think that what Merton is getting at is that becoming a saint involves not a prayer but a long lifetime of prayer—a long lifetime of praying the same grinding, hopeless prayer: “Lord, make me a saint.” Our age is an age of distraction—but then every age is an age of distraction from this central, most important desire. One of the major patterns of the Hebrew Bible is the cyclical distraction of God’s chosen people, their inability (and, by extension, ours) to want to be saints for long. There are too many other things to want, too many things that would be good and beautiful if we didn’t insist on making idols of them. It was God, after all, who told the fleeing Israelites to take the Egyptian gold with them; their sin was taking that good gold and melting it down into a calf to be worshipped. This is our eternal struggle, to allow the good to be the enemy of the perfect. As the old hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” beautifully puts it,

Let thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee:
prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.

Thus the prayer is enough to make us saints, but it must be prayed ceaselessly and in the face of every force pulling us away from our highest good. It requires a species of holy simplicity that is anything but simple to attain.

Another tension is that sainthood is a matter of the individual soul but can only be pursued as part of a community. This is what Thomas Aquinas would call a truth of natural reason, which is why Aristotle understood it very clearly without any direct knowledge of the God of the Bible. As he wrote, “he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity” (Aristotle, 1984: 1253a). We cannot become virtuous without being around people who will help make us virtuous. The same goes for becoming a saint: The people with whom we live in community—formal or informal—are the chisels God uses to shape us into saints. Sometimes this takes place consciously, as when Pope Francis calls the family “the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom” (Francis, 2016: 7.274). In this sense, part of the role of Christian parents is to begin shaping their children into saints and to give them the desire to finish the job. The same goes for many other Christian institutions: churches, Christian colleges and high schools, monasteries, and intentional communities all (at their best) use their boundaries, their common goals, and the encouragement of their members to help one another become saints.

Often, however—perhaps even more often—the process is unconscious on the part of the person serving as God’s chisel. Perhaps they serve as a model of saintliness without even being aware of it. (As we shall see, most saints are not terribly aware that they are saints.) More often, however, they are a sort of grindstone, with their faults, limitations, and neediness rubbing up against us. Because we love them—and because we want to be saints, of course—we swallow the vices that would cause us to respond with disgust or anger. Over time, we are reshaped into saintlier figures, and at some point, we sheepishly realize that we were also grindstones, rougher and heavier than our loved ones. In this sense, marriage is the grindstone par excellence. When my students ask me for advice about getting married, I tell them to marry someone who is a better person than they are but who doesn’t think that’s true. That mutual esteem will be a great help when you’re fighting: You’ll take your annoyance at your spouse and see it as your own fault (which it always is, at least partially). And if they, too, think you’re better than them, they are unlikely to take advantage of the situation.

Loving someone whom you recognize as a sinner is also helpful for recognizing their sins as your own. Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Initiation” expresses this truth beautifully. He falls in love, “in the phase of life / When our scornful reason is the judge of others” (Milosz, 2001: ll. 2–3), with a vain and gluttonous woman. Their love is deep, powerful, and transformative, and it gives him a clearer view of himself:

Whatever was naïve and shy in her
Or fearful in the disguise of self-assurance
Moved me, so that—we were so alike—
In an instant, not judging anymore,
I saw two sins of mine: vanity, gluttony. (Milosz, 2001: ll. 9–13)

When we love someone, we are able to forgive them, and in doing so, we learn (a) that God has forgiven us for our own multitude of sins; and (b) how to forgive even those whom we don’t love, whom we can’t imagine loving. And so we are sanctified, piece by piece.

Another way that other people help us to become saints comes through their occasional helplessness. I don’t have children, but my friends who do have often reported being struck by the absolute need of these tiny beings put in their care. When I see parents of newborns and they tell me that they haven’t slept through the night for weeks, I am amazed at the weary joy that they express in taking care of their children. And while I am certain that they don’t feel that joy at every moment—while I am certain that they have dark moments when they are frustrated with their bawling offspring and when they perhaps even wish they hadn’t been born—I am equally certain that their joy, however imperfect, is the fruit of the spirit, that their child’s absolute, demanding helplessness has forced them to burn away at least some of their own selfishness. Likewise, many of us will be forced (I will not be so sentimental as to call it an opportunity, though on some level of course it is) to be caregivers for our parents or spouse or some other loved one who can no longer take care of themselves. This must be one of the most painful experiences there can be. I watched my own mother pour herself out entirely in taking care of my grandmother in the progressive throes of Alzheimer’s disease, and the stress and pain almost killed her. But her love for her mother burned through her anger and frustration, and I am certain she is a saint in a way I can’t even imagine, having not made that sacrifice myself. In the end, my grandmother needed a level of care that my mother could not provide, and she had to go to a nursing home. I think there is a saint-making quality in sending our loved ones into professional care, as well, if only because it reminds us of the limits of our own abilities. And this is especially true if, like my mother, we have actually hit those limits first.

Thus, the joy of becoming a saint is always twinned by the painful process of actually becoming one. Dante’s Purgatorio, probably the best thing ever written about Christian sanctification, illustrates this point wonderfully. To an outside view (especially a non-Christian one), Purgatory looks an awful lot like Hell, which Dante and Virgil, his guide through the afterlife, have just left: Its denizens are being physically tormented in ways appropriate to the patterns of their sin during their lives. But the torments of Hell are eternal and cyclical: Paolo and Francesca, for example, condemned for their lust, will spin around in their horrible whirlwind forever. The pain of Purgatory, on the other hand, is directional and temporary (even though people are often there for thousands of years): The lustful have to run through enormous walls of flame while reciting examples of chastity. But while it takes a long time for most people, they slowly make progress toward sainthood. And, perhaps more remarkably, they sing songs of praise and penance while they do so: They know where they are going, and they are joyous to be on the road there, even though it is a long road full of suffering. In fact, it is the suffering that assures them they are on the right road. Dante is only following St. James’s lead here: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4, NRSV). In other words, it takes suffering to become a saint, but that very suffering gives us the joy of sanctification. No wonder so many early Christians were so eager to be martyred.

If I’m correct that becoming a saint is about the ceaseless prayer to become a saint, then we’re ultimately talking about a kind of eternal vigilance—eternal self-consciousness, it might appear, a constant weighing of our actions and motivations. And so arises another tension, because that vigilance always risks sliding into a certain sort of neurotic self-obsession incompatible with holiness. One of Christ’s great paradoxes demonstrates as much: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24–25, NRSV). Sainthood thus has a self-forgetting quality that is dissonant with the self-reflection we associate with it. Madeleine L’Engle points out that self-consciousness is an impediment to human flourishing, which does not flow immediately from the intellect: “The people I know who are the most concerned about their individuality, who probe constantly into motives, who are always turned inwards towards their own reactions, usually become less and less individual, less and less spontaneous, more and more afraid of the consequences of giving themselves away” (L’Engle, 1972: 31). Surely there is a morbid quality to much of our inwardness that is more likely to lead to the psychiatrist’s couch than to the saint’s medal.

But like the other tensions of sainthood, I think this one is not as dramatic as it might initially appear. At its heart, the prayer “Make me a saint” is not really a form of self-consciousness, and when it is, it becomes a pernicious Pelagianism: “I will make myself a saint by the sheer force of my will and effort.” Such efforts are doomed to fail; the New Testament and the traditions of the Church are quite clear that our efforts cannot secure salvation for us, and indeed, unaided, they can’t sanctify us, either. If we try to become saints by a constant re-evaluation of our motives, it won’t happen. But the prayer “Make me a saint” is ultimately a prayer to forget myself, a prayer that my motives, my pettiness, my vulgarity, my distraction—that I myself will not stand in the way of my sanctification as I so often do. Like the Hail Mary repeated by Catholics or the Jesus Prayer repeated by the Orthodox, the prayer “Make me a saint” takes my eyes off myself and fixes them on the perfected human soul into which Jesus Christ shapes the saint. And this self-forgetting allows me to do the works of love that are the fruit and the root of our sanctification. “The most real people,” L’Engle writes, “those who are most able to forget their selfish selves, who have true compassion, are usually the most distinct individuals” (L’Engle, 1972: 31). Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

These reflections should not be taken as suggesting that I am a saint. I am very early in this process, and doubtless many people reading this are far more sanctified than I am. My sins are being burned away, painfully, and like the fortunate souls in Dante’s Purgatory, I am doing my best to shout out examples of the virtues I want to achieve. But I take comfort in another vision of Purgatory—the one from Flannery O’Connor’s story “Revelation.” Mrs. Turpin, a proper Southern lady has a vision one evening of a crowd of souls walking through a fiery river to heaven. Much to her surprise, the hierarchy she has imagined has been reversed:

There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n—s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. (O’Connor, 1971: 508)

Thus, sainthood is more radical than we could possibly suspect: We develop virtues—real virtues—only to realize as we go through the process that those virtues were mere stopgaps on the way to the heavenly virtues that Christ has in store for us. Becoming a saint means the constant loss of something dear to us, and the gradual receiving of our true selves in recompense.

 

Michial Farmer is assistant professor of English at Crown College and one-third of The Christian Humanist podcast. His book Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction was published in 2017 by Camden House. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Victoria.

 

Works Cited

Aristotle. Politics. Translated by Alois Dreizehnter. The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984: 1986–2129.

Catholic Church. 2016. The joy of love=Amoris laetitia: Post-synodal apostolic exhortation.

 The Holy See, 19 March 2016. https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20160319_amoris-laetitia.html.

The Holy Bible: The New Revised Standard Version. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Circle of Quiet. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972.

Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith. New York: Harvest, 1999.

Milosz, Czeslaw. “Initiation.” New and Collected Poems (1931–2001). New York: Ecco, 2001: 441.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Revelation.” The Complete Stories. New York: Noonday, 1972: 488–509.

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