The Secret to Holiness

In honor of All Saint’s Day this week, a post I wrote a few years ago…


Maybe it’s just me, but I think no matter how hard we try, or how oblivious we are to it, we still have this impression that the saints were not human. Not really. Not in the way that we are, at least. I think it is safe to say that the most common way of defining the saints is “superhuman people with a supernatural strength to be good and make the right choices, and therefore, who were blessed by extraordinary gifts from God.” Think about it a minute: isn’t this how most of us subconsciously think of the saints? Most Catholics of all ages that I have talked to are surprised to learn that becoming holy is their job… is what the Church expects of us: it’s the goal we are working toward. And their response? “Oh, well, that’s impossible, because I could never be a saint.” Somewhere in the attempt to understand how a saint’s normal human nature was infused by grace and transformed into a life of heroic virtue I think we lose sight of what was there in the first place: their ordinary, unheroic human nature. And if we lose sight of this: well, maybe we also lose sight of what brought them from the ordinary to the extraordinary in the first place.

This awareness has been dawning over me as a DRE surrounded by children preparing presentations for All Saints Day! I can’t help but notice that the 8th graders particularly are not very impressed by the holiness of the saints. To them, it just makes them unreachable: something far out and so different from themselves that they can’t even relate to them. If my 8th graders are going to be encouraged to strive for holiness themselves, they need to know it’s attainable, and that it’s something worth attaining. And as I flip through story after story of the saints lives, it’s certainly not looking that way! Suddenly, looking through the eyes of my 8th graders, I’ve noticed something missing for the first time in the way we usually tell of and celebrate the lives of the saints. Whether it’s St. Francis’ love of poverty, or Maria Goretti’s extraordinary sacrifice; Juan Diego’s intimate dialogue with the Mother of God, or St. Faustina’s daily conversations with Jesus; Joseph of Cupertino’s flights around the cloister, or Padre Pio’s gift of reading souls: the things that are emphasized in the saint’s lives tend to be those extraordinary things that the rest of us certainly don’t have in common! But are these things the essence of sanctity? Are these extraordinary things what make the saints holy? No one wants to work toward something that they believe is impossible to reach, whether they’re 14 or 54. And no one is attracted by what seems impossible. If holiness is something the saints acquired through super human efforts… well, then I don’t know about you, but I’m lost! Many of us, (and I’m afraid to say, all of my 8th graders!) don’t consider themselves to be capable of super-human efforts: at least where religion is concerned! Two things, then, have struck me full in the face: the need to know the saints on a very basic, human, natural level… and to therefore uncover again the true secret to sainthood.

Let me give you a beautiful example from today’s readings. St. Paul is writing to Timothy from prison. The beginning of the letter is filled with spiritual encouragement and direction for Timothy in his ministry. This is the letter in which Paul testifies that he has “fought the good fight, and finished the race…” –But today’s reading is the very end of his letter. The heading in the New American translation reads, “Paul’s loneliness”. From the very onset, you can hear the weariness in his voice:

“Try to join me soon, for Demas, enamored of the present world, deserted me and went to Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Luke is the only one with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is helpful to me in the ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus in Troas, the papyrus rolls and especially the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me a great deal of harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. You too be on guard against him, for he has strongly resisted our preaching. At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them!” (2Timothy 4:9-16.)

All of his friends have left him… he has been personally attacked and slandered by one of the brothers, making his work of spreading the Gospel extremely difficult, because no one wants to listen to him… and he writes to ask Timothy to come–and make sure to bring his cloak! This is Paul: the great apostle to the Gentiles, the fiery lion that faced death countless times and made a tour of the whole known world with a “John Paulian” vigor that was unheard of in his day! …And yet here we catch a very human glimpse of him, weighed down by the circumstances he finds himself in, distracted and overcome, and concerned in the midst of it with such little things as the need for his cloak! And suddenly, Paul is real to us… suddenly, we can relate to the one who also said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain…” simply because sometimes, even for Paul, dying is actually very hard.

This is only half the lesson, however. What is just as beautiful and comforting as this moment of Paul’s vulnerability is how he ends this account of his trials. Right after lamenting that all deserted him, he says:

“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and will bring me safe to his heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2Timothy 4:17-18).

Suddenly, in the context of the personal details we have just been given, this supernatural intervention of God, in sustaining and upholding Paul, takes on a whole new dimension. If we truly realize just how ordinary and human and weak Paul was on his own, than the need for God’s supernatural strength and assistance becomes all the more apparent… and The Lord’s faithfulness in pulling through suddenly so amazing! And if the Lord came through to give supernatural help where Paul’s natural abilities fell short, can He not do the same for us? Because we are all aware of when our own natural abilities fall short! Suddenly, the picture comes into focus: if this very average, human person is the real Paul, than it was not Paul who accomplished the amazing in his life… it was God! Doesn’t this also, then, make it suddenly so much easier to believe that God can and does intervene in our very simple, ordinary human lives the same way that he did in Paul’s? And if so, than doesn’t sainthood suddenly seem so much more attainable?

When you discover the saints in a very real, human way, one thing becomes suddenly overwhelmingly evident: it was God who gave Francis the merchant’s son a love of utter poverty, and it was God who turned Augustine the sinner into a defender of the Faith, and it was God who gave Maria the strength to face her murderer… because without God, even the saints can do nothing! And what was their part? What is our part? To be little enough and weak enough to allow His grace to carry us where we could not go on our own. This is the secret to sanctity: not the capacity to do extraordinary things, but the will to allow God to work the impossible out of our ordinariness. Isn’t this amazing news? None of us are asked to accomplish the impossible! One of the hallmarks of St. Francis’ spiritually was the deeply grounded conviction that grace is at the very beginning of everything: that even the very first step we take toward God is moved by the impulse of His grace. Francis strongly maintained that in his conversion, God was the one that called him, and God was the one Who gave him the strength and grace to answer. This is the good news of baptism: that it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, and therefore, by submitting to His help and strength, we are capable of anything! Even becoming holy? God’s answer is: YES! This doesn’t mean it’s easy: surrender is maybe the hardest thing for us to do. Hardest: but possible.

So this year, for All Saint’s Day, we’re going to start with the ordinary: that St. Jerome had a terrible temper; that St. Paul, even, grew weary; that St. Francis didn’t like preaching, and would rather have been alone; that St. Elizabeth Seton struggled her whole life with the sorrow of losing so many of her family to death, and that Thomas Aquinas loved to eat about as much as he loved theology. Benedict Joseph Labre failed at everything he ever put his hand to, and spent his life as a beggar, visiting churches; Teresa of Avila had a great sense of humor; Zita spent fifty years of her life cleaning other people’s homes; Joan of Arc loved to sew, was the best in her village, and infinitely preferred it to leading an army. Catherine Laboure never learned to read or write, and spent her life taking care of the sister’s chickens; Thomas More loved animals and owned a menagerie of them, including a monkey, and Philip Neri loved riddles. Frances Xavier Cabrini had a fear of the ocean, and Therese of Lisieux wrote a play. I could go on and on all day, but I will leave you to fill in the rest of the stories… and in the process, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it is by God’s grace that any of us attains holiness, and that our part is the very simple and challenging task of letting Him carry us to depths and heights that none of us could reach on our own. Because without Him, we truly can do nothing… And this, my friends, is still the Good News.


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