Dedication: To all the living saints I know, and to the rest of us who try.
Growing up in a fairly traditional Roman Catholic home, I had access to the stories of the saints. I could even tell you a few of those stories to this day, but I was never obsessed with them like some kids were. Saints were interesting, but never all that inspiring. Even as a young child, I knew that I was far too human, and far too flawed to ever be like one of those women, or men. I couldn’t see myself kissing the wounds of a leper, or praying to receive the stigmata. Yuck! I certainly couldn’t see myself opting for a violent death if given a choice. Even as I got older and Pope John Paul II began the beatification of “everyday” people who lived holy lives, I still wasn’t that interested in who made the cut and who didn’t.
It wasn’t until much later in life that I came across a definition of a saint that I could relate to. According to Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, author and theologian, a saint is a person “who can will the one thing.” This actually felt like something I could aspire to, a version of sainthood that had nothing to do with personal morality, righteousness, or miracles. In my mind, it had everything to do with finding the purpose for which you were made, embracing that purpose and living it out as best you could. By the time I discovered Kierkegaard, I had already found my “one thing.” For ten solid years, I “willed the one thing.” I willed the heck out of it.
My purpose was to love my family, not in a la-di-da, “Isn’t it sweet, she loves her family so much” sort of way, but in a real, concrete, “007, this is your mission” sort of way. Yes, it encompassed the physical care of my family: the cooking, the cleaning, the driving, and the disinfecting, but it also included the soft sciences as well. To this day, it still includes the touching, the loving, the praising, the presence, the balance and my focused attention. Every day, as I spend time with my kids and my husband, I try to look them in the eye and ask myself, “Who is this person? Who do they want to be, and how can I help them get there?”
If being a saint is “to will the one thing,” then five years ago, I thought canonization was mine for the taking, if I could just die tomorrow. Well, obviously, that didn’t happen and thank goodness. I’d rather be a saint, who lost her title in heaven, than leave my purpose here on earth unfinished. I am still alive and well, but something unforeseen happened. I lost my opportunity “to will the one thing.” No, nothing tragic happened. I haven’t lost my kids, or my husband, or even my purpose. But what I have lost is the oneness of it all. As I have approached middle age, as the economy has stalled, as my children have gotten older, I have been asked to will not ‘one thing,’ but many things. Now, some of you may scoff at that and I will allow you to do so without defensiveness or judgment. I know that it was a privilege to be home with my kids and to have such a single focus for so long.
But my new reality is that my life is asking me to will many things, in addition to the “one thing” I really love. I am not just talking about having more obligations on my plate, though that is a part of it. I am talking about tasks that require real passion and effort, focus and sacrifice on my part and the part of my family. And I have to admit that at first, it felt like a betrayal of my “saintly” calling to extend my will beyond the one thing. I have spent many nights asking the same questions about myself that I’ve asked countless times about my children. “Who is this person? Who does she want to be, and how I can I help her get there?” While I don’t have any precise answers to those questions yet, reading The Gift of the Red Bird by Paula D’Arcy introduced me to a new definition of a saint, one I liked even better than Kierkegaard.
D’Arcy quotes Keith Miller who said that saints “were not people with the greatest education or even the largest results. But what they said correlated almost 100 percent with who they were and what they did… An amazing and invisible power may be released when a person’s words and her inner life match.” I read that line and it stopped me in my tracks. That’s a saint I would like to know, someone unconcerned with personal perfection and holiness, not limited by an adherence to “the one thing,” but fully, genuinely, authentically themselves.
Do you know those kinds of people, the ones who say they believe in something and then actually try to carry it out in all aspects of their daily life? The kinds of people who make you believe that if they’re nice to your face, they’re also going to be nice to you behind your back? The kinds of people whose very presence makes it easier for you to be a better person? When I think of the people I have most admired in my lifetime, they were saints in Miller’s sense of the word, and only a handful of them were religious. They are people of integrity and authenticity. They are people who nurture, who love and who open their hearts to seemingly everyone. These are people who give 100% of themselves to whatever they are doing at any time.
This is the kind of saint I would like to be, but it’s a very tall order, even greater than the other two, I think. By historical precedent, the first “requires” you to follow a set of rules, strictly, almost fanatically. The second seems to be manageable if you really focus on the ‘one thing’ to the exclusion of everything else, and as much as I enjoyed that time of life, I know the purpose I chose was too limiting. God wasn’t going to let me off that easy; taking care of 4 people (even if you do it well) is not all that He asks of anyone. This third definition though cannot take place without a complete transformation of self over the course of a lifetime. In this definition of saintliness, there is no perfection expected, or even possible. We all make mistakes, slip up, and growl like a junkyard dog on occasion. We all roll our eyes in annoyance, or get stuck in the morass of self-pity when things seem to stack up against us.
We are human, but we can be saintly humans.
I want to be a person of integrity. I want people to be able to believe in me and the promises I make. When I smile at you, I want you to know that I am smiling for real, on the inside. When I work for you, write for you, speak with you, I want you to have the real me and hear the real me, because that is best I have to offer.
I want to be a saintly blogger, a saintly mother, a saintly wife, friend and volunteer.
I want desperately to be this kind of saint, but when I see all the ways I fall short, it’s easy to get discouraged. However, there is hope. Just last week, I heard another definition of a saint. It doesn’t detract from the other three, but rather increases the odds of getting there. My good friend Nancy Corran said, “A saint is just a sinner who got back up.” Well, amen to that.
That is one kind of saint I know I can be.
And I hope you know one and know that you can be one too.