Can We Be Saints?
by Frank Duff
In the heart of every right-thinking Catholic, God has implanted the desire to become a Saint. Yet few make a serious attempt to realise the ambition. The cause for this is to a large extent discouragement, due to the misunderstanding of what a Saint really is.
What is a Saint? The answer usually returned to this question is: one who does extraordinary penances and works miracles. Now, this is an incorrect description, for neither miracles nor great penances are essential. The man who works a miracle does not raise himself in God's eyes by it; and, while penance in some shape is necessary, still the teaching of the Saints on this difficult question is encouraging.
What they direct is not bodily penances of a terrifying kind, but rather the strict avoidance of delicacies, softness, comfort. We are told to beware of injuring our health, and to eat enough plain food to enable us to work and pray without hindrance. There is ample opportunity for the severest mortification in the restraint of eyes and tongue, and in a warfare against the seven Deadly Sins.
Thus, there is another definition of what a Saint is. It is this: One who, with the object of pleasing God, does his ordinary duties extraordinarily well. Such a life may be lived out without a single wonder in it, arouse little notice, be soon forgotten, and yet be the life of one of God's dearest friends.
It is obviously an encouragement to look on sanctity in this way. When we see that those things which so terrified us in the lives of the Saints, because we felt we could not do them ourselves, are not the important part of their sanctity at all, we should feel heartened to begin to-day and make a serious effort for great holiness. Believe this: it is only the first few wrenches given to the will that really hurt. Perhaps the following words of Cardinal Newman will tempt us to take a step forward on the road:
"If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first do not lie in bed beyond the time of rising; give your first thoughts to God; make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament; say the Angelus devoutly; eat and drink to God's glory; say the Rosary well; be recollected; keep out bad thoughts; make your evening meditation well; examine yourself daily; go to bed in good time, and you are already perfect."
Who are Called to be Saints?
Every person that is born is called to be a Saint. Take it as most certain that you -- no matter how unfitted your life may seem for holiness -- are being given graces sufficient, if corresponded with, to bring you to sanctity. We have already seen that nothing beyond our strength is expected; neither is sanctity the exclusive property of any grade or manner of life. Among the Saints canonised by the Church are kings and beggars, and representatives of every trade, slaves, hermits, city people, mothers of families, invalids, soldiers, and persons of every race and colour.
As a canonised Saint is a pattern provided by God, it is evident that an invitation to become Saints is extended to men and women of every type. It is equally a fact that to those who seriously try to respond to His invitation, He gives help sufficient to carry them to the goal.
The Two Successes
Watch how the thought of fame or gold moves men. What sufferings they will endure for a mere chance of earthly gain. And in the end, though disappointed themselves, they will fill the minds of their children with the same longings for worldly success, so that each generation sees the same weary beat of the pendulum -ambitious youth to soured age. Is it really worth the trouble? So many are handicapped by lack of health or knowledge or brains that it never is a fair fight. Except for a few, striving is pure waste of time.
How differently God deals with anyone striving after holiness. Here all is certain. Every effort gets its reward. Everything is made to favour us; for alike out of health and sickness, poverty and wealth, what looks good and what looks evil -- can the man of good-will extract spiritual gain. Every reasonable request granted; obstacles removed for the asking; no trial beyond our strength permitted. In the ears of the world, this would sound like a fairy-tale, but it is in sober truth God's way of dealing with the earnest seeker after Heavenly riches.
Surely, to announce calmly, as so many good people do, that they have no ambition to be Saints, is very ungenerous treatment of One so kind. As He has so plainly set His Heart upon our doing great things, let us resolve to please Him and return generosity for generosity.
I Am a Bundle of Weakness
"I am appalled at the thought of a life of constant effort to crush my nature into a new form. I have no strength of will and such a life is beyond my powers."
With such reasonings, we harden ourselves against the call which rings so often in our ears. We forget that the same holy lips which say, "Come follow Me," say also to all, "My yoke is sweet and My burden light," What, then, is wrong with us that we fear the yoke of Christ?
It is this... our point of view. Unimportant ideas occupy the strongholds of our minds and shape our thoughts; while He, the owner of Eternity, is left only as one of the hundred interests in our lives, so that it is not surprising that the zeal, the courage, the ardour, that do big things, are spent on gains or pleasures which give a visible and rapid return. In a word, we undervalue holiness.
Once alter this -- and little is required to do it -once accept the fact that holiness is the most important thing in the world for us, and it will become the most natural thing in the world for us to strive after it. There lies the whole secret of effort. Make the goal attractive and reasonable, and we pursue it in spite of hardships, and almost in spite of ourselves. The human mind works in that way.
A Changed Outlook
The secret of bringing this about is contained in a few words; we must face facts. Now and then we must give the mind a chance to raise itself above the sea in which it is immersed, of things that do not matter, and face in all coldness the grim truths which group themselves around the central facts of Death and Eternity. Think of the immortality of the Soul; the insanity of preferring temporal to eternal; the shortness of our stay on earth; the nearness of that moment which will decide all; and the pricelessness of each minute of time, which, short as it is, yet shapes our undying life beyond the grave.
To occupy oneself deliberately with these solemn considerations and still remain indifferent is impossible. Dwelt upon so that they become familiar, these thoughts bring a new force into our lives. There is operated in us a wonderful change. As if the needle of the compass were to turn from the North and point due South, worldliness will not repel, and reason drive us on to God. Add a little love and the stock-in-trade for a Saint is there.
But we have already been deliberating too long. Whilst we have been in doubt, "the precious days have slipped away, and we find ourselves in the rapids above the great waters of the grave, and we hear the falling of the waters into the immeasurable abyss, and we feel the suction of eternity."
Eternity!! What a thought!
So, in God's Name, let us begin, while yet we have the time, and while the thirst is still in us to love Him ardently.
A New Ambition
Fear the postponed beginnings. A chill grows up, and our great destiny is forgotten.
Oh, my God! Grant that I have not in my indecision let that day come upon myself. I confess that Your work has never been anything to me but occupations for an idle moment. My heart has been set upon the things that pass. But henceforth I will give myself entirely to You. Give me the time, and faithfully do I promise now to serve You. Give me back the years that the worm and the locust have devoured, that I may one day restore them to You full of achievement.
And I do not ask for the big things -- the life of the missionary or the monk, or those others I see around me so full of accomplishment. I do not ask for any of these; but simply set my face to follow out unswervingly, untiringly, the common life which day by day stretches before me, satisfied in it I love You, and try to make You loved. Nature rebels against this life with its neverending round of trivial tasks and full of the temptation to take relief in amusement or change. It seems so hard to be great in the small things, to be heroic in the doing of the commonplace, but still this life is Your Will for me. There must be a great destiny in it. And so I am content.
And then to crown the rest, dear Jesus, I beg of You to give me this... fidelity to the end... to be at my post when the final call comes, and to take my last weary breath in your embrace. A valiant life . . . and faithful to the end. A short wish, dearest Jesus, but it covers all.
Being Really in Earnest
Good will is the very foundation of our progress. By good will is meant not an empty wish to reach the goal, but a readiness to toil along the road that leads to it. Now the symbol of our religion is a Cross. Our Lord has told us that we must carry it daily if we desire to be perfect. What excuse, therefore, can there be for being upset when trials come upon us? He that is discouraged by them evidently began without thought. But he who gives up altogether plainly never was in earnest. Of such Our Lord Himself has said: "These have no roots."
There is usually a sweetness in beginnings. God gives this aid freely then in order to encourage, just as a helping hand is given to children learning to walk. It is not for our good that we should always be carried, so after a while the sweetness is lessened. Then comes the critical time when our resolution is being tested. Guardian angels must weep to see so many who gave hopes of high sanctity stop short in their course.
Now, to give up because our fervour is gone is to admit that we never had in view God's pleasure, but our own. Our pleasure in the work having gone, we labour no more. It apparently matters little to us that God's pleasure in the work is still the same -- greater, perhaps, for the offering made from a sick heart and tired brain is always the most precious.
Perseverance is the last grace that will be given to us, and the greatest. It is the test of our good will. Excitement, novelty, or any one of a dozen other merely human things may start something, but they will not keep it going. What is wrong with all these who begin so splendidly and stop so soon? Call for volunteers for any good work. There are many -- full of enthusiasm -but hardly one who remains steadfast, hardly one who keeps his hands to the plough to the end . . . And the good intentions of a Retreat . . . How short-lived they are!
Is there any definite reason why all these people lack the quality of perseverance? Here is the answer in the words of the celebrated Pere de Ravignan:
"I do here affirm that all deceptions, all spiritual deficiencies, all miseries, all faults, and even the most serious wanderings out of the right path, all proceed from this single source -- a want of constancy in prayer."
The Secret of Perseverance is Prayer
From reading the lives of the Saints, one would conclude that they fall, roughly, into two classes: those who gave themselves to contemplation, and those who spent their lives in active works. In reality they were all alike. All were souls whose whole lives were prayer. Prayer was their business. Their good deeds were only valuable because they sprang from prayer; they bore the same relation to prayer that the trunk of a tree bears to the roots; good deeds are a visible part of prayer; and good deeds cannot live without prayer.
The present is a period when successful appeal is being made to Catholics to show by works of charity the Faith that is in them. That the most ordinary act may become holy when inspired by a holy intention is well understood and the words of Christ Himself, assuring us that "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me," draws us powerfully on to the service of our neighbour.
The possibilities of holiness here are immense. But it is not sufficiently recognised that a proper balance of regular prayer and good works is essential to perseverance in the latter. There is a tendency to consider good works as prayerful enough in themselves. Their variety makes them easy, while prayer is difficult. Besides, we like to see results, and usually we do not see the results of prayer. So we reduce our prayers to little or nothing satisfying ourselves with the recollection that we are doing plenty of practical work for our neighbour.
Readers of Canon Sheehan will remember how a similar course of reasoning ended in the case of Luke Delmege in complete loss of spirituality and in disaster.
Of course, this is an extreme case. But we all know of many with noble qualities, holy intentions, and high promise, who just reach a certain point and no further. In a way, these makings of Saints who give up advancing are most to be pitied. It is far easier to pick a sinner out of the mire than to induce such people to get out of the rut of mere goodness, which God never intended for them.
Let us sound once more the note upon which we began a little while ago. The cause of all this pitiful failure is this: there is not Prayer enough.
Pray! Pray! Pray!
This is how St. Teresa stated she would summarise all her teachings.
People do not understand the importance of prayer. They say it is difficult. What wonder, considering that they make no effort to learn. The man who thinks it quite natural to put his son to a six years' apprenticeship to learn a trade, would think it absurd to spend six hours reading a book which might teach him how to pray.
Prayer must be brought to occupy a most prominent and definite place in our lives. This does not mean that we have to spend many hours each day on our knees. The duties of our state probably prevent that. But certainly we must aim at more than the saying of prayers twice a day, or even three or four times a day. He prays little who only prays on his knees.
Just as a gong or a tuning-fork could be kept quietly sounding all day by an occasional tap, so will the soul of itself send up incessant prayer, if now and then we apply the tap of an aspiration, a thought, an ejaculation. Never let the mind be too long away from God. The great disinclination to pray which most of us feel when the time set apart for prayer comes is plain proof that we are not, as it were, living with Him.
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Frank Duff is the founder of the Legion of Mary
. "Can we be Saints" is the first pamphlet he published aged 27 and is reproduced with permission of the Legion of Mary. All rights reserved.