Saints, Holiness, and Discernment

Posted: 11/9/2016

When I was a child, I wanted to be a missionary martyr. I guess when church was so much part of your growing up you just couldn’t help but imagine yourself to be one. On my knees as I recited my prayers, I would often imagine myself being martyred while bringing the gospel to people in far away places.

As I got older, however, that religious fancy started to wane. And the older I get, the farther it fades. Why? Because, as I look at my life, with its flaws and imperfections, I don’t think I would ever be a good candidate for sainthood! I know I am not the only one who thinks that way.

This is the number one reason why we too easily give up any intention of becoming like the saints who we often ask intercessions from. We have a mistaken view that the saints we know are way up there; they possess extraordinary gifts of prayers, mystical experiences, or healing powers that we do not have and will never attain. But as I feed myself with a daily diet of reading from The Lives of the Saints, I start to realize that even after their decisions to amend their lives, they remained stubbornly imperfect. In other words: human! They had all the human limitations of human existence: personality problems, failures, mistakes, errors in judgment, and even at times sins. That is what being a saint is all about: God’s power shining through our human weakness!

Here are a few examples: One of my patron saints, St. Therese of Lisieux, loved the Virgin Mary but disliked praying the Rosary. She was a great mystic but hated retreats. St. Teresa of Calcutta once doubted the very existence of God. St. Jerome had a bad temper, and he would have greatly benefited from an anger management class. He had trouble getting along with St. Ambrose. St. Jerome called St. Ambrose “an ugly crow who decked himself out in peacock feathers.”

I make these two points.

First, there’s no perfect religious community or society. Glenmary is no exception. Every single member brings his own unique gifts and personality and allows God to use them. A discerner will surely be disappointed if he is looking for a religious community whose members are all like-minded. A discerner needs to have that openness when attending a Come and See weekend.

And secondly, recognizing and embracing our own human limitations puts us one step closer to discerning God’s call. Our patron and Confirmation saints were holy and devoted their lives to God. They were also human. And they knew it, too.

Of all people saints were the most cognizant of their flawed humanity, which served as a reminder of their reliance on God. Perfection is not a requirement for holiness. The road to sainthood – which is really another way of saying discerning God’s call -- always begins with accepting our humanity, our helplessness, our weaknesses, imperfections. Our lives may be broken – and we may be ashamed of them – but that does not mean God can make something beautiful out of them.

My practical take on sainthood is this: If St. Jerome could make it to heaven, then we too have a very good chance of making it there as well. Now, that’s really God’s power shining through human weakness!