There is only one sadness; it is the sadness of not being saints.
— Leon Bloy [i]
In a 1998 New York Times interview, Gregory Peck reflected on the challenge of playing Ahab in Moby Dick. “I think I should have been more ferocious in pursuit of the whale, more cruel to the crew,” he said, “and I think I’d have a better grasp now of what Melville was talking about. Ahab focused all his energies on avenging himself against the whale, but he was trying to penetrate the mystery of why we are here at all, why there is anything. I wasn’t mad enough, not crazy enough, not obsessive enough. I should have done more.” He paused, took a long breath, and added: “At the time, I didn’t have more in me.” [ii]
When you hear the stories of the saints, do you say, “I mean to be one too!”—or do you feel you’re not quite ready for the part? Maybe you’re not crazy enough, not obsessive enough, not pure enough, not loving enough. You may think, “I don’t have it in me.”
Well, you’re right. You don’t. But that’s the point. The saints don’t have it in them either. Saintliness comes from a source deeper than their own solitary selves. The true hero or heroine of a saint’s life is not the individual person, but the divine intention taking flesh in his or her story. As St. Paul said of his own life’s protagonist, “Not I, but Christ in me” (Gal. 2:20).
As Wendy Wright has written, saints “are people who have had the imagination and audacity to allow themselves to be remade slowly in the image of the living God, people who have so opened their hearts to God that God’s own story is in them once again … retold.” [iii] Every saint’s life is a unique retelling, shaped by the particulars of heredity, personality and environment, but down deep it’s always the same story, over and over again: the story of “love’s endeavor, love’s expense,”[iv] perpetually pouring itself out for the life of the world.
When I graduated from high school, my parents gave me a gilt-edged copy of one the great classics of Christian devotion, Of the Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. My father wrote in the front, “We hope that this book will bring you closer to the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Love, Mom & Dad.”
Although not all of Thomas’ late medieval spirituality resonates today, much of it still hits home.
Blessed are the ears that catch the pulse of the Divine whisper, and give no heed to the whisperings of this world … Blessed are they that prepare themselves more and more, by daily exercises, for the receiving of heavenly secrets. Blessed are they who are glad to have time to spare for God.[v]
O my friend, lose not thy confidence of making progress toward the things of the Spirit; still thou hast time, the hour is not yet past. Why wilt thou defer thy good purpose from day to day? Arise, and in this very instant begin, and say, Now is the time to be doing, now is the time to be striving, now is the fit time to be amending myself.[vi]
(Mom, Dad, I’m still working on it!)
Every saint’s life is an imitation of Christ. The very structure of Christian sacred biographies reflects this theological point. In the Book of Acts, the martyrdom of Stephen—the first biography of a Christian saint—deliberately mirrors the Passion of Christ. Like Jesus, Stephen is an innocent killed by a world which refuses his message. Like Jesus, Stephen uses his final breaths to forgive his enemies and surrender his spirit to the divine. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he prays at the end. Perhaps it’s not enough to say that Stephen was imitating Christ in his martyrdom. He was, in truth, repeating Christ, in the Pauline sense of “Christ in me.” We suggest the same sense of return and presence in the Words of Institution at every eucharist: Whenever you perform these actions, I am with you once again.
Eleven centuries after the death of Stephen, St. Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx in the north of England, lay on his deathbed, eyes closed. His friend and fellow monk, Walter Daniel, leaned over to whisper in his ear, “Look on the cross; let your eye be where your heart is.” Aelred opened his eyes for just a moment, and spoke his last words: “In manus tuas commendo spiritum meum” (“Into your hands I commend my spirit.”) Once again, the surrender of spirit by a dying saint echoes the last words of Jesus from the cross in Luke 23:46.
In fact, unlike Stephen’s paraphrase, it was a direct quote. Did Walter, Aelred’s biographer, insert the verse from Luke into his abbot’s mouth as a pious fiction, or had Aelred in fact repeated Christ’s words verbatim? In the genre of sacred biography, we don’t need to know the factual answer. Holy stories are always about more than what a camera or microphone can record. As narratives straddling the mysterious boundary between the human and the divine, their language dives beneath the empirical surface to explore the hidden depths. Hyperbole, metaphor, miracle—these are all rhetorical tools to convey the inherently mysterious nature of religious experience.
As Thomas J. Heffernan points out in his seminal study of sacred biographies, “Walter would argue, and his monastic audience would agree, that Aelred’s death has become more memorable because it is now able to arouse in us the memory of another death, the death of Christ, which is the paradigm for the manner in which all Christian martyrs are meant to surrender to God.” [vii]
When it comes to saints, it is not in the historical particulars of their stories, however interesting, edifying, or inspiring, that the central meaning of their lives is to be found, but rather in the way their stories imitate, or repeat, the Christ event, as divine love takes place anew in the flesh of our human existence. As hymn writer Isaac Watts summarized this process:
“The image of Christ is transcribed upon our natures, we go from one degree of it to another, we are changed from glory into glory, from one degree of glorious holiness to another: thereby the gospel appears to have a fairer, brighter, and a stronger evidence.” [viii] We, having Christ in us, become the evidence for the truth of Christian faith.
In other words, saints are living icons, radiant with the light of heaven—even if they sometimes have messy and complicated lives. Take, for example, Elizaveta Pilenko. Born to a wealthy Russian family in 1891, she was caught up in the revolutionary movement during her late teens. She briefly flirted with a plot to assassinate Trotsky (Russian politics were deadly even then). But at the same time, her Orthodox faith was beginning to deepen. She fled the Stalinist regime for Paris in the 1920s, by which time her second marriage, like her first, had failed, and a daughter had died of influenza.
In her new home, she began a ministry to the poor, and her bishop encouraged her to take vows as a nun. She did so, receiving her religious name, Maria Skobtsova. She was permitted to continue to live and work among the people, and her rented Parisian house had an open door for refugees and lost souls. Her bishop called her faux monastery “the desert of human hearts.”
She wasn’t exactly easy for her sister nuns. She wore odd clothes, and hung out in cafes and bars late into the night, counseling people on the brink of despair. She also missed many liturgies while off scrounging food for her soup kitchens in the markets of Las Halles. She’s been called the Orthodox Dorothy Day.
When France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Mother Maria sheltered many Jews, supplying them with baptismal certificates and assisting their escape. Eventually arrested by the Gestapo, she died in the gas chamber at Ravensbrück on Holy Saturday, 1945. She was canonized as St. Mary of Paris in 2004.
Mother Maria was also a writer of poetry and theology. Listen to what she said about the Christian life as a continual self-emptying:
“Renunciation teaches us not only that we not greedily seek advantages for our soul but that we not be stingy, that we always be extravagant in our love, that we achieve a spiritual nakedness, that our soul hold nothing back, that we not hold back anything sacred and valuable which we would not be ready to give up in Christ’s name to those who need it …That which was given away returns. The love which was expended never diminishes the source of that love, because the source of love in our hearts is Love itself, Christ… Here we are speaking about a genuine emptying out, in a partial imitation of how Christ emptied himself by becoming incarnate in humanity. We must likewise empty ourselves out completely, becoming, so to speak, incarnate in another human soul, offering it to the full measure of God’s image which is contained in ourselves.” [ix]
Now when we hear a prescription like that, we may worry, as Gregory Peck did over Melville’s Ahab, about our capacity to perform such a demanding role. What we need to remember is this: the subject of our life is not our individual, autonomous self, but the transcendent, empowering Christ who dwells within us. In a recent podcast, Mark Harris, one of my most eloquent priestly friends, made this point perfectly. “When I look at the heroes I have in terms of justice ministries,” he said, “they are people who live into this to the point of self-emptying. They get out of the way finally. It’s not about their being good; it’s about good being done. So it’s God’s justice that’s done, not them doing justice.” [x]
Heavenly Adam, Life divine
Change my nature into Thine;
Move and spread throughout my soul;
Activate and fill the whole;
Be it I no longer now
Living in the flesh, but Thou.
— Charles Wesley
Our own holiness practice may not entail the rigors or reach the heights of the greatest saints. Most of us are called to what Thérèse of Lisieux described as “the Little Way.” As a dreamy teenager, Thérèse thought it would be simply thrilling to be a saint:
“I would be a Martyr … I would be a Missionary. I would be flayed like St. Bartholomew, plunged into boiling oil like St. John, or, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, I would be ground by the teeth of wild beasts into bread worthy of God. With St. Agnes and St. Cecilia I would offer my neck to the sword of the executioner, and like St. Joan of Arc I would murmur the name of Jesus at the stake.” [xi]
However, such heroic drama would be denied her. After a brief and uneventful life hidden within a Carmelite cloister, she died from tuberculosis at 24. But her autobiography, detailing her efforts to respond to the smallest, most ordinary moments with a loving, patient and generous heart, would inspire countless faithful around the world. “I am only a very little soul,” she said, “who can only offer very little things to the Lord.”
Fr. Alban Butler, who in the 18th century compiled the most extensive compendium of saintly lives in the English language, also made the point that sanctity can be a practical, everyday kind of holiness:
“Perfection consists not in raptures and lofty contemplation; nor in austerities, or any extraordinary actions: for thus, it would have been above the reach of many. But God has placed it in what is easy, and in every one’s power. The rich and poor, the learned and unlearned may equally aim at perfection: for it requires only that we perform our daily actions in a spirit of true Christian virtue … we must be holy not by fits, but by habit … it is then our ordinary actions performed in a true spirit of virtue … which must sanctify our lives.” [xii]
We must be holy not by fits, but by habit,
performing our ordinary actions in a true spirit of virtue.
Blessed are those who rise and shine.
Blessed are those who lend a hand.
Blessed are those who listen.
Blessed are those who take the time.
Blessed are those who speak kindly.
Blessed are those who smile at strangers.
Blessed are those who plant.
Blessed are those who raise children.
Blessed are those who teach.
Blessed are those who provide our meals.
Blessed are those who do the hard things.
Blessed are those who look with compassion.
Blessed are those who do justice.
Blessed are those who wonder.
Blessed are those who welcome.
Blessed are those who nurture.
Blessed are those who care.
Blessed are those who struggle with failing bodies.
Blessed are those who suffer.
Blessed are the broken.
Blessed are those who know loss.
Blessed are those who persist.
Blessed are those who surrender.
Blessed are those who remember hope.
Blessed are those who practice resurrection.
“To be a saint,” says Frederick Buechner, “is to live not with hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and receive with gladness.” [xiii] You see, it’s very simple to be a saint. Just open your hands, and your heart.
The greatest cinematic depiction of sainthood is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, based on George Bernanos’ novel of the same name. The unnamed priest is rejected by many in his village, but it is clear to a few—and to the viewer—that Christ is truly in him. The priest experiences what he calls “the miracle of our empty hands!—that we may give what we do not possess!” Claude Laydu, the non-professional who played the part, threw himself into the role, living with working-class priests, adopting an austere diet, studying the novel throughout the shoot, and submitting without question to Bresson’s strict direction. As critic Tony Pipolo writes, “The very qualities this behavior manifests—obedience, obsessive concentration, a combination of fire and composure, and genuine dedication—were exactly those Bresson sought for his curé.”[xiv] But only after viewing the finished film would Laydu recognize the true nature of his role. “I didn’t know I was playing a saint,” he confessed. I think all the saints would say pretty much the same thing.
I’ll give the last word to Buechner, who writes about saints as well as any. In a novel about Brendan of Ireland, his protagonist sums it up beautifully:
“[God] wants each one of us to have a loving heart …
When all’s said and done, perhaps that’s the length and breadth of it.” [xv]
[i] Cited in Tony Pipolo, Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 71.
[ii] Gregory Peck New York Times interview in 1988, quoted in William Grimes’ New York Times obituary for Mr. Peck, June 13, 2003.
[iii] Wendy Wright, “For all the saints,” in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life (Vol. III, No. 5, Sept.-Oct. 1988), 17-18.
[iv] From W. H. Vanstone’s hymn, “Morning glory, starlit sky” (Episcopal Hymnal 1982, #585). The endeavor and expense are spelled out in verse 3: “Love that gives, gives evermore, / gives with zeal, with eager hands, / spares not, keeps not, all outpours, / ventures all, its all expends.”
[v] On the Imitation of Christ, Book 3, ch. I.
[vi] Ibid., Book 1, ch. XXII.
[vii] Thomas J. Heffernan, Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (Oxford/New York): Oxford University Press, 1988), 79.
[viii] Isaac Watts (1674-1748), cited in Gordon Mursell, English Spirituality: From 1700 to the Present Day (London, SPCK, 2008), 69.
[ix] Maria Skobtsova, in Michael Plekon, Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (Notre Dame 2002), 76.
[x] The Rev. Mark Harris, speaking about the Beatitudes on the video podcast, Circuosity .21: https://youtu.be/6V6zGsX9yqA
[xi] Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), cited in Jill Haak Adels, The Wisdom of the Saints: An Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 7.
[xii] Alban Butler (1710-1773), Meditations and Discourses, cited in Mursell, 36.
[xiii] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 119.
[xiv] Pipolo, op. cit., 71.
[xv] Buechner, Brendan (New York: Atheneum, 1987), 216.