Every fall, I teach a 12-week course at Ambrose seminary on personal and spiritual formation, and every year I quote French poet Leon Bloy: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” The worst thing that can happen to you is not personal loss, or financial ruin, or deep heartache. It’s to live your life through, end to end, birth to death, and never be holy.
“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” – Leon Bloy
It takes a bit of persuasion to convince my students that this is true. Many of us – me, anyhow – have a default image of a saint: a spindle-limbed ascetic, half-starved and half-mad, pale and scowling, bearded down to his navel, terrifying in his world-denying rigor. He’s not someone we’d relish as company, not anyone we’d want tagging along on our next fishing expedition. His brooding presence, his withering gaze, stands as a fiery judgment on all our shallowness and wastefulness.
But that image, though much encouraged by many artistic depictions, misses the heart of real sainthood. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, says that when we meet a real saint, we sense first and most their deep aliveness, the hum and pulse of their inmost life. The encounter awakens in us, not shame, but hope. “The holy person,” Williams writes, “by common consent across the centuries, is someone who enhances the world for others, who generates joy – not by a great effort of cheering people up, but just by being themselves….”
When we meet a real saint, we are overwhelmed with a sense of possibility. Is it possible to have joy larger, deeper, than my troubles? Is it possible to love, or to give, or to risk from a place of total freedom, out of unlimited supply? Is it possible to live without my ego always yelling in the background? A real saint testifies, often without saying a word, that such things are not only possible but, in fact, are the way it’s supposed to be. In that sense, sainthood is true humanity. It is the vision God has for each of us and all of us. It’s the vocation of every one of us.
I know a few saints. None are perfect – perfection, outside of heaven, exists only in the realm of myth. All have quirks and flaws, an annoying trait or two. One has bad breath. Another, no fashion sense. But all share in common this quality of deep aliveness. All make me want to be a better man, not because they demand it but because they embody it. Each has a tremendous sense of humor – they laugh aloud, and often, and with little prompting. All of them enjoy, without craving or overindulgence, the fruits of God’s good creation: a succulent meal, a glass of wine, a slow dance, a bowl of ice cream, a lazy Saturday morning. All love and serve the church, though they can see better than most, her weaknesses and failings. They love her anyhow, and fiercely.
They are who I want to be when I grow up.
Many of us a few years ago often bandied about a phrase: Man up! It meant to not be a sissy, a whiner, a dead-beat. To take up manly responsibilities and act with courage. It was a summons, to use an old word, to be chivalrous.
All good things. But it doesn’t go far enough. If heaven has a motto, a phrase often bandied about, I doubt it’s Man Up. I think it’s Saint Up.
We can never have too many of those around.