Tuesday, March 03, 2020 - Updated: 1:18 pm
We could explain saints by calling them the people we want to be. Or know we should want to be, even if we’re not feeling it. I love St. Pio, but I’m not keen on working as hard as he did, and dealing with all those people. My love for him makes me want to be a little better at both than I am. Because he loved God so much, he makes me love God a little more.
The saints can help us observe Lent by giving us something to aim for. A lot of Lenten instruction basically says, “Grow in holiness” or “Get closer to God.” Which is fine, but a little abstract for me. I need something (or someone) I can put my finger on. “Be more like him” and “Do what she does” helps me more.
What is the saint we’re trying to be like? The English Catholic writer E.I. Watkin offers a helpful insight, based on the idea that the saints see both up and down and sideways.
He talks about this in his book, “Neglected Saints.” Modern man looks at “the breadth of human experience.” He studies himself and the world around him, and learns a vast amount about it. But he doesn’t look at God. “In the midst of a bright intellectual day, he gropes in spiritual darkness.”
The men of the Christian ages before that looked at the depths and heights of our lives, that is, at God. They didn’t look at the world so much, and so they believed some really funny things. Watkin gives the example of believing that barnacles give birth to geese.
The Christian man of the Middle Ages got it right. God first. The knowledge that affects your immortal soul counts for more than the knowledge that gives you facts about the world you live in. That world will pass away.
But now that we have what he calls “breadth-vision,” we want people who have “depth-vision,” too. The saints have it more than the rest of us. Through his or her union with God, the saint “has found the only satisfying purpose for which to live, act and suffer,” Watkin writes. “He has found a happiness independent of life’s vicissitudes, a security no external disasters can shake, integrity and order, confidence without arrogance, peace in activity, a fixed end combined with flexibility of means, detachment from creatures combined with appreciation of them.”
In other words, because the saint knows God, he knows how to live well in this world. Take the last phrase. “Creatures” doesn’t just mean animals. It means everything created. We get too attached to things. We change our lives to get them and keep them. They keep us from loving God and others.
But we don’t want to go to the other extreme. We easily can because we’re bad at both/and. We don’t want to stop caring about things. God created them. He made them for us to use and enjoy.
We want to stay at a distance from creatures, so they don’t control us. And we still want to enjoy them because they’re enjoyable. The saint so loves God that he or she can do both.
It’s a lot harder than it sounds. Just before writing this, I saw a signed Carl Yastrzemski baseball card I could have stolen. He was one of the heroes of my youth, the Red Sox superstar who won baseball’s triple crown. If you had asked me five minutes before, would I want one of those, I’d have said no. But there it was, and I did.
Watkin notes that no saint is completely a saint. His vision of God “is limited by his human limitations, individual and social. … No saint can realize sufficiently the possibilities of human holiness.”
That means we need to know a lot of them. Our loss in not knowing more of them, “for prayer, example and assistance must surely be enormous,” he writes. “Since on earth, we cannot see God in his own glory, we can ill afford to dispense with the sight of his glory reflected in his saints.”
I would add that just as you click with some people, you click with some saints. You’ve got to know a lot of them to find the ones you really want to follow.
Mills is finishing a book titled “When Catholics Die,” to be published by Sophia Institute Press.