“You can’t be a saint,” one of my students told me, matter-of-factly.
I was a bit troubled by this, as I had just told my class at an all-girls Catholic high school that I wanted to be a saint. I asked if there were anything I could do to boost my chances.
“No,” another one said. “You have to be dead to be a saint. And you’re not dead.”
It seemed like pretty solid logic. I pointed out that a person probably had to do something in life, however, to wind up a saint in heaven. My students paused, contemplating this.
“I guess people can be saints in real life,” one of them said. “Like priests or nuns.”
“Not all nuns are saints!” another one added. “And not all priests either!” Everyone nodded. The students immediately began sharing stories of specific times nuns and priests had been particularly unsaintly to them, nearly all of which involved the various machinations of someone we shall refer to as “Sister History Teacher.”
“My grandma was a saint,” someone else said.
Here was something I could work with. “Why?” I asked.
“She prayed everyday, and she was really nice.”
“So that’s the definition of a saint? Praying everyday and being really nice?”
The class paused, and then everyone agreed. “That’s why you couldn’t be a saint, Mr. G,” one of them said. “You’re too sarcastic.”
I paused and walked around the room dramatically. I do that to get them to be quiet—it’s never actually worked, but I saw it in a movie once about teaching. “You must first hate your father and mother to follow me.”
“Wait, what?” they asked.
“Jesus said that,” I said. “Or something like it. What did he mean?”
That’s crazy, they all responded. Some allowed that while they did hate their father and mother, they weren’t entirely comfortable with these feelings as religious dogma. Now they were quiet: they were trying to figure it out.
“What about give up everything you have and follow me?” I asked them. “What about the last shall be first and the first shall be last? What does all that mean?”
“This stuff hurts my head, Mr. G,” one of them said. Another politely informed me that this was an English class and she was wondering when we were going to get back to The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was the most interest that particular student has shown in any novel all year.
“If you want to save your life, you must lose it, and if you want to lose your life, you should try to save it. Jesus said something like that too. What does he mean?”
“I don’t know Mr. G!” one of them yelled, now angry. “This stuff doesn’t make any sense! This isn’t religion class! Why do you keep asking us these questions?”
I stopped, stood right in the middle of the classroom, desks in front of me, to my left, and to my right. They were all quiet. “Why does it all matter?” I asked. “Why are we alive? Saints know the answer to that question. Saints have a reason to get up in the morning, and it’s not because of money or sex or power. Why do all of you get up in the morning? And you can’t say it’s because your mom made you.”
More pauses. I had them. I went on to explain the four noble truths of Buddhism, that life is suffering and that suffering can only be eliminated by eliminating desire. We talked about how similar that perspective is to Christ’s insistence that we should love the world, but that we should also be ready to lose anything for God.
“Wait,” said one student. “But I don’t want to lose my mommy!”
I could imagine the phone call already from an irate mother, asking me to explain exactly why I told her daughter that mommy might as well be dead. “That’s not it,” I said. “It’s not that you need to get rid of your family, or even your money. Jesus isn’t asking you to give everything up. You can keep your boyfriend or your TV or your education. He’s just saying you need to be able to lose that stuff if you have to, because someday you might. But no matter what, you’ll still have God.”
The students were still quiet. I think I tripped them up about the mommy stuff. “Listen,” I went on. “We need to appreciate life, love life, enjoy life. It’s a gift. But we also need to be able to center our lives completely on God, to see everything we have as something that’s really nice, but really unnecessary. Like, if someone died, you’d still be a good person, you’d still have God.”
“So that’s what a saint is?” one of them asked.
“Sort of,” I said. “A saint is someone who believes in God so much that they don’t need anything else. And because of that, a saint is someone who can really be joyful—their happiness doesn’t depend on what they have or who they know. They just always have it. Do you guys want to be like that?”
They all nodded, but with conditions. One of them said that she did want to be like that, provided she never lost her Gucci bag. Other necessities included the internet, text messaging, cable, boyfriends, and, again, various mommies.
“Because the closer we get to needing nothing but God,” I told them, “the closer we get to being saints. Because then everything is stripped away. We really know who we are. Who would you be if you didn’t have your mom? Or your boyfriend? Or your Prada bag? You’d be sad and upset, of course, but you’d also still be you—whatever that means. And if you’re really connected with your true self, then you’re connected with God.”
The bell was about to ring, and I made a hasty connection to The Picture of Dorian Gray. The students weren’t complaining about the conversation anymore though. One of them told me, “I like things too much. I’m not ready to be a saint.”
I wanted to say something sarcastic, but then I realized I didn’t need to. Maybe I’m not as far from being a saint as I thought I was after all. Just don’t tell my students.