A number of contemporary writers, such as Robert Ellsberg in his fantastic book “All Saints,” have gone to considerable lengths to show the incredible diversity, difficulty and painstaking processes that went into each saint’s determining the road God was calling them to follow. In other words, Ellsberg and his contemporaries have tried to humanize them.
As an example, take a glance at the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. The young Italian died when he was 24 after contracting polio, but he spent his few years engaged in works of charity, prayer and social activism. As the photo below indicates, he was also a total badass, regularly climbing mountains and enjoying a pipe when he reached the summit.
The reality is that saints are human beings just like you and me. They are people with unique strengths and weaknesses. What sets them apart – at least in my view – is that they a) recognize the divine spark that ignites in every individual in a special way and b) respond to that light as their gifts allow.
In “The Seven Storey Mountain,” Thomas Merton says we should all desire to be saints. In an oft-quoted passage, he later said, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
Realizing who we are is hard enough; it can seem impossible when it is tied to a quest for sainthood.
While we are called, as Merton noted, to be saints in our own way, I have tried to make the question of sainthood more practical by looking at how people I know live saintly lives. There is Hermana Rosario, a Peruvian nun who has continued working to educate young people despite being well past retirement age. Hermana Rosario is not a stern saint; she once approached me after mass and suggested we go back to her house for some beer. When no one else was looking, I once caught her pretending she was a bird.
Father Vic, a priest I knew, either began or ended every mass with a joke and, in summer, rode his bike to a local drive-in restaurant for a scoop of ice cream.
An old acquaintance, Rose, would travel to Marquette University’s campus coffee shops before they closed each night. She collected the food that would otherwise be thrown away and donated it to soup kitchens.
All these people and so many others remind me that sanctity is a daily exercise full of acts that are sometimes heroic but usually humble. To be a saint, one need not strive to do as Augustine, Mother Teresa or Therese of Lisieux did. We simply must be ourselves and, for God’s sake, have some fun.