Becoming a Saint

The difference between who we admire and who we become

A friend of mine who teaches ethics and spirituality to MBA and law students often engages his students in this exercise. List the names of people you really admire. Next, list the names of people who you devote most of your time, energy, and resources trying to be more like.

Usually, people like Mother Teresa, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Buddha, St, Francis and Jesus show up on the first list. But for the second list, students likely name the latest CEO with a best seller on leadership, their firm’s biggest rainmaker, the hottest movie star they can think of.

erhaps, my friend suggests, this is the reason more of us are not joyful and fulfilled in our lives, because we do not spend our time and energy trying to become the kinds of people we ourselves most admire. Perhaps it is this quality, integrity, the character of actually living the values we hold most dear that most of us are yearning for.

Even in this age of mass media, of sound bite news and campaign sloganeering, the “saints” canonized by popular acclamation are men and women of apparent integrity—they say that love, compassion, equality, simplicity, justice matter, and their lives are evidence of their beliefs.

Loneliness and other ‘astonishing secrets’
Yet apart from this lived integrity,
these folks aren’t all that different from the rest of us. Right before the big celebration in Rome where Mother Teresa was beatified, the Associate Press released an article headlined ” Mother Teresa Often Felt Abandoned by God.”

The story went on to depict that Mother Teresa, along with her obviously passionate love for the poor and dedication to the mission of Jesus, was also “afflicted with feelings of abandonment by God from the very start of her work.” The article’s author called this feeling “an astonishing secret.”

What’s so astonishing about that? Don’t all of us experience doubt and loneliness? What makes us imagine that people who embrace their deepest values (at some sacrifice we know) would be exempt from those dark moments?

The real story of our saints isn’t that they are superheroes standing up for truth and justice with the might of extraterrestrial powers. The real story is that regular people allow their deepest desires, their most fundamental values, to guide their choices.

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement (and a woman who might easily show up on a list
of admired people), once said, “Don’t call me a saint—I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

Despite Day’s iconoclastic tendencies, I hold out hope that any time we call someone a saint—or think about the traditional saints of old—can be a time to reflect more deeply on these questions:

Who do I admire?
Who do I desire to become?
What would my life look like if I succeeded in becoming that person?