are far from occupying opposite ends of the moral spectrum. As a matter of fact, the greatest saints saw themselves as the greatest sinners, and that paradoxically made them the greatest saints. It seems as if the closer they got to God, the more they could see their own multitudinous imperfections, just as we are able to see floating particles of dust within the light of a sunbeam.
And the saints did have had many flaws, sometimes based on the time periods in which they lived, and sometimes more specifically on personality traits. St. Francis could be unrealistic in his idealism of running an order without the proper funds. St. Thomas More sometimes used his biting wit to wound and could be harsh towards those with whom he disagreed. St. Kateri inflicted extreme penances on herself, to the point of destroying her health. St. John Vianney came out against almost any form of dancing and denounced the apparitions of Our Lady of La Salette which were later approved by the Church. St. Padre Pio and St. Maximilian were known for being cranky and generally difficult to deal with.
Some of these failings they resolved in their lifetimes, while some others they probably took with them to their graves. But their belief in God’s mercy and grace enabled them to pick themselves up after falling and continue to trek the Pilgrim’s Path, doing great good for those they crossed paths with along the way. St. Francis founded one of the most beloved religious orders in Christendom, grounded in simplicity and doing good deeds that continues strong to this day.
St. Thomas More had the strength to stand up against tyranny at the cost of his life. St. Kateri braved innumerable hardships in her Mohawk village because of her conversion to Christianity and stands as the patroness of Native America. St. John Vianney was tireless in his pastoral duties, and touched all those he met with his spiritual insight and humility. St. Padre Pio had a deep mystical relationship with God, suffering the wounds of Christ in His body, and becoming the spiritual father of thousands. St. Maximilian Kolbe founded the Immaculata and gave his life in exchange for another prisoner at the Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz.
In essence, they were both human and extraordinary, making them perfect heavenly friends to refer back to and draw inspiration from in our daily lives. They realized that even if they conquered all their vices and became flawless before God and man, they would still be subject to falling prey to the greatest sin of all: Pride. St. Thomas More said that the one sin worse than lust is pride, because the former is obvious and animalistic, while the other is subtle and all too human.
Eve, brought into being free from the stain of Original Sin, took the apple after being assured by the snake that she would be like a goddess. The Blessed Virgin Mary, also conceived free from the stain of original, undid this fateful pattern by submitting herself with total humility as “the handmaid of the Lord”. That is why we see her as “Queen of Saints”; she was conceived free from sin, honored with bearing Christ in her womb, and yet did not succumb to thinking of herself as anything more than a servant of God.
Speaking of pride and humility, there is one other saint that comes to mind in particular. St. Edmund Campion was a brilliant man, seasoned in rhetoric and eager for debate. After living a life daring for danger for his conversion to Catholicism and missionary ventures into England as a Catholic priest, he wanted nothing more than to meet his opponents on their own terms and hash out the truth once and for all. He challenged the Queen’s Councilors to this mental duel in his pamphlet now famously known as “Campion’s Brag”, insisting that a well-informed Catholic would be able to counter any and all heresies if given the fair opportunity to do so. If anyone was fit to do so, it was Campion, whose wit was legendary in secular as well as religious circles. He had even won the favor of Queen Elizabeth I and her favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in his college days.
But Campion never got his fair chance. Instead of being allowed an honest debate with the Protestant hierarchy of the land, he received a mock trial before a kangaroo court after he had been tortured mercilessly in the Tower of London. Half-paralyzed and blurry-eyed for him imprisoned, he was offered his “chance” to lay out his case for Catholicism. For sympathetic people, the scene would have been painful to watch. But he listeners merely jeered when Campion made a slip of the tongue in Greek and struggled to remember rhetoric when given no time for preparation. Considering the circumstances, he did a fair job holding his own, but his efforts cost him his life. There would be no justice; he was framed for treason and hanged, drawn, and quartered.
I wonder if perhaps it was meant to be that he should never get his chance to prove his brag. He had a scintillating brain, and it is always hard for highly intelligent people to keep their pride in check. Perhaps the fair debate he craved would have pushed him over the edge. Instead, he received a heavy dose of humiliation and perhaps that, more than almost anything, is the thing that secured him his sainthood. Being in the position of Christ before the Sanhedrin must have been like an interior martyrdom for him before he ever mounted the scaffold.
Saints are those who have gone before us. They are the veterans who have charged the field, taking the enemy batteries, and cheer us on to follow. We can aspire to live out their virtues and avoid their vices, and work hard to live up to our Christian identity. It is a hard, uphill battle. As St. Therese of Liseux said, “I want to be a saint, but I feel so helpless.” It is a matter of giving all we have to purge of our inner selves, working out our salvation day by day with fear and trembling, and trusting in God’s mercy to get us through to the end.
This is the true meaning of the great liturgical feast of All Saints’ Day, celebrated on November 1, and also the reason why some of us will enjoy the fun of dressing up as saints the night before on October 31, All Hallow’s Eve. The day after celebrating those who made it to heaven, we remember to pray for the souls being cleansed of their imperfections in Purgatory on All Souls’ Day, November 2. And so this month, let us remember the interlocking aspects of the Church Militant (here on earth), the Church Suffering (in Purgatory), and the Church Triumphant (in Heaven).
|All Ye Holy Angels and Saints, Pray for Us!|