Deep down we all understand that the goal of life is to be a saint. Even atheists acknowledge this. In his book, “The Plague,” atheist writer Albert Camus interestingly outlines the importance of sanctity in his story. Camus is a doctor in Algeria when a deadly plague breaks out. He’s the only one in the region that has the experience and expertise to help. As the story unfolds, thousands of people are dying while Camus does all he can to heal the people and alleviate the virus. Camus has a comfortable life and practice back home in France and everyone expects him to go back to France, but he doesn’t. Why? Camus insists he must stay in Algeria to help as many people as he can because innately in his soul he knows that the meaning of life is to be a saint. Here we come to an interesting conundrum for Camus – he doesn’t believe in God, but he believes in sanctity. Camus readily admits the problem by indicating he doesn’t know how anyone can be a saint without God. Therefore, even smart atheists know the meaning of life is to be a saint, and to be a saint one needs to cling wholeheartedly to God.
This theme keeps popping up in non-Christian thinkers. In his book, “The Mystery of Being” agnostic philosopher Gabriel Marcel candidly admitted that the most fruitful and profound avenue to understand being (yourself) in metaphysics is the study of sanctity. What Marcel is articulating is that in order to comprehend who the human person’s essence is, one needs to understand the saints.
Marcel’s reasoning is rather simple to grasp. Do we understand something by its most problematic and defective forms, or by understanding it in its perfected form? To apprehend anything you understand it in its perfected state. You don’t understand oak trees in light of acorns. You understand acorns in light of oak trees. You don’t understand people in light of babies you understand babies in light of people. Therefore, you know a thing’s being in terms of what they grow to become in their perfected form in the future.
When you study human anatomy do you start by studying diseases or by studying the healthy? Why not apply the same concept to the soul to what we do to the body. Why not understand diseased humans (i.e., sinners) by first understanding healthy humans – the saints. To even non-Christians thinkers this logic rings true.
Certain people instinctively stick out as a saint. Few would deny that when she walked this earth, Mother Theresa was a saint. Even your non-religious, pleasure-seeking junkie who might be in a moral stupor most of his life has a well-equipped saint detector within. We may call this the conscience or faint voice of the spirit deep down, but it exists in all.
From observing the lives of the saints, we can fathom that being a saint is a grueling process. Much like running an iron-man is a straining experience on the body, the path to sanctity is a trial on the soul. St. Paul insinuated as much when, as he drew close to his own persecution and death, wrote to Timothy and told him, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:7, 1 Tim 1:18).
What saints teach us is to not stress about this painful race. As long as you have God – and give it all to him – you’ll finish this marathon with success.
The reason Paul presents the faith in terms of a grinding process in which he must “fight the good fight” and “run the race,” is because his sin has separated him from God. And with God’s assistance, he begins the strenuous journey towards his perfected self with God. If this is true for Paul, now a saint, how much more so for you and I. Therefore, the first part of the quest to be a saint is to know what you’re in for. To do this, we must first come to terms that the starting point of our soul is flawed given our actions and placement in a fallen world.
The Catechism refers to the soul as the “innermost aspect of man.” The soul is that which governs the choice and actions of the body. In a more concrete sense, the soul is the full system of what is driving your internal thoughts.
If we are honest, we’ll acknowledge that our thoughts are undoubtedly imperfect and flawed. How do we know this? Hardly anyone would be comfortable if other people knew their thoughts. In fact, psychology now alludes that human thoughts are really guided by selfish and dubious motives. For example, even though people outwardly say and do certain noble things, this acts as mere window dressing as their internal motives reveal that their primary goal is to look good in the eyes of others. This is why “virtue signaling“ has become a recent trend.
Therefore, the first step on the road to sanctity is to be honest that our human condition is in need of repair. As G.K. Chesterton was fond of saying, “The smartest person in the insane asylum is the person who knows they are insane.” That is, once you admit your insanity, you immediately become wise. This revelation of your insanity then triggers the process of becoming whole – to become a saint.
It has been said that Jesus divides mankind into two groups – saints who think they are sinners; and sinners who think they are saints. No one in history has been more firmly convinced of their own sinfulness and brokenness than the saints. St. Paul called himself “the foremost of all sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). When St. Patrick started his “Confessio” work he opened his writing by stating, “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.”
When we look at the lives of the saints this seemingly odd expression they hold of being the worst of all the sinners is, in fact, a reality of their ascent to sanctity. As spiritual writers often note, as people draw closer to the light of Christ they are better able to see their internal darkness. This reveals the spiritual paradox in that the healthier we get, the more we realize how sick we are. Conversely, the further away we drift from God, the better we think we are. As George MacDonald put it, “The nearer a man gets to being a beast the less he knows it.” Such reveals the ironic adage that the saints envision themselves as sinners whereas the sinners portray themselves as saints.
Therefore, the first step on the voyage to sanctity is to know you’re a sinner. The second step is to then go to Jesus, through His Church, to alleviate your sinful nature. This simple formula of understanding your sin, and then attaching yourself to God for its removal is illuminated by St. Paul.
Paul posed a provocative question to himself and to others because he knew what was deep inside of him. As he goes on to say,
“For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good that I want, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do” (Romans 7: 18-19).
St. Paul is essentially saying “I understand why I don’t understand my own behavior.” This all has to do with knowing his internal predicament of doing sin all the while not wanting to do sin. Here, he is acknowledging that the layers of his soul has been flipped upside down as his over zealous passions control his will all the while amputating his intellect’s ability to influence his will. Paul reveals his struggle, then announces, “Oh, miserable one that I am!” But, St. Paul knows that Jesus is the one who can remove him from his interior trap and restore the layers of his soul. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. . . Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus had freed you from the law of sin and death” (Romans 7:25-8:1).
Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The human being is trapped in insanity because he always does his will over God’s will despite the fact his intellect telling him he’s ultimately unsatisfied with his will. Humanity continuously attaches itself to modern ideas and not to God’s message articulated by the Church. Thus, man is caught in this endless cycle of insanity. What breaks him out of this insanity is, as Einstein suggested, to stop doing the same thing (i.e., sin) over and over and to attach oneself to the very entity (Jesus) that eliminated the effects of sin.
The saints show us a simple, yet incredibly profound formula to sanctity. To know oneself’s dilemma, and to turn completely to God, is to usher one back to his perfected self. However, knowing yourself entails a mystery. In fact, certain experiences remain clouded in the mysterious. You can’t predict falling in love. That would be like trying to predict what Shakespeare is going to say to Hamlet by an exhaustive knowledge of the alphabet.
It would make sense that to break through the haze of mystery to truly recognize yourself and your predicament in sin, you would need to go to the very entity that made you. After all, if God made you, God is the best (and only) source to know yourself.
What spiritual masters insist is that in prayer we go deep into the psyche of ourselves. Here, we can identify how our current state of imperfection is far removed from God’s intention to be in our perfected state. Once we become aware of this, we’ll be better able to give up ourselves to God’s plan of our perfection. We can imagine this formula in terms of an analogy in agriculture – identify and remove the rocks, weeds, and other impediments first so the plants can grow in its perfected form.
This translates into the Catholic formula that one must identify his weeds (i.e. prayer) and rip them out (i.e. confession). Identifying and eradicating the weeds will allow for fertile soil in which the wheat (i.e. the Eucharist) can grow. The more we perform this master regimen of Prayer-Confession-Eucharist over and over, eventually the good wheat will allow us to radiate into saints.
This begs the question – why do we need to be saints? Well, because the goal is to be with God in heaven and to do this Jesus said, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). What we can conclude is that because God is perfect, to be with God, our soul needs to be in a state of perfection. When your soul is in a state of perfection, you are a saint. If we’re honest we’d prefer it if Jesus hadn’t raised the bar so high. If he only said, “As long as your ‘okay’ and ‘not evil’, you will be with your Heavenly Father.” But, he didn’t. He said we need to be perfect. But, we know we can’t be perfect on our own. This scenario represents life’s primary puzzle. We have to do and be that which we cannot do and be. Yes, but this is precisely why we need a Savior. This is why Jesus gives us the Sacraments. Therefore, we aren’t stuck in this hopeless state of being unable to become a saint. To begin to become a saint, one needs to fashion himself to the repeated formula of Prayer-Confession-Eucharist, or more descriptively put as weed pulling and wheat planting.
It would make sense for us to be perfect that we put sheer perfection in us literally. Well, this is what we do with the Eucharist. And it would make sense, that before sheer perfection can grow within us, we would need to identify the weeds and then rip out the weeds that would inevitably act as an impediment to the wheat’s growth. Well, this is what frequent prayer and confession does.
Rather than get overwhelmed with the perceived unrealistic end goal to be perfect, we must fixate on the process that was created by God to guarantee our path to perfection – Prayer-Confession-Eucharist (this formula assumes Baptism and Confirmation has already happened).
Early on in his NFL career, Tom Brady was told he needed to write down his goals. He eventually did, and one of his listed goals was to win a Super Bowl. Later in his career, he affirmed that yes, writing down goals and planning for goals was important, but acknowledged the key to reaching the goals was sticking to a tried and proven process. In fact, Brady insinuated that his goals were more attainable as he became increasingly gritty in fusing himself to a solid routine. In his own words, as long as he kept grinding to the work in the routine, his goals took care of themselves.
In a similar vein, if our goal is to be perfect – to be a saint, then we need to constantly keep performing and honing the sacred, God-given formula of Prayer-Confession-Eucharist. Much like a football star will be relentlessly tweaking and improving his routine, Catholics need to persistently increase their performance in the Prayer-Confession-Eucharist recipe.
However, because of the cacophony of noise within our culture attempting to knock us off this routine, we must develop a tunnel vision approach much like the saints did in order to be glued to the spiritual formula of Prayer-Confession-Eucharist. Here lies the internal battle within man in which one is asked, which spiritual recipe will you follow – God’s or the culture’s?
Society is likely collapsing into moral decay. How can the world on earth be saved? Might it be an increase in saints? There is a Jewish legend that says at each time in human history God looks down and asks how many saints are living in the world, and the answer is always twelve. As long as there are at least twelve saints walking the planet, God insists that this will be enough to prevent the world from being obliterated. But God is quick to mention, if the number of saints goes down to eleven, human corruption will then destroy the world. Now, let’s suppose that today the twelfth saint has just died. Somebody’s got to step up and take his place. Will it be you? Maybe if it’s not you it won’t be anybody. Perhaps the survival of the entire world depends on you. So, give everything to God, and become a saint.