The reading we’ll be discussing on Wednesday is a slight departure from our usual texts, but still about saints, and still awesome 🙂
Download a printable copy here, or check out the passages below.
Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints
by James Martin, SJ – excerpts from Chapter 7: All Saints
The most important spiritual insight I’ve learned since entering the Jesuits is that God calls each of us to be who we are. “For me to be a saint means for me to be myself,” said Thomas Merton… When I was studying theology, our Jesuit community had a small poster hanging in our living room that offered this little saying about four great founders of religious orders:
Colles Benedictus amavit,
Magnas Ignatius urbes.
Bernard loved the valleys,
Benedict the hills,
Francis the small towns
And Ignatius the great cities.
Each of these four saints found his home in a place suited to his likes and desires, and so was moved to accomplish his own particular task. Their individual desires shaped their vocations. Ignatius Loyola, for example, the founder of the Jesuits, would probably have felt his ambitious plans stymied in a small town. And Francis of Assisi, the apostle of the poor, would certainly have gone crazy trying to run a large religious order from a busy office in Rome!
God awakens our vocations primarily through our desires. A man and woman, for examples, come together in love out of desire and so discover their vocation as a married couple. Out of desire, a husband and wife create a child, and discover their vocation as parents in this way. Desire works in a similar way in the lives of the saints, drawing them to certain types of works, giving rise to special vocations and leading to particular styles of holiness. Henri Nouwen became a priest because he desired it. Therese of Lisieux entered the convent because she desired it. Dorothy Day entered the Catholic Church because she desired it. Ultimately, one’s deepest desires lead to God and the fulfillment of God’s desires for the world.
That insight lies behind one of my favorite passages in The Seven Storey Mountain. Shortly after his baptism, Thomas Merton is speaking with his good friend Bob Lax. Merton tells his friend he wants to be a good Catholic. “What you should say,” says his friend in reply, “is that you want to be a saint.” Merton tells the rest of the story:
A saint? The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply… “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”
The next day Merton speaks with his mentor, Mark Van Doren, the esteemed professor of English at Columbia University, and mentions his confusing conversation. Van Doren’s response is both direct and disarming.
“Lax is going around telling everyone that all a man needs to be a saint is to want to become one.” “Of course,” said Mark.
Following these individual desires and inclinations led each of the saints to a distinctive type of holiness. As Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century theologian said, grace builds on nature. Ignatius Loyola ended a military career in sixteenth-century Spain to follow God, while Joan of Arc began one in fifteenth-century France. Dorothy Day founded a newspaper to spread the Gospel, while Bernadette Soubirous, the famous visionary of Lourdes, shrank in horror from the idea of her story being publicized in the press. Thomas Aquinas spent his life surrounded by books, while Francis of Assisi told his friars not to own even one lest they become too proud. The multiplicity of desires leads to a multiplicity of paths to God.
But here’s an important point: even the saints and holy persons faced difficult and often painful challenges before realizing their own brand of holiness. Some struggled for a long time before they truly understood their own vocation. Thomas Merton, as I mentioned, spent years trying to cast off the “bandages” of his false self before he could begin living as his true self. Henri Nouwen did not find his place among the disabled at L’Arche, did not find his home, until the age of fifty-four.
Some of the saints faced seemingly insurmountable odds even after they embraced their vocations: Aloysius Gonzaga, though he was sure about his Jesuit vocation, had first to convince his father, a powerful nobleman, who initially threatened to have him flogged for wanting to join the Jesuits. The mother of Thomas Aquinas sent her other sons in pursuit of Thomas to prevent him from joining the Dominicans. Waylaying him on the road one day, they captured Thomas and forcibly returned him to his family, who had him imprisoned in the family castle for two years, hoping that he would change his mind. (He didn’t.)
There are also a surprising number of stories from the lives of the saints that show that some of their deepest desires were frustrated. That is, they seemed prevented from becoming who they wanted to be. After her famous visions at the Grotto of Lourdes in 1858, Bernadette Soubirous, who had wanted to continue her old life as a shepherdess, was more or less pushed into a convent by her otherwise well-meaning pastor. (The idea that a future saint would want to be a shepherdess — and worse, possibly married — was anathema to the religious people of the day.) A few years later, in her Carmelite convent, Therese of Lisieux confessed her ardent desire for ordination to the priesthood in her book, Story of a Soul: “I feel in me the vocation of the priest,” she wrote. This, of course, was something that would not occur in her lifetime. And Thomas Merton had to face the continual frustration of not having the opportunity for more solitude, until the end of his life, when he was granted permission to become a hermit on the grounds of the abbey.
In other words, finding one’s true self can be a long, arduous, and even confusing journey.
Still, throughout these painful spiritual trials, these men and women continued to pray over the ways that God was calling them to be themselves, even in the midst the frustrations and roadblocks that life put in front of them. Not able to be a priest, Therese grew in holiness. Not able to marry, Bernadette still grew in holiness. Not able to have the solitude he craved, Merton still grew in holiness. In the midst of their disappointments, God still enabled them to move closer to their true selves.
At this point you still may be thinking, “Well, I’m not like any of the people just mentioned. I’m neither a social activist like Dorothy Day, nor a contemplative like Thomas Merton, nor a writer like Henri Nouwen, nor a founder of a religious order like Mother Teresa, nor a visionary leader like Bernadette Soubirous. Holiness is beyond me. My true self is not meant for sanctity.”
I disagree. I believe that sanctity is God’s goal for all of us, our telos, our endpoint. As Mother Teresa said, “Holiness is not the luxury of a few. It is everyone’s duty: yours and mine.” That’s pretty abstract, so let’s make things more concrete.
Despite the recent emphasis on every person’s call to holiness, many Christians, I would wager, still believe that sanctity is reserved only for people who are long dead, like Peter or Mary Magdalene, or the professionally religious person, like Henri Nouwen or Therese of Lisieux or Thomas Merton. Or those who die for their faith, like early Christian martyrs. Or maybe, just maybe, the extraordinary layperson, like the parent who dedicates his or her entire life to caring for the poor, like Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement. But the idea of the holy person in everyday life still strikes many people as strange.
Let’s say that you’re a young married woman with two little children, ages four and six. When the alarm clock jolts you awake in the early morning, you realize that you’re still weary from the day before. As usual, your two children are already awake. One is crying her eyes out because she’s had a bad dream. Your other child is already calling for a drink of water, and for his favorite stuffed animal, which he tossed out of his bed last night. And let’s say that your husband is away on a business trip, and can’t help you with the kids that morning. Let’s also say that you have a job outside the home as well, and have to make breakfast and get the kids ready for school, before leaving for another hectic day at your office.
As you lie in bed for a few seconds, staring at the ceiling, you think about all the things you have to do for your family today, all of the things you have to do for your boss at the office, and none of the things you can do for yourself. You wonder how you’ll be able to accomplish even half of what you need to do today. Sometimes, during these early-morning moments, you lament the fact that you don’t have time for things like prayer or meditation. You wish you lived a holier life, a more religious life. Recently you read a magazine article about your favorite contemporary saint, Mother Teresa. You say to yourself, sadly, “I’ll never be like her.” But that’s the problem. You’re not meant to be Mother Teresa, you’re meant to be yourself.
Here’s where Merton’s description of the true self and false self is particularly useful. As I have mentioned, the false self is the person that we present to the world, the one that we think will be pleasing to others: attractive, confident, successful. The true self, on the other hand, is the person that we are before God. Sanctity consists in discovering who that person is and striving to become that person.
In other words, the working mother is not meant to be Mother Teresa. She is meant to be a woman who loves her children, loves her husband, loves her friends and coworkers, and finds meaning in her own world. She is meant to experience the presence of God in her life and in the lives of the people with whom she lives and works. Sometimes this means doing big things with love, like raising children. And sometimes it means doing smaller things with love. (Therese of Lisieux called this the “Little Way.”) For the young working mother, this could mean, for example, keeping a lid on her temper at work or at home (no matter how justified it may be to lose her temper).
Part of this process means that this young woman has to let go of her desire to be someone else. Because, in reality, she might be lousy at the type of work that Mother Teresa did. But, just to underline the point, Mother Teresa might have been lousy at the work that this working mother is doing!
Saint Francis de Sales, the sixteenth-century bishop of Geneva, touched on this idea in his book The Introduction to the Devout Life, when he reflected on the ways that people from different walks of life experience the transcendent.
When God the Creator made all things, He commanded the plants to bring forth fruit according to its own kind. He has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion… in accord with their characters, their stations and their callings… Therefore, in whatever situations we happen to be, we can and we must aspire to the life of perfection.
Thomas Merton took this one step further. He believed that the person engaged in the “active” life, that is, the laborer or parent or student or caregiver, could lead lives that were in fact more holy, more devout, and more sanctified than those of “professionally religious” people, like the cloistered monk or nun. Merton proposed this in a posthumously published book, The Inner Experience, in an essay entitled “Kinds of Contemplation.”
These are many Christians who serve God with great purity of soul and perfect self-sacrifice in the active life… They know how to find God by devoting themselves to Him in self-sacrificing labors in which they are able to remain in His presence all day long… They lead lives of great simplicity in which they do not need to rise above the ordinary levels of vocal and affective prayer. Without realizing it, their extremely simple prayer is, for them, so deep and interior that it bring them to the threshold of contemplation. Such Christians… may reach a higher degree of sanctity than other who have been apparently favored with deeper inner life.
Merton calls these men and women “hidden contemplatives” who enjoy a kind of “masked contemplation.” Their ability to do so hinges on their willingness to find God not by trying to be cloistered monks, but by discovering the divine spark in their own busy lives.
God’s invitation to live out our individuals vocations is part of what makes the world so marvelously rich. “How gloriously different are the saints!” wrote the English writer C.S. Lewis. The problem comes when we begin to believe that we have to be someone else to be holy. We use someone else’s map to heaven when God has already planted in our soul all the directions we need. In that way, we ignore our own call to sanctity. When admirers used to visit Calcutta to see Mother Teresa, she would tell many of them, “Find your own Calcutta.” In other words, bloom where you are planted. Discover sanctity in your own life.
This is not to say that we aren’t called to emulate the saints or, more to the point, Jesus. Reading the Gospels and the lives of the saints are terrific ways of discovering new paths to holiness. That is part of the discovery process that Merton speaks of: finding yourself within God’s conception of yourself. Through prayer and conversation and reading, the working mother gradually finds herself, thanks to God’s grace, growing closer to the person she is meant to be. But she is not meant to become Mother Teresa. She is meant to become herself.
At the heart of this is accepting who you are before God. “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb,” in the words of Psalm 139. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (13-14). The beginning of sanctity is loving yourself as a creation of God. And that means all of yourself, even the parts that you wish weren’t there, the parts that you wish God hadn’t made, the parts that you lament. God loves us like a parent loves a child — often more for the parts of the child that are weaker or where the child struggles or falters. More often than not, those very weaknesses are the most important paths to holiness, because they remind you of your reliance on God.
“So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses,” wrote Saint Paul, “so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).
The notion that everyone is called to be a saint has profound implications for daily life. An acceptance of what the Second Vatican Council called the “universal call to holiness” can imbue even the quietest moments of one’s life with a special grace. In a beautiful essay called “Sacraments,” the American writer Andre Dubus reflects on encountering the holid in his daily life. The author, who died in 1998, had lost the use of both of his legs in an accident that occurred when he was a middle-aged man. One dark night he was standing by the side of a highway, helping a person whose car had broken down, when he was struck by another automobile.
In his essay, Dubus, a devout Catholic, describes the laborious process of making sandwiches for his young daughter to carry with them to school. As he maneuvers his large, bulky wheelchair around his cramped kitchen, as he reaches for the utensils, as he tries to open cabinet doors from his awkward position, and as he cuts the sandwiches, he realizes what he is doing for his children.
Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments…
And he grasps the need for an awareness of this reality.
If I remember it, then I feel it, too.
The universal call to holiness is an invitation to be ourselves. It’s also an invitation to remember the sacramentality of everyday life and to realize the great goal that God has set for us: sanctity. It is what the saints came to realize, sometimes all at once, sometimes over the course of many years, whether they were born in first-century Palestine like Peter or in twentieth-century America like Dorothy Day. Whether they lived in a quiet cloistered monastery like Therese of Lisieux, or in the grand papal palace like Pope John XXIII. Whether they wrote rafts of books like Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen, or left us with only a handful of their words, like Bernadette Soubirous. Whether they worked alongside the poorest of the poor in Calcutta like Mother Teresa, or with the plague victims in Rome like Aloysius Gonzaga.
Perhaps more to the point, the call to holiness comes whether we work in a corporate office in midtown Manhattan or as a housewife in a small house in Iowa. Whether we are caring for a sick child late at night or preparing a church dinner for hundreds of homeless men and women. Whether we are listening to a friend tell her problems over a cup of coffee or slogging late hours at work in order to help put our children through school. Whether we are patiently spending long hours listening to people in the confessional in a small church, or spending long hours memorizing our lines for a small part in a big Broadway show. Whether we are rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, straight or gay: all of us are called to our own brand of personal holiness.