A Manifesto for Saints-To-Be

If everybody was satisfied with himself
there would be no heroes.
Mark Twain

For a time, my kids went to a Montessori school, and the curriculum included weekly trips to a working farm. They’d leave after lunch with their classmates, go help out with chores, and bring home vivid stories involving horses and chickens and mud – all joy and invaluable experience for my otherwise urban-bound children.

Due to work and other commitments, my wife and I were rarely able to assist with transportation on farm days, but we tried to compensate by lending the school an extra vehicle I’d picked up on the cheap. It was a rusty Plymouth Voyager that had about 240,000 miles on it, but it was roomy and it ran – and the teachers were willing to drive it. So, despite its condition and lack of A/C, that old blue van made the farm trip many times, and the students came to know its quirky personality.

And it acquired a nickname: “The Pig Van” – but not because of farm animals the students encountered on those trips. Instead, the nickname derived from a Léon Bloy quotation I’d laminated and plastered across the dashboard back when it was my primary vehicle:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.

You might recognize it as an epigraph in John Irving’s wonderful story of sacrifice and salvation, A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s certainly a provocative declaration, and for the Montessori farm-goers, it became a fruitful source of speculation, debate, and amusement: Heroes? Pigs? Christians? How are they all connected? Who was this Léon Bloy anyway, and what did he mean by his weird saying? And more to the point (here’s where the amusement came in), why did Mr. Becker glue it inside his dilapidated van?

That last question I can answer with certainty: It was originally supposed to be a punch in the gut every time I sat behind the wheel – a reminder of what I ought to be about, staring me in the face as I went about my daily routine. I’m not sure how Bloy (or Irving) meant it to be understood, but for me, that short sentence has always stuck with me as a pithy integration of Christianity’s two essentials.

The first is this: Lived Christianity is about heroism, and heroism, forChristians, is about aspiring to sanctity. Bloy made this point more directly in another, more famous line of his:

The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.

Sainthood, to be clear, isn’t about being a namby-pamby, goody-two-shoes, pious prig. Nor is it about withdrawing from the world in order to avoid temptation. No, sainthood is about overcoming our selfish tendencies even in the midst of mixing it up with other people and the world, loving when it’s hard to love, giving when it’s easier not to, and, in general, choosing to do what holy people do, imitating their example, following their lead.

There’s no question that we can do this on our own, nor is it a question as to who is really behind it: it’s all God, all God, no question! It’s his work completely, though you wouldn’t think he’d do it so subtly – we’re barely aware of it when it happens. And when it does happen, it invariably happens on the barest margins of our interior selves – on the beaches and in the shallows that separate those parts of us wholly surrendered to him, and those parts of us still prone to slip away into moral oblivion. Are we tempted to gossip or envy? Then choosing not to indulge in them, especially when it would be easy to do so, is a triumph on our own moral margins – even if we fell prey to similar temptations later on.

This is the ongoing project that we think of as conversion: a gradual progress with hems and haws, ups and downs, long pauses and occasional lurches forward. When it’s all actually happening, we’re rarely conscious of it – and that’s by Design: so that we’ll be less likely to chalk it up to our own efforts.

Much safer is to follow St. Joan’s example as recorded in one of her heresy trials:

A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’

No presumption there, but instead, utter dependency. And, far from being an excuse for un-saintlike behavior, it’s a profound admission that aspiring to sanctity doesn’t necessarily translate into achieving sanctity. Let’s face it, more often than not, we fall way short. Daily even. Minute by minute. The important thing, however, is the aspiration itself, the not-giving-up. Christians have to wantto be saints, and we must be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to stretch ourselves in that regard, optimizing our availability to the saint-making influences that God brings to bear on us, and pressing ahead even after setbacks and failures.

And if we refuse? If we reject those influences and opportunities to grow in holiness? It only stalls out our progress on the heavenly trajectory, but we can expect God to hound us until we submit again. And again. And again.

One might ask, then, how we are still Christians when we’re stubbornly and persistently refusing God’s way? It’s in this regard that Bloy’s one-liner points to the second essential of the Faith, and it’s this: Not all Christians aspire to holiness all the time, but that doesn’t undo their fundamental Christian identity or destiny. Short of apostasy, when we Christians reject moral heroism and the pursuit of sanctity, we only make ourselves pig-like per Bloy’s characterization – grubbing around in the muck of sin and the world instead of holding out for more heavenly fare.

This is possible because Christian identity is only loosely associated with consistent righteous behavior – the Church is a hospital for sinners, after all, not a country club for saints. Instead of behaviors, Christian identity is more properly associated with a set of propositions, and Christians, by definition, are those who affirm that set of propositions, regardless of whether they act in line with them or not.

And what a set of propositions it is! Included are such fantastic ideas as the Incarnation (the Creator of the universe became a baby!), Good Friday (people got away with killing that incarnate God!), and the Resurrection (the dead God came back to life!). Also included are affirmations regarding the sacraments (we can eat that God-man, and share in his resurrected life!), the Church (God wants us to be part of his family, part of him!), and the communion of saints (there are all kinds of dead people in that family who are rooting for us and on our side!). This is all crazy talk, right? But one who claims allegiance to the Faith while denying these propositions can be legitimately challenged and rightly corrected.

Now, obviously, Christianity is more than simply affirming propositions, but it’sat least that, and it’s the starting point for all who wish to embrace it. Yes, we baptize babies who are in no position to affirm any propositional truths, but we only do that because we as parents are, in a sense, affirming those truths on behalf of our children. And for adult converts? Affirming propositions is how we get to join the club. Remember these lines from the Easter Vigil?

I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

That profession is the dividing line betweennot being a Catholic and being one, the set of words that we converts from other Christian traditions had to repeat in front of the whole parish – in front of the whole world really. As if to emphasize the solemnity of that moment, the profession is introduced by the presiding priest or bishop in this way:

I now invite you to come forward with your sponsors and in the presence of this community to profess the Catholic faith. In this faith you will be one with us for the first time at the eucharistic table of the Lord Jesus, the sign of the Church’s unity.

You see? The embrace and profession of a proposition precedes sacramental initiation. This is still the case for us old-timers, actually, and we face it every time we go up to receive Communion. When the priest or eucharistic minister holds up that wafer before our eyes and announces, “The Body of Christ,” we respond, “Amen” – our own acquiescence, in other words, that, yes, we believe it is God himself, right there in the minister’s hand. Remember, too, that we we are required to recite the Creed on Sundays and Holy Days – the very days that we are obligated to attend Mass.

So, we’re Christians, then, because of what we affirm and what we aspire to – not one or the other, but both. Frequently, our aspirations fall short of what we affirm, but we trust God to shepherd us back into the fold whenever we stray. And when our understanding of what we affirm itself is the problem? That, too, is matter of trust, and we have to rely on the Church to provide us with adequate catechesis and formation in order to fill the gaps.

Mostly, though, what we need is patience – patience with ourselves, first of all, and an acknowledgement that salvation is a journey that begins with baptism, but winds away from that point God knows how long. Yes, God knows, and we can bank on his giving us just enough time to make it.

Patience extends as well to others, along with a camaraderie that is reflected in generosity and magnanimity, especially toward ones fellow believers. We Christians are all stumbling forward in our attempts to appropriate grace, aspire to sainthood, and live out what we affirm. The least we can do is shrug off the bumps and shoves that we give each other along the way.

That kind of patience takes courage – which brings me back to the Pig Van. It’s been many years since it made a farm run, and now it mainly sits idle, taking up space on the street. Since we don’t use it much any more, I tore out the Bloy quote, and pasted it inside my Honda – right above the quote from St. Jerome already on display there: “Cur timido animo Christianus es.” I know my Loeb edition translates it a bit different, but I like to read it as: “Why are you such a wimpy Christian?”

*Wham*! Another punch in the gut. Another reminder to keep going, no matter the odds, despite the obstacles and defeats, come what may.

Just like heroes do.

Richard Becker

By

Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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  • Paul

    I find this article very encouraging, especially the, This is the ongoing project that we think of as conversion: a gradual progress with hems and haws, ups and downs, long pauses and occasional lurches forward.

    One of the things that’s beginning to bother me, is the New Evangelisation seems to be becoming a place where ‘ordinary Catholics’ seem to be being brow-beaten with the sanctity of Evangelists: ‘You, too, can be blessed by God like me, if you only…’.

    They tell everyone just how God has blessed them now they’re ‘saved’, as if God has rewarded them for doing what they’re told, but how the ‘ordinary Catholic’ is not good enough because they don’t know their faith or what they’re doing when they go to Mass.

    Many of the people in this movement seem to be ex-Protestants – or being taught by them – and I’m concerned that, rather than the Catholic ‘Law of Gradualism’, as outlined in the above quotation, the New Evangelisation is being subtly hijacked by Evangelical ‘Second Blessing’ theology.

    As an article on it by a Protestant puts it:
    “Have you heard of the Keswick Movement? No? I bet you have. You can tell that Keswick theology has impacted you and others when you hear a Christian ‘testimony’ like this: “I was saved when I was nine years old, and I yielded to Christ when I was nineteen.”
    Did you catch it? I was ‘saved’ when I was nine (step 1). I ‘yielded’ to Christ when I was nineteen (step 2). Jesus saved them, but then they surrendered, emptied, let go and let God when they were nineteen. Do you hear the two-tiered progression? Typically these testimonies end with how the person is apparently living in a completely different Christian dimension; higher and more victorious than they were before. Yes, indeed they were ‘saved’ but they also ‘surrendered.’…
    …Practically speaking, what Keswick theology looks like is a two-tiered Christianity. The first stage can be classified as a ‘carnal Christianity,’ and the second stage can be classified as ‘spiritual Christianity.’…
    …Frankly, the most tragic result of Keswick theology is that its material principle becomes a message of Law where the goal is the second level and the means to accomplish it is the Christian working to yield just a little more and to surrender just a bit more. Instead of returning to Christ saving blood and one’s baptism, Keswick theology shifts the focus away from Justification towards a man-centered Sanctification.”
    ——————

    This, to me, sounds more like what I’m hearing from ‘New Evangelists’. Of course, we should all do as the article suggests, but just how Catholic is this ‘Keswick’ view which seems to be implicit in the narrative of the New Evangelists (who have already arrived)?

    That is, they seem to have an air of superiority about them, rather than being in the same place as everyone else they see it as their mission to fix and make into saints…

  • Kelli

    I’m certain you didn’t mean to say,”the wafer,” when we participate in communion? This part of your article confused me… We do nothing to receive the Eucharist our yes doesn’t make it so. The wafer is transformed in a miraculous gift to us prior to communion(it becomes Jesus) and our Amen means Yes I believe it it you Jesus! The Eucharist is the one gift that has the power in the appearance of bread to perfect every soul and draw them to great sanctity. Thank God we don’t have to rely on ourselves. Do we dare to say, “Jesus change me.” Your article is beautiful and I love the quotes you place in your car! 🙂 Now, drive that car to mass and receive Jesus in the Eucharist everyday! And then your on the way. lol
    God love you!

  • Thanks so much for your response and kind words, Kelli. By “wafer,” I was referring to that which our senses detect – “accident,” as the philosophers would say, as opposed to “substance.”

    Of course, you’re right that it is no longer a wafer when I’m approaching the eucharistic minister for communion, but I’m still asked to confirm my belief in that outrageous reality with my “amen” before receiving him. St. Augustine wrote something like this: “What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report
    to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the
    body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ” (Sermon 272).

    Anyway, I really like your suggestion of silently adding the words “Jesus change me” as we say our “amen” and consume our eucharistic Lord. If we’re properly disposed, that’s exactly what happens, for we are literally changed into what (or whom) we eat! Thanks again!

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