If there is one thing that is universal in the lives of the saints it is that they faced many difficulties on the path to holiness. They were often misunderstood, rejected, betrayed, cast out by their own, mocked, persecuted, and martyred. Many who knew them thought they were strange or even a bit crazy. Their witness was often so other worldly that the people around them could not understand or did not believe them.
None of this should come as any surprise to us because we follow a Crucified Savior. He promises us that if we pick up our Cross and follow Him we too will be rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and given up to death, even if we are not called to red martyrdom. We are all called to die-to-self, which is often a brutal process.
We should not have a sentimental view of the saints. It is a great disservice to them and all that God accomplished through them to do so. The saints show us that following God’s will in our lives requires a complete surrender of our own will to Him regardless of what other people think of us and even to the point of bodily harm when necessary. We are called to belong entirely to Him.
To understand just how true this calling is for each and every one of us consider the life of St. Joan of Arc. Imagine being a teenage girl who heard the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret. At 13-years-old she experienced visions of these saints during which they asked her to return the Dauphin to Rheims for his coronation as King of France. She was a peasant girl living in obscurity in a farming community in Lorraine, and yet, she was called to alter the course of history for France.
At 16-years-old she began this task in earnest. She faced an uphill battle as she had to earn the trust of those men who would lead her to the Dauphin and the daunting task of seeing him installed as King of France despite an on-going war with the English. She marched into battle carrying her banner despite the carnage around her and the immensity of what God was asking of her. She had fully surrendered to Christ.
The fact that this young woman of obscure birth could change the course of French history is a testament to God’s hand in all that she accomplished. In fact, this is how God often works, by raising up men and woman in obscurity in order to confound the worldly, even the worldly within the Church. He does the same thing today.
St. Joan of Arc sought to serve Christ at all times and she was given extraordinary graces in order to execute His plan for her life. She also faced betrayal and martyrdom in the image of Our Savior. She was sentenced to death by her English brothers in Christ who condemned her as a heretic and had her burned at the stake. While the French and the English were at war, she was killed by those who were her own since the Mystical Body is higher than any divisions of nationality or culture that exist in this life.
While very few of us will be called to have such a tremendous impact on history, we are each called to fulfill God’s will for our lives and to help continue Christ’s work of salvation in the world. No matter our station in life, this task is daunting for all of us since we must battle against our own sinful nature, the allurements of the devil, and the rejection of the world in order to follow Christ faithfully.
Too often we want the path to holiness to be easy, but it is not easy. It is deeply difficult. It is why G.K. Chesterton famously said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” He was not saying this about the world. He meant it about Christians themselves who often settle for mediocrity rather than the high demands of sanctity. We often prefer sentimental tales about the saints to accepting the demands of holiness ourselves.
We are all called to be the saint God made each one of us to be, but that means surrendering everything to Him. We don’t get to keep anything for ourselves. Like Christ on the Cross, we are called to be emptied of ourselves poured out in love. This means that when Christ asks us to give something over to Him and to others we must do so even when we don’t want to. Even when it causes us immense pain, shame, and confusion. Christ tests our faithfulness by asking us to do things at times that utterly confound us and the people around us. This is not only true for French maidens living a hidden life on a farm. It is true in our day-to-day lives as well.
St. Joan of Arc had to follow Christ completely in faith. All of the saints had to do the same thing. None of them were given roadmaps of the path they were called to follow. Often they were asked to do things that confounded them or that sounded “crazy”, but they learned very quickly what we must all learn: God’s ways are not our own. As the Prophet Isaiah says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).”
We are called to follow Christ’s ways, not our own. We live in a self-help culture and even many Catholic books are devolving into this self-help mentality. This life is not about us and our dreams primarily. It is about loving and serving God where He wants to use us in His plan of salvation. That means surrendering our own will and desires to Him. He knows each one of us better than we could possibly know ourselves, which means He knows what is best for us.
This necessarily means being pruned of the plans we had for our lives, the unfulfilled wants and dreams, or the mission we thought God would give to us. None of the saints could have envisioned what Christ was asking of them when they set out on the journey fully surrendering to His will. St. Joan of Arc did not know the ins and outs of her journey, but she understood that what she was doing was what God had made her to do. God has made each one of us for a specific purpose as a part of His plan. We get in the way of that plan when we place our own plans and dreams over His will for us or when we fail to ask Him what His will is for our lives.
Once we come to see that the mission God has given to each one of us is what we are made for, we can begin the rather painful work of relinquishing everything over to God. We must be pruned, and at times, God cuts us so deep we think we might bleed to death because of the agony of it. It is a beautiful agony, though, because it leads to greater love. Not sentimental or superficial forms of love. It leads to the love of the Most Holy Trinity and the joy that comes from living in union with God so that we can go out and faithfully live the mission He has for us.
None of the saints had it easy. Each one had to seek every day to unite their will to God’s will. They had days when they failed to do so and fell into old habits or patterns of sin, but they persevered in constantly seeking to begin again and again to align their will to God’s will. This surrender allowed the Holy Spirit to dwell within them and transform them with each new relinquishment to His will. It also gave them the strength to endure the inevitable rejection, misunderstanding, loneliness, and betrayal that happened along the way.
We may not be called to such historical heights as St. Joan of Arc, but the world needs each one of us to truly commit to becoming the saint Christ has made each one of us to be. There is so much violence, sin, division, sickness, poverty, corruption, and darkness in the world. We are called to be a light in the darkness. It is time for each one of us to rise up, fully surrendering our lives and wills over to God, so that we can fulfill His plan for our lives and the salvation of souls.