I have three daughters. They are the best of friends (and the worst of enemies, depending on the day). But most unexpected and delightful to watch is the friendship between my oldest and youngest daughters, who are almost seven years apart.
Recently, I was watching them play in our driveway. My older two daughters were riding their bikes around the driveway. My youngest daughter sat on her tricycle, in the middle of the driveway, watching them rapidly circle her. She desperately tried to make her trike move but couldn’t figure it out. I had shown her how to push her foot down on the pedal, but it was hard work and she just could not manage it. She let out a frustrated cry. She wanted to be riding with her sisters, but she was just too little.
As she began to cry, my oldest daughter stopped riding her bike and pulled up alongside the toddler. She began speaking to her in the soft, gentle way that she has of talking to her baby sister. My youngest daughter stopped crying, and she looked up at her big sister. She listened. And she tried to push her feet down on the pedals, much to the delight of her biggest sister. “You’re doing it, Zelie! You’re doing it!” she cheered. Zelie’s whole face lit up. “Mommy! Mommy! She’s pedaling!” I looked up, just in time to see Zelie pedal forward about one inch…and then roll backward six inches. From the reaction of my oldest daughter, you would have thought that my youngest had just won the Tour de France.
As I watched them beam at each other with delight, my youngest daughter no longer discouraged, I realized that that interaction was a beautiful icon of the saints and us.
Older Siblings in Faith
The beauty of the saints is that they are fellow creatures. The holiest of saints – whether archangel or peasant child – was only so because of grace. Each saint knew of their need for God. Many suffered as much (or more) than we do. Now that they have reached the home that we all long for, they have not forgotten us. In fact, they look at us with a sisterly/brotherly affection.
They do not continue to rapidly ride their bikes in circles around our trikes, while we sit and cry alone. They are moved with love for us, and happily stop to encourage us so that we can ride beside them. And, as only much older brothers and sisters can do with baby siblings, they make us feel that even our most feeble attempts are cause for celebration. They remember what it was like to learn to pedal.
This notion of the siblings being our big brothers and sisters in Christ – and we their baby siblings – is more than an analogy. It is a spiritual reality. By our Baptism, we have become children of the heavenly Father. Those who come from healthy, happy families know what it is to be siblings in a loving home. Those who come from abusive or dysfunctional families know what it is to long for that kind of relationship. The most encouraging thing to remember is that spiritual realities aren’t less real than human ones. They are more real. In a certain sense, spiritual family is more real than biological family (although, fortunately, biological family can also be united spiritually). Spiritual relationships remain for eternity.
There is nothing that we can do that will make the saints stop loving us. There is nothing that we can do that will make them stop looking at us with the same deep affection that my oldest daughter looks at my youngest one.
Mentors in Holiness
As important as learning to ride a tricycle is to a two-year-old, it does not actually have eternal implications. Yet, if we all need to be taught how to ride a tricycle, why should we expect ourselves to reach heaven alone?
In the Communion of Saints, there is a patron for just about everything that you can imagine. The odds are fairly good that whatever you are currently struggling with, there is a saint who has already struggled with it. This is consoling in minor difficulties. A mother of a spirited toddler can find comfort in the letters of St. Zelie, describing the antics of St. Therese to Therese’s aunt. A couple facing infertility can turn to Sts. Elizabeth and Zechariah, or Sts. Anne and Joachim, knowing that they are familiar with that suffering. Someone with a longing for the outdoors (especially in a time when many national and state parks are closed) can turn to St. John Paul II or St. Pier Giorgio Frassati. A mother who has lost a child can turn to the Blessed Mother. A priest who struggles with his parish can turn to St. John Vianney. The examples are endless.
In this time of pandemic, many people are discovering the consolation of turning to saints who lived through pandemics. In what can only be viewed as proof that God has a sense of humor, it turns out that a patron saint of pandemics is St. Corona. Coincidence? I think not.
But regardless of whether saints lived through a pandemic or experienced a stay-at-home order, all saints suffered. It is impossible to be a saint without suffering. To be a saint is to embrace the cross, and to grow in deeper union with the crucified Christ. Every human saint experienced suffering or difficulty of some kind (the archangels have not experienced human suffering, but they are deeply moved by our sufferings, too, and eager to accompany us and console us).
And, like my oldest daughter responding to the frustrated cries of her little sister, the saints are moved with pity when they see us suffering. They remember what it was like to suffer. They do not want us to suffer alone. They recognize the effort that it takes to pedal forward even an inch, and they cheer us on (even if we then pedal backwards for a few inches).
When faced with tragedy and suffering on a massive scale, we can take consolation in knowing that we are not alone. As massive as the suffering of this pandemic is, it is vastly dwarfed by the greatness of the love of the saints for us. We are not alone.
Does that remove the suffering? Certainly not. But there is a vast difference in suffering alone and being loved in our suffering.