The Tragedy of the Almost-Saint

“Though the path is plain and smooth for men of good will, he who walks it will not travel far, and will do so only with difficulty, if he does not have good feet: that is, courage and a persevering spirit.”

St. John of the Cross

Dom Hubert van Zeller addresses this struggle of perseverance in his 1950 classic We Work While the Light Lasts, recently republished by The Cenacle Press.

He analyzes the trap that many once-zealous believers fall into: the quagmire of the almost-saint. Grace is easily given, but frequently ignored and often lost. Those who persevere to the end are few. To truly work until the end of the light is to be able to say “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Work as Mission

The language of work is used throughout the book to make clear to the reader the nature and demands of a vocation. Work was certainly corrupted into toil by the Fall, but it has been put to the yoke of grace and perfected through Christ in vocation.

Dom van Zeller identifies work as the matter of our vocation, as the means of our salvation in our particular calling from God:

Holiness is not something which should be looked upon as coming on top of a man’s work, sanctifying it from without and rendering it worthy to be presented to God. Rather it should be regarded as emerging out of the work, and given to God in union with it.

A person’s work refers not to simple drudgery that fills time, makes money, and affords a lifestyle, but rather to the particular tasks God wants to accomplish through him in this life. Dom van Zeller’s framing thus reminds us to exercise the duties of our states in life as the ultimate calling to holiness.

Waning Light

Ever-mindful that the light of grace can be withdrawn at any time, Dom van Zeller warns that we are duty-bound to make use of grace while it shines upon us, lest we lose it, forfeit the concomitant sanctity, and thwart the will of God.

Cautioning against the fate of the “near-saint,” Dom van Zeller explains that zealous ardor is easily come by, but difficult to sustain. He emphasizes that to avoid this spiritual plateau (and even regression) we must commit to accepting every grace that comes our way, in God’s timing:

Deliberately to turn down the offer of sanctity creates a famine in the soul which no amount of compensations can satisfy. A grace which has been declined sets up, by its very absence, an inflammation which has all the pain-inflicting qualities of penance without any of its merit.

Sainthood is not contained in one exceptional moment, but is made up of a lifetime of adherence to the Faith and practice of virtue. Perseverance, forbearance, and fortitude compose the matter of heroic virtue just as a martyr’s sacrifice does.

The Vocation of Marriage

Human relationships present unique challenges and opportunities to the soul’s perseverance in virtue, and so Dom van Zeller—who served as a spiritual director to married couples and previously wrote on happiness in married life— gives special attention to “how to handle the affections.”

He discusses proper sacramental marriage as the means to sanctification of the spouses and children. Conversely, marriage founded on emotion or worldliness has such detrimental effects on the soul that it may hinder salvation, the end to which a true sacramental marriage is oriented.

Love is self-sacrifice. The spouses love God through one another via a daily death to self, not by privileging comfort or romantic feelings. Ironically, happiness does not come when it is pursued for its own end; it comes when sanctity is the end.

Love is God’s gift which man may enjoy, paradoxically, only when he is prepared to give it back. By sharing it with the donor he possesses it; by hoarding it and spending it on himself he loses the joy of it. Marriage can be the success which God means it to be only when the sacramental character is accepted and lived up to.

The author speaks of this spirit of sacrifice characterizing the courtship phase as well, noting that discernment for marriage must proceed according to the same principles that define a good marriage:

A love that experiments beforehand will be just as ready to experiment afterwards. And possibly with someone else. The love which is not strong enough or noble enough to restrain either one’s own or the other person’s passion before marriage will certainly not be of the quality to survive the strain that will be put upon it later on.

He additionally warns that sins of impurity poison future marital happiness:

For the climax to come in advance of what it is intended to perfect and culminate is an inversion which cannot but promote similar inversions all along the line.

We can see here the importance of persevering in virtue not only to avoid sin, but to prepare ourselves to work out our vocation as God intended. A vocation pursued for the wrong reasons can drive the soul from God.

“The Muffled Conscience”

Dom van Zeller identifies many worldly distractions that perniciously destroy the conscience of the almost-saint in the absence of active perseverance in faith and virtue. A disordered desire for comfort is one of the greatest “mufflers” that cools initial zeal. Far from the explicit horror of sin, comfort is a sneaky enemy that gradually turns the soul away from God and back to the pleasures of the world. A desire for comfort and fun coats the conscience in layers of distance from Truth, until “goodness no longer appeals on its own merits.” Zeal has been killed by the banality of comfort. A silenced conscience thus allows the soul to make concessions to increasingly evil behavior.

The Almost-Saint

Classical tragedy is defined as such not simply because it is sad, but because it is inevitable. This book demonstrates that a soul’s flight from grace is the inevitable consequence of a life that lacks continual recommitment to initial zeal. The almost-saint’s ultimate failure is not of conviction, but of perseverance.

We pray for final perseverance in every Hail Mary, begging God that the light of grace will last until we have finished the work of our lives. Life is a marathon that is sprinted. There are moments of rest, but never moments of license. Perseverance is the unglamorous remedy to failures in zeal, courage, and resolve.

We Work While the Light Lasts, is available now from The Cenacle Press at Silverstream Priory.

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Kristen Van Uden is the editor of Catholic Exchange and author spokesperson at Sophia Institute Press. She has degrees in History and Russian from Saint Anselm College and the College of William & Mary, and studies the persecution of Catholics under communist regimes. Her first book, When the Sickle Swings: Stories of Catholics Who Survived Communist Oppression, was published by Sophia Institute Press in November 2023. She has been featured on a wide range of media platforms including Coast to Coast AMFirst Things, and Sensus Fidelium. Book information, original articles, and links to interviews can be found at her Substack, On the Wheel.

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