When I was a young nun, I used to read the lives of the saints, hoping to find someone like me: someone who had to eat six times a day and get nine hours of sleep; someone who was not robust enough to make all the sacrifices that the “ordinary” saint seemed able to make. I read about saints who had spent entire nights in prayer and gone for days without food. The more I looked, the more discouraged I became, realizing that holiness must be for the elite.
As I leafed through the pious and often boring biographies, I got the impression that saints were born saints; that they were creatures like angels, different from you and me from the very start. And the plaster-of-paris statues in our church just added to my confusion. The women were wide-eyed and graceful, and the men were gentle and handsome. There were no statues of fat saints, no saints with big noses. None of the saints were frowning, and none looked tired.
Between the biographers and the artists, I was having a hard time imagining a saint’s life, much less relating to it .
Before long, I was fed up. I wished then, and I wish now, that the biographers of the saints would go to Purgatory for forty years. They made the saints unrealistic. They made them perfect — always kind, always patient; always able to resist temptation.
What biographers failed to note was that the majority of saints were ordinary people who struggled with temptations, sin, frailties, and weaknesses. Just like you and me.
Take the Apostles, for example. The men Jesus chose to teach and to follow Him and to inspire others to follow Him were extremely imperfect. (Did you know that there is no account in Scripture of the Apostles ever catching any fish on their own?) They were jealous at times. Envious. They had temper tantrums; they pouted; they became obsessively depressed and fearful in times of trial. They ran in times of crisis, and they became proud of their status of being in the “in” group. They weren’t too bright either, inasmuch as the meaning of a simple parable like the sower and the seed completely escaped them — so much so that they were forced to ask Jesus to explain it to them late at night. A parable that we consider within the intelligence of any fifth grader today was not comprehended by the men Jesus chose to be the leaders of His new Church.
Reading about the Apostles gave me a lot of courage. I could see that they didn’t start out being perfect. It became clear to me that saints are not born but made. I thus learned that there is great hope for all of us . For when we ask, “What does God want with me?” there is a single, beautiful answer, an answer that can sometimes astonish us.
The answer is that God wants us to become saints.
God gave you and me everything we need to become saints: the strengths and the weaknesses, the happiness and the heartaches, the flaws and the ability to overcome them in absolutely heroic ways. This is why, if you are mired in a particular sin or trapped by loneliness or depression, or simply restless and bored, you must sit up and pay attention to God’s mission for you in this life.
God wants you to be a saint!
I do not say this to be dramatic, or to pep you up, or to discourage you, or for any other reason . I didn’t make it up, and there are days I wish it weren’t true. But it is true. The French novelist Léon Bloy said that the only tragedy in this life is not to be a saint. The moment you come to grips with this great truth, your life will change forever into one extraordinary journey toward holiness.
Whenever I discuss the possibility of sainthood for each and every one of us, people start shaking their heads. Like me many years ago, they think of the saints as statues, lovely romanticized men and women who always have a faraway look in their eyes. They get caught up in the halos and the visions. They look into their closets and don’t see any long robes or flowing tunics. They look into their daily lives and don’t see any burning stakes or persecutors. Somehow, life at 1001 Pleasant Lane, however pleasant or unpleasant it might be, just doesn’t seem like the proper stage for a bona fide saint.
But it’s not only the trappings of sainthood that make it seem so distant to us. The raw materials, such as our hearts and minds and souls, also seem to present a problem. People cling to false notions of their own mediocrity, as if avoiding sanctity is somehow a safer, more comfortable existence. They’d rather do just enough to get by. It’s as if they’re aiming for Purgatory. “I’m not good enough,” they insist, or, “I’m not gentle enough,” or “I’m just not cut out for that sort of thing.”
Applesauce! God is looking for sinners and weaklings and everyday people just like you and me. Just because we live in suburbia or drink diet cola or worry about the Joneses doesn’t mean we can’t be saints. Housewives and executives and plumbers and waitresses can become saints. After all, Saint Matthew was a tax collector! And Saint Paul, before he made his “career change,” was a persecutor of Christians. Throughout history, the saints have come from all economic classes and all walks of life. In many cases, they have been guilty of sins that make you and me look like real lightweights. Often they have been faced with struggles for sanctity that lasted their entire lifetimes.
But what did each of these amazing persons have in common? What was it in the end that forged them into images of God Himself: loving, virtuous, and deeply holy? Why was God able to work wonders through these people rather than through others?
The answer is very simple. Saints are, if you’ll pardon my theological shorthand, God’s “dummies” and “dodos.”
“Oh, c’mon, Mother!” you say . “Saint Thomas Aquinas a dummy? What can you possibly mean?”
What I mean is that, in the spiritual life, God has a special love for those who are willing to be fools for His love, for those who have the courage to plunge forward full steam ahead when it comes to serving Him. I’m not saying that dummies are stupid. In fact, some of my most brilliant friends are dummies. Dummies are simply people who don’t know that it can’t be done. They understand only that they’ve got to be tough, that they’ve got to be humble, that they’ve got to trust absolutely in the Lord. And they know that if they do all these things — if they just try to do all these things — and if they do them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, then they are sure to please the Lord and bring forth blessings for the entire world.
And that is what God wants with us.
This article is an adapted from a chapter in Mother Angelica’s Answers, Not Promises: Straightforward Solutions to Life’s Puzzling Problems, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.