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Becoming Saints

by Jon M. Sweeney

Jesus sets the standard of holiness so high in the Sermon on the Mount that none of us can seemingly reach it. Do the saints we honor reach this high?

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to The Lure of Saintsspeak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom
of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called
children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’
sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute
you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my
account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in
heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets
who were before you.” (Matthew 5:1–12)

There is no doubt that great saints have used Jesus’ teaching as a list of what to do, what not to do, and who to try to become. Many have succeeded to an extraordinary degree of faithfulness.

In the sermon, Jesus continues:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste,
how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for
anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill
cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under
the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light
to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine
before others, so that they may see your good works and
give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13–16)

Jesus concludes this portion of his teaching with the sentence that has been bemoaned by Christians for millennia: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). How is that at all possible?

My friend Professor Ron Miller of Lake Forest College in Illinois offers a helpful explanation of how we might understand these teachings of Jesus—and it goes a long way toward explaining how we all might really become the saints we are intended to become. Miller retranslates Matthew 5:48 this way: “You should grow to your fullness, becoming whole and holy, like your heavenly Parent.” And he offers this short explanation:

I used to fear the word “perfect,” seeing in it an impossible
ideal. But when I first read this passage in German, I
noticed that the word was vollkommen, a clear cognate to
the English phrase “to come full.” We are to come full, like
the rose in its fullness or the full moon, like the full-faced
smile of a baby or the full fruit ripened on the vine. God is
the fullness of existence, and we are called to be fully all
that we have the capacity to be. [Jesus’] call is to a full and
abundant life.1

Above all else, saints have discovered what, for them, is the true likeness of God in their lives. They do not suffer, as the rest of us do, from wandering in what Sts. Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux called “the Land of Unlikeness.” Each of us at one time had a likeness that was only like unto our Creator, but few of us in maturity have been able to retain it. Instead, we more often are found somewhat lost, unlike ourselves as we once were.

To become a saint is not to become otherworldly as much as to become fully human. Some hagiographers did not understand this, no doubt, but Christ taught it. He showed us how to be fully human and divine all at the same time. He showed us the way to the most fulfilling, abundant life. Guibert of Nogent, one of the theologians of the Middle Ages who helped articulate the
church’s reasons for the veneration of saints’ relics, once said, “Anything that is connected with the Divine is in itself Divine, and nothing is more closely connected with the Divine than God’s saints who are of one body with him.” Yes! In a very real sense—so real, in fact, that it is not unreasonable to find
holiness in the very stuff of it—the saints of God share in Christ’s body.

St. Ambrose once said, after the discovery of the relics of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius, “Our eyes have opened to behold God’s glory, which is seen in the passion of the martyrs and present in the working of their lives.” Similarly, Thornton Wilder says at the end of Our Town that the “eternal part of us”
can only come through when we make room in our lives for God’s gracious filling and become as fully human as we are already made spiritual by God.

The communion of saints is all around us, all the time. They are listening, available, right before us. We, too, are saints when we are alive in Christ. It is the extraordinariness of this realization that caused pilgrims to gather up the blood from Thomas à Becket’s crushed skull as he lay dying on the cold floor of Canterbury Cathedral. That’s the weirdness of the saints that so fascinates us. But the same realization that saints’ bodies are one with Christ’s body shows us how to make sense of sainthood today, and how to take our own potential as saints more seriously.

The pursuit of saintliness can be an honest and earnest endeavor, but it is ultimately misguided. You might diligently follow a list like the one in chapter twelve—ten guidelines for becoming a saint, for instance—but doing those things will not get you there in and of itself. I don’t even think that becoming a saint is the same as practicing spirituality. Practicing spirituality is part of saintliness, to be sure, but not the crux of it.

We make a mistake when we simply interpret the saints’ lives as exemplars of an ideal spiritual life. Certainly saints are more focused on what is spiritual, lasting, and eternal than on that which is natural or bound to pass away. Most of our lives differ from the lives of the saints in this important regard, but when we say that the saints are spiritual we should understand that there are two things that spirituality is not. First, spirituality is not a permanent condition; it is not something that you enter into like a bath, and it is also not an acquired or temporary condition, like hunger or its opposite, satiety. Second—even though it sounds incorrect to say so—spirituality is not meant to be the goal of our lives. We spend a lot of time trying to be spiritual, in all that that means, and most of it is good, but God does not ask us to be spiritual; God asks us to become like Christ, to become Christ in our own unique way, which asThomas Merton explains means to become ourselves.

Listen in as Merton introduces this idea to young men at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky who are preparing to become monks:

There is only one thing for anybody to become in life.
There’s no point in becoming spiritual. It’s a waste of
time—the whole thing, trying to make yourself spiritual.
You’re not; it’s a waste of time. What you came here for, what
you came anywhere for, is to become yourself, to discover
your complete identity, to be you! But the catch to that, of
course, is that our full identity as monks and as Christians is Christ. It is Christ in each one of us. . . . I’ve got to
become me in such a way that I am the Christ that can only
be Christ in me. There is a Louie-Christ which must be
brought into existence and hasn’t matured yet; it has a long
way to go!2

Sainthood is utterly and completely incarnational. Sainthood is the marriage of God and the individual man or woman, flesh and spirit, heavenly and earthly, transcendent and imminent, in a kind of perfection that is available and possible today. It is ordinary in its simplicity but miraculous and extraordinary at the same time. It happened to you before you were born—God made it possible in Christ—and now you must know it and grow into it. If you allow God to be as close to you as to enflesh you, being a saint, living your vocation, will become natural.

There is a tradition in Judaism that if you are about to plant a tree and you hear that the Messiah has come, you should go ahead and plant your tree before you go out to meet him. The point of the teaching is this: the people of God bring about the kingdom of God. Do what you do to bring about the kingdom. In that is your sainthood.

1. Ron Miller, The Hidden Gospel of Matthew: Annotated and Explained (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2004), 56-57.

2. Thomas Merton, in a talk to monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani on the subject of William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear.” Recorded by Merton and distributed on cassette by Credence Cassettes, Kansas City, MO.

The Lure of The SaintsThe Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition
by Jon M. Sweeney
©2005 by Jon M. Sweeney
Used by permission of Paraclete Press.

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