Back when I was a kid, I would read from my Picture Book of Saints (that very one up there) every night before bed, and I would imagine that some day I could be as holy and as good as the men and women staring back at me from those pages. I fell in love with the story of St. Bernadette and chose that for my Confirmation name when I was 12. I read the stories of St. Rita and St. Agnes, St. Tarcisius and St. Teresa of Avila until they felt like old friends. As I got older, I graduated to more in-depth stories of the saints. But then, at some point, I outgrew them, or so I thought. I couldn’t feel the connection anymore, didn’t think I needed the connection anymore. They started to seem like dusty old antiques with no relevance to me and my busy life. And so, little by little, the saints fell into the background of my spiritual life until they pretty much disappeared from view.
I went through a long period of not really thinking about or reading about the saints. I still loved the stained glass windows and statues bearing their images, still remembered their stories, but their humanity and their companionship was out of reach. Then something started to happen. The more I struggled to develop a deeper prayer life and to begin a path toward contemplation, the more I realized that I needed some encouragement — and not just from friends walking the same road. I needed those old friends whose stories of faith had inspired me so long ago. I needed real examples of people who’d overcome the dreck — or transformed the dreck into prayer — and found a better way. The Way.
I rediscovered St. Francis of Assisi, seeing and hearing his story with grown-up eyes and ears for the first time. And I fell in love. I discovered the writings of St. Francis de Sales and felt the stirrings of that long-lost connection. I visited the ground where Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was born and felt a sense of the sacred. I devoured anything by Thomas Merton and felt the words touch my heart and soul, even when I was struggling to wrap my mind around them.
Gone were the childhood dreams of one day being a storybook saint. In their place was a warm feeling of camaraderie, not because I am even in the same spiritual universe as the great saints but because they remind me that God will work with me, warts and all, if I truly desire to walk down His path. Will I achieve the kind of holiness I read about in the lives of the saints? Not likely, especially if this morning’s family outing to Mass is any indication. Do I get to try again every day? Yes. And the saints are there to cheer me on. Through the words they left behind, through the lives they lived and the works they did, they give witness to the fact that this journey is not about perfection. It is about faithfulness and trust, commitment and desire, willingness and surrender.
I’ve used this Merton quote on this blog before — and, yes, I am fully aware that he is not an official saint — but here it is again because this is one of those quotes that really hit me the first time I ever read it and that I come back to again and again. (It’s hanging next to my desk.)
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually do so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” — Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude