Thursday, May 12, 2011

To Be A Saint

What does it take to be a saint?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that the Church's "canonizing" some of the faithful is its way of saying that these people have practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God's grace (cf. #828).

The process does not imply that these canonized saints were perfect.

Jesuit priest and writer James Martin proposes in his book Becoming Who You Are that to be a saint one must be himself or herself. He borrows that insight from Thomas Merton's description of sanctity in his New Seeds of Contemplation.

As comforting as that insight is, the problem connected with it is the struggle to be authentic, to be really and truly who we are.

The Catechism says that in canonizing saints the Church is proposing them as models as well as intercessors (cf. #828).

It is the idea of saints as models that becomes treacherous, for it sounds as if we are supposed to become St Francis of Assisi or St Therese the Little Flower.

The modeling worth imitation is not to wear brown robes or live as an intinerant preacher; it is not that we enter a monastery and ape Therse's patience with nuns who were irritating.

The modeling that is to inspire us comes from our awareness that both of them became saints by being who they were --unique personalities set in the culture and circumstances of their times.

If we try to be St. Francis or St. Therese we fail to be ourselves, we fail to be authentic --we are taking on a false persona.

Father Martin selects Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen as two examples of uncanonized saints, and notes that both were flawed and sometimes sinful, revealing in their writings the difficulties they faced in trying to be patient, generous, kind, compassionate, open to others.

The test of true sanctity is whether we are willing to be who we are, and whether we seek to grow and mature into the full person we have the potential for being.

Martin recalls an episode in the life of Mother Teresa when she told an admirer, "Find your own Calcutta." She meant, you don't have to go to India to become a saint; find the place where you belong --the "bloom where you are planted" advice.

I doubt I'll live long enough to see Dorothy Day canonized. We know how dedicated she was to the poor, how faithful to the Eucharist, how self-sacrificing --all traits that fit in the criteria for canonization ("heroic to God's grace").

But we also know how flawed she was --her having an abortion, her having a child out of wedlock, her sometimes cantankerous moods and harsh words.

There has been a tendency to sanitize the lives of the saints, to paint a one-sided picture of their personalities and nature. Since we know much about Dorothy Day's life, will the Church be able to accept this flawed person and recognize her virtue and fidelity?

One of Dorothy's friends remembers discussing with her the report that it cost about $7 million for the canonization of Elizabeth Seton. Teasing Dorothy about her canonization some day, Mary Lathrop asked, "How much should we put in the kitty for yours?" Dorothy smiled, and said, "Oh, about fifteen thousand" (cf Dorothy Day: Portraits By Those Who Knew Her by Rosalie Riegel, p. 195.)

On another occasion someone suggested to Dororthy that she was indeed a saint, and Miss Day responded, "Don't call me a saint; I don't want to be dismissed that easily."

Dorothy wasn't opposed to saints or canonization, but she knew the tendency to sanitize their lives and perhaps thereby defuse the power that a social activist needed to accomplish good things for the poor.

The first step toward canonizing Dorothy Day was taken in March of 2000; the Vatican officially declared her "a servant of God."

I won't hold my reath until the process moves to the next step, declaring her venerable. But in the meantime I will enjoy the consolation that one of her friends suggested, "Knowing Dorothy's dark side, I can live with my own."

In the final analysis canonization is a nice honor but it doesn't make one a saint. Sanctity is what Thomas Merton noted, "For me to be a saint means to be myself," authentically.

No comments:

Post a Comment