“Just do your best.” Chances are you heard that growing up, and even now may still hear it in adulthood. But it misses the mark when it comes to practicing magnanimity.
To be honest, I absolutely hate the phrase “just do your best” because it most often comes with the implication that your best may never be good enough. I just don’t believe that’s true. To me the phrase “Just do your best” is condescending and hints at the notion that mediocrity is okay as long as it’s “your best.”
It’s a nice enough thought – to just do your best. But it’s complete nonsense because we shouldn’t be striving for or stopping at simply “our best”. We should be striving for the best that God calls us to be – to be perfect as He is perfect (Mat 5:48). We should be striving for holiness, virtue, sainthood. In short, we need to be magnanimous.
Being Virtuous Is No Small Thing – It’s Magnanimous
In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis says we are all called to holiness and to sainthood, and that this is achievable through small actions:
“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.
“This holiness to which the Lord calls you will grow through small gestures . . . At times, life presents great challenges. Through them, the Lord calls us anew to a conversion that can make his grace more evident in our lives, “in order that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:10). At other times, we need only find a more perfect way of doing what we are already doing . . .” (Gaudete et Exsultate, #15-17).
The Holy Father’s words bring to mind “The Little Way” of St. Therese of Lisieux. Her ‘little way’ of responding to the tasks of everyday living put God first in everything. And in doing all the little things with love of God, she became a saint.
It’s almost counterintuitive. Holiness and being virtuous are not small things, even though both can be found in small gestures. Holiness and virtue are magnanimous. They are great things.
Bear Witness, Give Glory
Today, it is especially difficult to act virtuously even in the “small gestures.” Thinking that they are small gestures may even contribute to the feeling that it is unnecessary, or it does not matter because, after all, the gestures are “small.” However, by acting virtuously in the “small gestures” we make those gestures holy and great because, ultimately, they bear witness to Christ and give glory to the Father.
We often get caught up in thinking that because we are human with faults and limitations that holiness is unachievable, that it’s only for the saints and those God calls to be saints. However, God calls each and every one of us to be saints. And God does not burden us with the impossible.
Not all saints have lives of grandiose actions, martyrdom, or fame. Many saints are quite unknown to the world at large and yet they are saints. They are saints not because they started a religious order, spent their entire lives in prayer and fasting, or were killed in the name of Christ. They are saints because through their everyday lives and during times of temptation, they turned to the Lord in holiness and virtue. Their actions, their “small gestures” became transformed magnanimously.
What Is Magnanimity?
According to Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, magnanimity is “stretching forth of the mind to great things.” A man, according to Aquinas, is magnanimous when he desires and is inclined to do great acts. Most people would assume that great acts are those that go down in the history books, acts that bring about fame and renown. However, Aquinas reminds us that an act is great even if it is small and ordinary. Overcoming a sin or seeking to correct an imperfection is no small feat. Choosing virtue over vice is choosing to be holy, to be magnanimous.
One of the greatest problems that plagues our society today, including people of the Church, is this lack of magnanimity. Instead, what is sought is mediocrity or simply “trying your best,” accepting faults and failures without the inclination to improve. After all, we’re only human; we couldn’t possibly be expected to do anything more than be human.
However, Christ was fully human and yet He is the most perfect example of magnanimity. His Mother was fully human and again chose holiness over ordinariness. Mary’s response to every challenge in her life was never, “But I am only human and this is all God expects from me.” Her response, through her actions, was always saying yes to God, submitting herself in humble obedience.
We have the saints as examples of magnanimity as well as the Church to show and teach us how to be holy. Most importantly, we were given the Sacraments to receive the grace necessary to be magnanimous.
Magnanimous Doesn’t Mean Achieving the Impossible
Saint Thomas Aquinas was very clear about magnanimity and our human limitations. Yes, we are human; yes we have limitations, but holiness does not require superhuman powers. The magnanimous person, says Aquinas, is someone who works within the abilities and gifts God has given him to give glory to God, which is the ultimate end of holiness and magnanimity.
Accordingly magnanimity makes a man deem himself worthy of great things in consideration of the gifts he holds from God: thus if his soul is endowed with great virtue, magnanimity makes him tend to perfect works of virtue; and the same is to be said of the use of any other good, such as science or external fortune. (Summa Theologica, Art. 3)
Because one must recognize the abilities God has given him, one must also recognize his or her deficiencies and limitations. Limitations should not be confused with human faults and failures. Rather, recognizing our limitations is practicing humility in knowing that above all we need Divine Assistance to achieve holiness. This assistance comes in the form of grace received from the sacraments that Christ gives us through His Church. Each sacrament, particularly the Eucharist, gives us the grace and strength to act magnanimously in the face of mediocrity. It gives us the courage to act virtuously amidst, what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism” – a dictatorship that is hostile to virtue, holiness, morals, and the Church.
The Eucharist: Source and Summit
In a general audience last year, Pope Francis said that the Mass is at the heart of the Church, and quoted CCC 1324: the Eucharist is “the Source and Summit of the Christian life,” with all other sacraments pointing towards the Body of Christ.
“Without Christ, we are condemned to be dominated by everyday weariness, with its worries, and by fear of the future. The Sunday encounter with the Lord gives us the strength to experience the present with confidence and courage, and to go forth with hope. For this reason, we Christians go to encounter the Lord on Sunday, in the Eucharistic celebration . . . [H]ow can we practice the Gospel without drawing the energy necessary to do so . . . from the inexhaustible source of the Eucharist?” (Pope Francis, Gen. Audience, Dec. 13, 2017)
It is through the Eucharist at Mass that we are able to witness the ultimate act of magnanimity, to learn how to be holy and live the Gospels in our daily lives.