The lives of the saints captivate me. The Church, in her wisdom, elevates various saints as witnesses of what a life fully embracing Christ can look like. Quite intentionally, I believe, these lives cover a broad spectrum so as to emphasize the reality that each person, in their own way, can be a saint. There is no “cookie cutter” saint or one ideal for which to strive.
During the Liturgical Year, the Church invites us to commemorate a host of saints, the ones, that is, who lived charity to the full, who knew how to love and follow Christ in their daily lives. They tell us that it is possible for everyone to take this road. In every epoch of the Church’s history, on every latitude of the world map, the saints belong to all the ages and to every state of life, they are actual faces of every people, language and nation. And they have very different characters.
Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience on April 13, 2011
The canonized saints in the Catholic Church had one goal in common: union with Jesus Christ. Yet the ways they achieved that goal were as plentiful and varied as their personalities and unique stories. It offers a bit of hope to me to consider that regardless of their circumstances, hardships, or foibles they were able to embrace the grace offered to them and be transformed into living testimonies for Christ.
There are at least two categories of saints, however, that I have classified in my mind. The first category is for the saints who have such lofty virtue and spiritual gifts that I look up to them but don’t often consider myself very similar to them. The second category is for saints who, though quite different in many ways, share something in common with me.
The Lofty Inspirational Saints
Some saints inspire me through their sheer radicality and the significant graces made manifest in their lives. For example, St. Pio of Pietrelcina was endowed with phenomenal gifts of reading souls, bilocating and bearing in his body the wounds of Christ. When I need examples of the wondrous things that Christ can do through His saints in modern times, I quickly rattle off a couple stories of Padre Pio. My students, even the most bored, are quickly amazed by the impressive details of his life. From bilocating and levitating in front of a plane during World War II to stop it from dropping bombs to numerous stories of Padre Pio listing off the sins of penitents in Reconciliation, he had shocking and rare gifts that I never expect to have.
St. Francis is another saint who surprises people with his stark simplicity and his fervent preaching. Surrendering even the clothes he was wearing to his disapproving father, St. Francis embarked on a life many would call foolish. Typically romanticized in modern retellings, St. Francis would preach to the birds, fish, and animals when the humans’ hearts proved too stony. While I long for simplicity, I do not find myself desiring to possess nothing in this world and wander without a home like St. Francis often did.
Or St. Gemma Galgani. While I don’t know much about her, the glimpses into her mystical life reveal a unique relationship with God. Each week, she lived the passion of Jesus, receiving the suffering and wounds of Christ. Her life was one of silence and deep prayer, marked by experiences of ecstasy and rapture. Once again, this is very unlike my life, yet I appreciate learning about the saints who have experienced such mystical encounters.
The Saints With a Small Commonality
Before I claim that there is an entire category of saints that I feel quite similar to, I must preface it with this: these are simply saints with whom I find some small point of similarity. It might be a life experience we share or a common interest. For some reason or another, I find parts of their life match up with mine and it impels me to seek their intercession so as to become more like them.
St. Gianna Molla is my confirmation saint and I chose her because of her vocation alongside her desire to protect the sanctity of life. She married and had four children while managing a doctor’s office in a small Italian town. Although most Catholics pursue the vocation of matrimony, canonized saints tend to skew towards priests and religious. I found it inspiring that St. Gianna pursued holiness in the everyday circumstances of marriage and family life. It was an ordinary path to holiness, one I hope to follow on, too.
When I was in high school, I had a project for school that was a court case where I was one of the lawyers. I semi-seriously considered pursuing the law and wrapped up in these considerations was my admiration for St. Thomas More. I’m uncertain that I could handle the pressure he was under with as much grace as he did, but the tenacity and strong will ring true with my temperament. In the time when King Henry VIII was splitting from the Catholic Church, he called for all in England to pledge fidelity to the king as the head of the Church of England. While nearly all of the bishops caved to the pressure, St. Thomas More remained steadfast. He wanted to serve the king in all that was good and true, but he would not sacrifice his fidelity to God in the process.
A Surprising Point of Union
Sometimes, however, saints surprise me. I think I have them nicely pegged in one category and then I learn something about them and it launches them into the other one. My prime and most recent example is St. Edith Stein, also known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. For the past several years that I have known of her existence, she has been firmly entrenched in the “lofty inspirational” saint. St. Edith Stein grew up as a young Jewish girl in Germany, went through a period of atheism, and was an incredibly intelligent philosopher. Part of her conversion to Catholicism came through reading about the life of St. Teresa of Avila and declaring that it was the truth. She entered a cloistered Carmelite monastery to follow Jesus in her vocation as a religious sister. Edith Stein’s life ended as a firm witness to Christ through her death in the Auschwitz concentration camp. From this amount of information, I knew that while St. Edith Stein was inspirational, she was not like me.
This semester, I have been reading through Embracing Edith Stein and that has greatly impacted my perception of this saint. For all the differences between the two of us, St. Edith Stein and I have at least a few significant details in common. Before she entered the monastery, Edith taught. She was a college professor and I teach high school. As she taught philosophy, she also wrote a great deal. I also write, though not to her degree of brilliance. Finally, and this is the most substantial detail, we both know the experience of waiting for vocational fulfillment.
Between Edith Stein’s reception into the Catholic Church and her reception into the Carmelite monastery, she waited for eleven years. From the moment of her baptism, she wanted to enter the order of her much beloved spiritual mentor, St. Teresa of Avila. Yet her mother struggled even to accept her daughter’s conversion and so Edith, in accord with her spiritual director’s suggestion, waited. She knew where her heart longed to be, but for a variety of reasons, she wasn’t able to move forward in that. Unlike Edith, I desire marriage instead of religious life. Desiring it, however, isn’t enough because, at this moment, it isn’t an actuality. And so we wait. Hopeful, expectant, and desiring the fulfillment of our desires in a future that is unclear to us.
St. Edith Stein used her time of waiting to embrace fully the mission God had for her in the present moment. Her students described her as “calm, gentle, and quiet.” She traveled to lecture and wrote extensively about the worth of the human person. Though active in many ways, she cultivated a rich life of prayer. While God placed a call to religious life on her heart, she obediently waited until the very moment He asked her to step into that life. Her time of waiting wasn’t for nothing. God used that time to help shape the world around her through the gifts of intellect, speaking, and writing with which He had endowed her. Perhaps those years of learning to say “Yes” to God prepared Edith for her relatively short time in the monastery before dying in Auschwitz. In trusting the Lord in the moments of waiting, St. Edith Stein inspires me to likewise trust God in my present time of waiting for God’s plan to unfold.
The Humanity of Saints
In reality, the two category saint system is flawed. Each saint, if I looked at their life close enough, would have some point in common with me, no matter how small. Padre Pio was known to be fairly blunt and sometimes I can fall into the same thing. St. Francis preached to animals due to the difficulty found in preaching to humans, something I can relate to as a high school teacher. St. Gemma is one I would need to read more about to know what human quality we both possess. Each saint offers some personal source of inspiration if we look close enough at their lives.
The saints are beautiful examples of how Christ works with the particular personality, situation, and circumstances of each individual to fashion saints. No two saints are identical and the broad spectrum gestures toward the vast mystery of who God is. The saints reflect an aspect of God, but we cannot fully wrap our minds around the depth that is found in our Triune God. Their lives show us through openness to grace, we can become unique signposts, directing others’ eyes to our one common goal: Jesus Christ.