Friday, July 06, 2012

The problem with saints...

This may be an authentic photo of St. Maria Goretti.

Many people seem to have problems with the saints.  They complain some were too pure for them, some too charitable, some too strict, some way too poor or penitential - even their favorite saints, those who most attract them, seem to pose some sort of problem for them from time to time.  Like Therese of Lisieux - "yeah - well she had such a good family and then ended up in a cloister - no wonder she's a saint."  Or Maria Goretti, whose feast it is today - "She was so young and pious - perhaps so scared - no wonder she fought so hard and died, resisting rape."  Or, "Yeah, so she died rather than being raped.  What does that make me who was seduced and abused, but lived to tell about it?"

I think what is going on here a lot of the time is envy.  There is a holy envy one can acquire, which longs to be as close to God as the saints, or to be as pleasing to God as they were.  Although, if we are honest, sometimes that envy may not be so holy as we like to think - it can be a symptom of self love and jealousy.  We recognize it as such because it generally leads to a morbid discouragement - which may end in debilitating sloth - or at least so it seems to me.

Nevertheless, what we find attractive in the saints is their virtue, their love - devotion to God.  That is their holiness - that is what holiness is.  Their charity, the fire of their love, is what attracts us to them - they, the Holy Spirit draws us to them in love.  We can't posses them, nor copy or reproduce their charism in ourselves, by ourselves - not any more than we can possess or acquire, or be what our best friend on earth is.  If we think that, we do not understand friendship, and I think it safe to say our love is self-love, and our devotion becomes self-seeking.

The saints are full of charity, the more perfect they are, the more they understand our weakness and compassionate our imperfection - they are drawn to us.  They are presented to our deepest attraction for good by the Holy Spirit to be a friend and companion - not a competitor or someone to put us down. 

This past week, on July 4th, we observed the memorial of Pier Giorgio Frassati.  A young saint - he died so young, and accomplished much, hidden from his family and the praise of men.  He was angelic in his purity, perfect in his obedience - everything that I am not.  My devotion to him was not impeded by my own sinfulness and failures, or his youth and perfection - to the contrary.  I was immediately attracted to his spirit and he became my best friend ever since I saw a photo of him one day, shortly after his beatification.  He was pure, I was not.  Was I jealous?  Heavens no.  Just the opposite.

I'm not saying this well at all, I know, but think of it like this:  If your predominant fault was dishonesty, and you were suffering from temptations to steal, would you go to a known thief for advice or help to combat this vice?  Or would you ask a saint who never ever committed that sin himself, yet maybe forgave those who once robbed him of his reputation in life, and thus reached a high degree of virtue and sanctity and became a saint?  If you were troubled by violent temptations and struggled with habitual sins against chastity - would you go to a prostitute to advise or guide you, or beg the most pure and unsullied saint to come to your aid, strengthen you in temptation, and accompany you after your sin on the way back to confession?

It seems to me a common mistake is that we want the saints to be just like us - or we want saints like ourselves - damaged, broken, neurotic - with movie star looks; but I think that is self-love and even a form of covetousness.  I don't know how to explain it better.  But it seems to me it is healthier to want to be with friends more virtuous than ourselves, those who can and are willing to help us grow in virtue, not those who bring us down.

Anyway - it's dumb to be jealous or resentful towards the saints.  When we feel like that, it's not their problem, or God's problem - but ours.  It stems from our inordinate self love.  Self love and pride go together... leading to rivalry, sloth, contempt for spiritual things, rancor, discouragement - and of course, envy and sadness at the success of others - in this case, the saints.  

I may be wrong of course.  And to be sure - it is completely normal and not a sin if we find we are not attracted or particularly devoted to every saint.  Saints are people too, you know.  There are people you may not be attracted to or even like.

But don't listen to me - ask your spiritual director or confessor about such things, I'm just talkin'.

St. Maria appears to her attacker/murderer, Alessandro.
Perhaps this image helps in what I was trying to say.
The little Saint appeared to the man who
killed her and assured him of her love and
forgiveness.  What greater encouragement
do we need to approach the saints and Our Lady,
even if our sins be like scarlet?


  1. Anonymous12:37 PM

    One of your best posts

  2. Anonymous1:01 PM

    Love this post. :)

  3. Thanks for the fraternal correction there. I've been envious of/disgusted with the sentimentality surrounding St. Therese for as long as I can remember. I'm a sarcastic mess, not an angelic girl with blond ringlets who charmed the pope at age 14 or whatever. But that is all rather petty and immature now that I think about it.

    1. Oh Sarah! I wasn't offering fraternal correction at all, to anyone. But you are correct - many of the devotees of the saints also keep us from understanding them - and was that ever the case with Therese - still is. But she loves her simple ones - often just because of that. One of the best things about her - at least I think it is - is that she reveals herself quite naturally and in very ordinary ways to those who inquire of her.

      That said - have you ever read The Hidden Face, by Ida Gorres I think? It is a wonderful book about her, a more sober analysis and not always flattering - Therese would have loved it because of that. Everything written 'about' her is always up for debate, anyway.

      But I've found that reading the testimonies for the beatification of those that knew her to be the best for understanding what Therese herself wrote. These in addition to the writings of her sister Celine. The unedited St. Therese is the best - although even the most 'sweet' translation of "The Story of a Soul" has proved to be miraculous for many readers.

      BTW - I'm a sarcastic mess myself. Haha!

    2. I should add that there are times or seasons in our lives when certain saints attract us more, or we get to know them better. I remember being bored with big Teresa of Avila and couldn't stand reading her - then one day a few years later, I picked up her Autobiography and couldn't put it down. It became a sort of manual or handbook for me for many years.

  4. This was indeed a beautiful post, Terry. Envy is a great struggle...When I was young I felt a connection to St. Maria Goretti, I suspect, because I was abused. I know I did not understand exactly how I felt connected at the time.

    Today at Mass I was suddenly ovetaken my sorrow and tears by the things that transpired when I was a child. I was convinced I had committed unforgiveable mortal sin--and even tried to convince a priest at my first confession that I had, to no avail.

    At Mass, at the consecration, I experienced this misfortune as a sacrifice that I was being asked to offer to God, in Him, with Him and through Him, as it were. I also had an image in my mind of Jesus' tomb and the boulder that covered His tomb as sin. We are sinned against. We sin against others but Sin is the boulder that one confessed and forgiven becomes our way to ,and means of, hope in the resurrection. I experienced a great mercy.

    1. And this is a beautiful comment Maria! God bless you.

  5. Anonymous3:58 PM

    One thing a lot of people forget about Maria: her family had already suffered the casualty rate of a First World War rifle company. All four of her grandparents and an older brother had died before she was born. Her father, who caught malaria almost as soon as the family arrived in the Agro Pontino, died of it and meningitis three years later, when she was nine. The father of her killer also suffered from malaria. If anyone told the kid, "Memento mori," she might very well have answered back, "Duh! Like who could forget it." That being the case, her outlook on eternity was bound to be a little different from that of someone living in relative safety and comfort today.

    1. You know what I think? I think she was more concerned that Allessandro would commit mortal sin than she was for herself. She was an extraordinary little girl. The secret of the saints is charity.

  6. Anonymous: Thank you.They suffered under grinding poverty..

    For Sarah:

    Sometimes, most times, the hardest stuggle in life in just being the people God made us to be..

  7. How right you are, Terry.

  8. "The verdict of human history is uniform. Sins against chastity lead to sins against charity. That is why Pope Pius XII said what he did when he canonized the young martyr St. Maria Goretti. He told the assembled audience of more than half a million in St. Peter’s Square that in the last half of the twentieth century the devil would seduce millions to abandon their Christian faith by using lustful pleasure as his demonic bait."

    Servant of God Fr Hardon SJ

    1. Fr Hardon continues to be a great grace to many of us. I like this quote:

      "Only two kinds of people will reach heaven: the very humble and the very chaste. Nobody else, nobody else, nobody else."

      Fr. John Hardon, S. J.

    2. Well, that's bad news for all of us.

  9. Wasn't St. Jerome the cranky saint?

  10. I am slow. Who is irascible?

  11. Sorry. I got confused. I couldn't figure out why we were discussing St. Jerome, lol. But, good for St Jerome ;)

  12. Terry, I am so guilty of this. Part of it is envy - very much so.

    But much of it, for me, is this: "if I am not like that, I will go to hell."

    I think of so many saints who were so sure that they would go to hell if they did not make some radical change, even though they were not themselves committing any mortal sins at the time! Theresa of Avila comes to mind - she was sure she'd burn in hell if she lived in the world. Considering that she was, even then, more religious and faithful than I have ever been, what's the hope for me, who has ZERO interest in religious life?

    Also, I get leery about saints because of the things they said. St. Jean Vianney made lots of claims about dancing being a mortal sin, even in cases where the woman in question truly had no evil intent. Others have been great saints but went so far as to say sex is a mortal sin unless *explicitly* done for procreative purposes. Others have been said to no longer even notice members of the opposite sex at all, or to refuse to touch or look at even their mothers.

    So, the problem is, I don't WANT to EVER be that "pure", if that's what purity is. And that is a scary thought, because it must mean I'm indifferent to the things of God.


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