Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 14, 2008
Our one choice can only be to struggle to be a saint
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
What makes a saint? One of my favourite definitions comes from Soren Kierkegaard who once famously wrote: "To be a saint is to will the one thing."
That sounds simple, but, as we know, choosing something in fidelity is one of the hardest things to do in the world. Why?
Because as Thomas Aquinas says, every choice is a renunciation. In fact it's a thousand renunciations. Simply put: If you choose to marry one person, you can't marry someone else; if you choose to live in one city, you can't live in another; and if you choose to spend your time and energies in one place, you can't spend them somewhere else. We can't have it all.
Yet that's what we want - we want it all and we are built to have it all.
There's a story told about Th‚rŠse of Lisieux in this regard: When she was a girl of seven, one of her older sisters, Leonie, had decided that it was time for her to give up her toys. So she gathered them all into a basket and went into a room where Th‚rŠse and her sister, Celine, were playing.
She told them that each of them could choose one thing from the basket and the rest would be given to an orphanage. Celine chose a colourful ball, but Therese was paralyzed, unable to choose, and at a point simply said: "I choose them all! I want them all!"
Henri Nouwen once described his own struggles in choosing: I want to be a great saint, he wrote, but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners have; I want to spend long hours in prayer, but I don't want to miss anything on television; and I want to live in radical simplicity, but I also want to have a comfortable apartment, the freedom to travel, and all the things I need to be a professional scholar and writer.
"Small wonder my life is trying and tiring! It's not easy to be single-minded, to be a saint - or to be a human being, for that matter."
I have always prided myself, perhaps arrogantly and to my own detriment, on recognizing life is complex, human nature is pathologically layered, and ambiguity is the fundamental phenomenon within our universe.
Our hearts and souls contain more things than we honestly admit.
For this reason, I have always leaned towards authors who have tried to honestly face and name this, teachers who haven't denied or made light of our sexual complexity, and spiritualities that have taken seriously the fact that, given human nature with all its grandiosity, we shouldn't be so surprised to see in our world a lot of jealousy, breakdown, depression, anger and violence.
Even our most intimate relationships aren't simple.
We carry too many complexities, too many wounds, too much grandiosity, so that, as James Hillman puts it, the first function of any family is to help carry the pathologies of its members.
Life isn't simple and for that we can thank, among other reasons, the way we are built. We carry inside of us the image and likeness of God.
That's more than a beautiful icon stamped into the soul. It's a divine fire, a hungry energy, an insatiable appetite, an incessant yearning, and a paralysis when we try to make choices.
As the author of Ecclesiastes says, God has put eternity inside of us so we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end.
Our complexity notwithstanding, in the end, we need to become saints.
Leon Bloy (the French philosopher who was so instrumental in helping bring Jacques and Raissa Maritain to the faith) once packed an entire commentary on spirituality and life into a single line: "Ultimately there is only one human sadness, that of not being a saint."
The older we get, the more we realize how true that is and how important is that truth. Real sadness has but a single source.
But becoming a saint has a real cost: Hard choice, commitment, single-mindedness, willing the one thing, renouncing whatever stands in the way, sweating blood to remain faithful, and sustaining the emotional, sexual, and spiritual asceticism needed to protect that choice.
We shouldn't, of course, try to do this simplistically in a way that denies the complexity of our souls and bodies. Nor should we remain paralyzed in the face of that complexity, rationalizing that things are just too complicated and we are just too torn to make a choice.
At some point our procrastinating and the rationalizing have to end, we have to choose, accept the painful renunciations inside that choice, and will the one-thing, God and faithful service of others, because ultimately our sadness comes from the fact that we are not yet saints.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.