“Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” – Charles Peguy.
Dear brethren of Jesus, children of the same Father, I greet you all with the peace of Christ, the love of our provident Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
The year gradually winds down reminding us, just as the liturgical readings do, about the end of time and about the four last things. The end of time is a reality that we should think about at every single breath since it is not something that can be changed or washed away by wishful thinking. It will be the future that turns into past; a definite aspect of our faith.
The month of November is particularly special because on the very first day of the month, the Church rejoices over the hope that is not dimmed in the celebration of all the Saints of God; the men and women who are heroes of the love for and faith in God in the different circumstances of their whole life. Saints are not exceptions. In fact, in the biblical sense of the word, all believers are saints. “Sanctity” means holiness, therefore the saints can be seen to be the standard modus operandi for human beings.
Having understood what Pope Francis’ agenda is in his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, which is “to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities” it is necessary that this awesome message is proclaimed to the hearing of all and sundry by whatever means and at all times. Re-proposing a call as ancient as the sun, portends the worth of such an endeavour. The Holy Father reminds the faithful that “the Lord has chosen each one of us ‘to be holy and blameless before him in love’” and that “the call to holiness is present in various ways from the very first pages of the Bible.” All men and women are made in the image and likeness of God who is Holy and calls us to be like him through our daily grind [Leviticus 20:26].
By virtue of our baptism, each of us is grafted onto the true vine, Jesus, that we may be full of life and holiness. “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” [Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, no. 1]
However, there seems to be some kind of restraint which arises from a misunderstanding of who the saints are and what they mean to us. The word is filled with dualities, so that when we talk of light, we can equally say darkness, when we talk of white we can talk of black, in a sense, words and opposites. There are certain things that cannot be conceived in such terms and this realm is one of them. The tendency is to immediately mention ‘sinners’ as the opposite of ‘saints’ yet, saints are not the opposite of sinners.
There are no opposites of sinners in this world. There are only saved sinners and unsaved sinners. Thus to be holy does not mean to be ‘sinless’ but to be ‘set-apart’, that is, called out of the world to the fortune of eternal happiness with God. There is only one objective absolute – God and only one subjective absolute – yourself. The call from oneself into the life of God is an invitation so lovely to dwell in the nature and life of the eternal one. This transition is so important because it resonates the fact that the whole question of life is a relationship between these two absolutes – between the perfect and the imperfect, God and You. There are two persons you can never escape, not for one moment, in time or in eternity: God and yourself. Everything else is relative to this.
On this, the French Jesuit Priest and writer, Jean Pierre de Caussade says “do your obvious duty as if nothing in the world existed, except you and God.” In other words, the key to holiness and sainthood is to practice consistently being in the presence of God, to do everything “under the eye of God, that is, under the eye of Absolute, Uncompromising Truth and Love.” This is a formula to be adopted but more than that is a life style wherein God is seen in everything and put before all else. ‘Practicing the presence of God’ is a felicitous and unforgettable phrase by a 17th century Carmelite Friar, named Brother Lawrence. Doing this is by far the most effective aid to becoming holy.
We can get a glimpse of this when we consider the words Jesus spoke in John 5:17. He says “my Father and I are working”. Not only did he come to do the will of the one who sent him, but he was in constant communion with the Father, putting the Father’s name and will in the fore of all that he said and did. In the latter part of the same Gospel, he would tell Philip of the deep intimate communion between himself and His Father [John 14:9-11]. This is the kind of union that results from ‘practicing the presence of God’ which de Caussade and Brother Lawrence speak about.
An alternative word for this action is what is simply called ‘Prayer’. As the professor and author, Peter Kreeft puts it, he says, “[Prayer] is our umbilical cord to God. It can and should become habitual.” St. Paul the apostle and veteran preacher in his letter to the Thessalonians had talked about ‘practicing the presence of God’ when he says “pray constantly” [1 Thess 5:17], in other words let your thoughts, words and deeds flow from your connection with the Divine.
Another consideration is that, although to be holy does not mean to be ‘sinless’ but to be ‘set-apart the saint’s heart is broken by every little sorrow and sin and a saint’s heart is also so strong that not even death can break it. It is indestructible because it is so framed by the love for God. He/she becomes the bride of Christ, totally attached, faithful and dependent. These are essentially marital terms and the same law and love applies. Therefore it would be poetic but true to say that a saint is also “totally independent, detached from idols and from other husbands. A saint works among these others – money, power, pleasure as a married woman works with other men, but will not marry them or even flirt with them.”
I remember saying to you once, the words of Jose Maria Escriva, “a Saint is a sinner who keeps trying.” Again I encourage you with these very sublime words of this man, to lock your focus on the saints who let Christ the true light shine through them and you will be encouraged to be a saint. Who are some of your heroes? Who has been motivating you? Let them be your supporting witnesses and help you live with inspired integrity. You can begin from learning something about your Patron Saint, this is definitely a noble course.
Keep in mind not only in this month of November but all times, the words of Charles Peguy, “life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint” but on the flip side, life’s ultimate joy is to be a saint.
† Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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