Interesting Articles

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lord, how I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in!

“How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different the saints.” - C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity

The other day I was reflecting on the the fact that I think we sometimes have a bit of idolatry in our attitude toward the saints. Now, by this, I don’t mean that we are wrong to hold them up as examples, for they are rightly revered as the heroes and heroines of the faith. Nor do I mean that we are wrong to seek their intercession, to ask for their help and assistance in our lives. What I mean is, I think sometimes we regard the saints as so holy that we forget that studying them, reading their biographies, and praying with them is really only a means of imitating them. We relegate them to super-human status, regarding such a level of holiness as outside our own reach. Thus, we begin to revere them in a way that becomes sinful. We hide behind piety and humility, when what we actually feel is a fear of improving ourselves, relying on God’s grace of course, to the point where we might be saints ourselves. A mind which says, “I will go so far in the faith, and no further” is not one that the saints possessed, and I think it becomes idolatrous to make our love of the saints an excuse for not attempting, with all our might, to enter into their numbers.

I think the best example of such thinking that I have come across was expressed by Thomas Merton in his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. I have included the passage below- it comes from a part of the book where Merton is still a newer convert to the faith, and he is discussing his future with a friend-

…Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman-English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and expressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say” – he told me—“what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”
But Lax said: “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do I desire it.”
A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing—and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.
The next day I told Mark Van Doren:
“Lax is going around saying that all a man needs to be a saint is to want to be one.”
“Of course,” said Mark.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

The Eastern take on icons and idols is revealing here: An idol is something you look at. And icon is something you look through. But even more so, an icon is something through which the Heavenly Host looks at you. If we look to the saints and no further, they are idols. Even if we focus on *us* looking at them, rather than at the work that *God* is doing through them in us, they can become idols.

On a side note, the film Quiz Show is about the Van Dorens, a father-son duo and some moral questions they ran into. Quite good.