What is Real? The Velveteen Catholic meets the Saints

I have always been a Catholic but did not fully practice, understand or embrace the faith until adulthood. I married at age 19 and had my first child at 21; so when I say "adulthood" I do not mean mature adulthood. I knew I needed to grow and figured that the best place to start was with the saints, my brothers and sisters in heaven, who had been where I stood and had "made it."

In our first home we had two shelves full of saints books that my husband had purchased for our infant son. It would be a few years before he would read them but I dug in and spent hours rocking my baby and getting to know my heavenly siblings. Wonderful! Inspiring! If only I could be like that! But there's a significant problem with many saints books written for children, and that is that they are subject to some serious literary airbrushing. The saints are too often depicted like fictional beings who seem too fantastical to be true and distant to a growing sinner. I became discouraged. That is not for me, I thought. I can't possibly become a saint. Heck, I can't even keep the kitchen sink clean.

I wanted desperately to be like those lovely sanitized holy men and women but I knew that I could not. I tucked my failure deep into a corner of my heart and pressed on with a shaky faith; walking forward, seeking God's will, growing slowly in love and commitment to my vocation.

What is real?

As my family grew and the challenges of life increased, I repeatedly turned to the example of the saints and then turned away. They appeared in my mind like cartoons and the pastel pictures in my son's books; unblemished statues with flawless stories. Those images had spread into my faith life to a degree that my entire vision of church and faith would occasionally falter... so that everything that was once real and beautiful to me appeared as a smooth blond airbrushed plaster statue of Mary. With blue eyes, of course. And the smooth hands so unlike mine with my nails roughly bitten down to the quick.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit I began to wonder what was real. I was real. And I could not be a saint. I knew this because I knew the lives of the saints were an impossibility. I couldn't make it through the morning without messing something up let alone live such an untarnished life until the end. Unless God directly intervened, it was hopeless for me. And He didn't seem to be taking any significant action in spite of my pleas.

The Saints were Crazy

Over the years, my understanding increased a little and my reading level also rose. I began to read biographies of the saints that were written for adults; accounts that revealed the real humanity and weaknesses of these men and women who became such great friends of God. I remember reading a book about St. Francis of Assisi during my lunch breaks at work. As I made my way through the volume, a very disturbing thought kept recurring to me: This man was crazy! I had attended a Franciscan high school and everyone there knew all about St. Francis. We were experts. He was something of a religious mascot to us. He loved animals, right? What more do we need to know? He was gentle and little birdies and wolves listened to him. The real story is much more intense and cool and... totally crazy. This man loved God so passionately that he did extreme things for that love. I became increasingly convinced through my reading that many people who knew St. Francis during his lifetime did not think of him primarily the nice animal guy. And that a lot of people probably thought he really was off his rocker.

As my education increased, I learned that all of the saints had a similar quality; this intensely real marriage of tremendous love and messy humanity. They were all willing to be considered odd or extreme or reviled or misunderstood... if it meant glorifying and serving the Lord.

The Saints Suffered

I continued to read and met with the suffering saints. Boy, did they suffer. The kids books gloss over those points (and maybe they should, I don't know) and consequently, I imagined that real suffering for Christ would be easier (humanly speaking) than suffering without Him. But it seemed that I had the wrong idea. A suffering Christian is not spared actual pain, but they are given hope. There is nothing about the crucifixion that modeled a tolerable type of suffering. And the saints suffered like Jesus in ways that seemed too hard for me.

I prayed for a miracle. I knew that I did not want to be considered strange and reviled by others. And I did not want to suffer like that. I did not really want to be a saint. Not a real saint. Maybe just a nice saint... with blonde hair, blue eyes and immaculate hands. I took my secret and tucked it back into that corner in my heart.

I continued to pray and to go through the motions... but I always stopped short of giving God everything. After all, I had been learning a lot about what happened to His closest friends. Most of the time I tried to ignore my lack of trust. But occasionally, I would pray more deeply and He would draw me closer... and I would face my fear. And stop short.

I have had a very good life and love my family and vocation; but there is no question that life is just plain hard sometimes. And sometimes, we all suffer... with a capital S. During one of those very human moments in my life, I found myself awash in tears and desperate prayers and faced with that uncomfortable moment again; the one at which I had always stopped before. But this time, I crossed that threshold and finished my prayer.

Lord, change my life forever. Take me anywhere. Just don't let me go. Because I am afraid.  Please lead me wherever it is You want me to go. I will go. I want to be a saint. 

I'd love to tell you that I changed significantly immediately. The reality, however, is that I hardly changed at all exteriorly. If anything, I am a worse housekeeper, more forgetful, make more mistakes  and am lacking in discipline more than I ever have been before. My vocation requires a bit more of me than I seem to be able to give. Sometimes I open my eyes in the morning and groan, wondering what the good Lord was thinking when He gave me this job. You know I can't do it, Lord... I guess You knew that from the beginning. All right. Here we go. You better not drop me.

What has changed is that I feel free to approach God and to love Him freely in spite of my ugliness and sinfulness. Human perfection is not required to be a friend of God. He wants me even if I can't keep my sink clean. Want to know how badly He wants my friendship and yours? Take a long look at the crucifix. He didn't do that for perfect people.

The Saints were Real

Some notes about the saints:

* They were clumsy
* They were forgetful
* They had tempers
* They upset people
* They had allergies
* They had disfigurements
* They had chronic illnesses (sometimes brought on by their imprudence)
* They had serious disagreements with people (sometimes other saints)
* They made errors in judgement

In short, God calls us to perfection; but this does not mean that we shall never drop a dish or have a disagreement or lose our tempers or spend a week with the flu.

Sainthood is About Love

A priest at our parish once reminded us that "You can be the greatest saint." For the first time in my life, I believed him. I won't ever be canonized (since my life would just scandalize the faithful) but I can be a near and dear friend to Jesus. And as long as He holds my hand, I am no longer afraid.

My heart is free from my secret now. I no longer see the saints as separate from my reality. And my life has dramatically changed. As I said, I seem to be  getting no better humanly speaking, but I have God to open the door for the work of grace in my life. Sometimes that simply means having the courage to get through a very difficult day and falling asleep with the name of Jesus on my lips.

Now I can look at a beautiful blonde statue of Mary and take delight in it. I get it. Saints are beautiful because God is beautiful. Their disfigured humanity was beautiful because it was for Him. They spent themselves in His service. Gave up their beauty sleep and took lashes from their enemies for Him. Their perfect pastel images are beautiful because they symbolize something greater. I'm still wary of books about saints for children... but I recognize the need for them to become familiar with simple beauty... and I'm careful to keep it real.

Posted on November 10, 2011 .