Saints are not heroes. But that hasn’t prevented us from talking and thinking about saints in terms more appropriate to heroes. And our tendency to portray saints as spiritual heroes has not been especially helpful to us as we try to get our heads and hearts around walking the Way with Jesus.
Since we are celebrating All Saints’ Day (either November 1 or the Sunday immediately following) and the Feast of All Faithful Departed (November 2) or All Souls’ Day, it’s a fitting time to think about what makes a saint a saint precisely because saints serve as examples for all of us. Their lives tell us what a God-saturated life looks like.
To put this another way, saints are who we want to be like when we grow up. Heroes function in the same way for us. They provide an example of what it means to be a grownup. But the ideal life embodied by the hero contrasts sharply with the saintly ideal. Heroes and saints walk two divergent paths.
Let’s start with heroes.
Each hero is defined by some power or ability or character trait or combination of these at the very core of his or her being. At some point in every hero-centered narrative, some seemingly overwhelming challenge confronts the hero and threatens to undo him or her.
You may not be a Rocky fan, but he serves as a reasonably clear and simple example of what I have in mind. In Rocky IV, our hero confronts the enormous, steroid-enhanced, homicidally strong, previously unbeatable opponent Drago on his home turf in the former USSR.
His own inner determination allows Rocky to endure a harrowing beating by the Soviet giant. Round after round Rocky takes superhuman punches. His face is bruised and bloodied. The power of Drago’s blows have knocked out and killed lesser men, but Rocky manages to stay in the fight.
Just as the bout seems lost, Rocky begins landing blows of his own. By drawing on the inner strength of his own character, Rocky pushes through his pain and exhaustion to batter and eventually to fell the physically superior Drago.
Rocky’s lesson to us is that we have resources deep within ourselves to face and to overcome any obstacle in our way. Be true to yourself, trust the abilities within you, and you can accomplish what you set out to do. Heroes’ achievements point back to a power within the heroes themselves.
What makes Rocky and those like him heroes is that they have successfully tapped into their inner power. By extension, failure results from some unwillingness or some inability to dig deeply enough into yourself. That’s where ordinary slobs like you and me find ourselves often enough if we apply the hero narrative to ourselves.
On the heroic model, everything we achieve in this life points back to our own abilities and strengths. A life well-lived is one packed with achievements, and those achievements draw applause for the hero.
Saints are not heroes. Even though we sometimes talk about them as if they have lived a spiritually successful life, the key to understanding saints is to focus upon their weakness. Not upon their strength.
Let’s take St. Paul as an example. Paul famously prays for God to remove an unspecified thorn from his flesh. Whether it was some character flaw or physical weakness has been the cause of much speculation, but the exact nature of the weakness is not the point here. Instead, we learn about saintliness from God’s words to Paul when God refuses to remove the thorn: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Power is made perfect in weakness. That’s because the power of the saint is not an inner strength. It is a higher power. Saints do not dig deep to find a strength within themselves, precisely because they recognize that they lack the power to do what God has called them, and all of us, to do.
God sends his children into the world to be a part of proclaiming his Kingdom not only with their lips but with their lives. Through the fragile, frail, imperfect instrument of human hands, God intends to restore his broken creation to harmony and wholeness.
Old enemies will be reconciled. Forgiveness and compassion will utterly displace resentment and contempt. Hunger, sorrow, homelessness, suffering, heartache, sickness, loneliness, and eventually death will be such distant memories that we will be tempted to think that they were just parts of fantastic fairy tales.
Does this seem above your ability? Well of course it is. But all things—and specifically these things—are possible through God. (Matthew 19:26)
God is accomplishing his new heaven and new earth through imperfect instruments just like you and me. He does not do so by giving us a set of powers that we can agree or refuse to use independently from God. On the contrary, the first step in saintliness is to admit our own powerlessness and to reach beyond ourselves to a power greater than ourselves. Not a human power. A higher power. The power of God working in us. The Holy Spirit.
Whatever saints accomplish points not to their inner resources but to that power beyond themselves. When we look at the lives of saints we can see God at work through them. They have made themselves conduits through which the power of God flows.
This is in part what Jesus meant when he said that to save your life you must lose it. Instead of trying to exert their own will, saints surrender their will to God. This does not mean that they become robots. Instead, they learn to properly exercise their will. Instead of being willful, saints are willing.
Here’s an example. Imagine that you are a power saw. Unplugged from the wall socket, you could not cut lumber. However, connected to a source of electricity, you can cut lumber more efficiently and effectively than any manual saw. The power has to come from beyond. The saw is a wonderful instrument, but it’s power is always drawn from beyond itself.
Saints draw upon a power greater than themselves. What they do points back to this higher power, a power greater than themselves. Their achievements indicate their reliance upon God and demonstrates God’s power and reliability.
Now here’s the thing to remember for this day and every day. God makes saints. We do not make ourselves into saints. Saints are not perfect. They are God-saturated. The Church has placed special emphasis on some people because their lives exhibit God’s work with exceptional clarity. But insofar as we open ourselves to God’s work in our lives, we are all saints. And even saints have lots of growing up to do in our relationship with God.