What makes a saint? One of my favorite 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 whole 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 on 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!
And yet that’s what we want, we want it all and we are built to have it all.
There’s a story told about Therese 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 Therese 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 choose a colorful 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 that life is complex, that human nature is pathologically layered, and that 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 very 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, a paralysis when we try to make choices. As the author of Ecclesiastes says, God has put eternity inside of us so that we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end. We are complicated, not ever satisfied, and, like Therese of Lisieux, don’t like to choose. Instead we want it all! Every spirituality that grasps human nature keeps that in mind.
So where do we go?
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, but we shouldn’t remain paralyzed either in the face 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.