Because God knew how far I could fall, he reached in and saved me from myself awfully early. My conversion was when I was 13, and since I don’t generally do things halfway, I was pretty serious pretty fast. I started reading the Bible and the Catechism all the way through and praying daily. By the time I was 16, I was going to daily Mass and praying the rosary every day. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have told you I was a really good Catholic.1 But even at the time, I knew I was mostly going through the motions. I was doing what I knew was right, but my heart hadn’t been transformed. My approach to the faith was more competitive than contemplative–I wanted to be the best at Church so I could win. And given the “competition,” it didn’t seem to me that it would take much. So I patted myself on the back and continued judging and hating and ignoring the Lord. After all, I was good. There was plenty of time to be holy once I was grown. For a teenager, I was doing as much as the Lord could expect. Right?
Then when I was 16 I went to World Youth Day in Rome. And everything changed. Not because of the catechesis or the fellowship or the visit to my dear Claire in Assisi. Not because I went to Mass with a million other Catholics or saw the Holy Father for the first time. Not because of a powerful confession or a new best friend. Because of a stained glass window and a throw-away conversation.
I was walking through some church in Rome with a priest and saw a stained glass window of some 14-year-old kid.
“Who’s that kid?” I asked Father, rather more dismissively than I might today.
“Oh, that’s Saint Dominic Savio.”
“Cool. What’d he do?”
“Nothing,” Father answered. I’m sure he went on to explain more about Dominic Savio’s relationship with St. John Bosco and his work for the sanctification of his schoolmates, but I didn’t need to hear that.
He’s the youngest non-martyr ever canonized. He had no visions, no apparitions, worked no miracles. He was a regular kid who lived a regular life, died a regular death at age 14, and people raced to his coffin to make relics of their rosaries.
What have you been doing with your life?
For me, that was a wake-up call. I realized that I had to live for Christ in every moment, that it was never too early to strive for sanctity. In many ways, it transformed me. March 9th is the feast of St. Dominic Savio. Maybe on his feast day you could spend some time asking the Lord how you can live your regular life heroically.
Spoiler alert: if someone tells you she’s a really good Catholic, she’s probably not terribly holy. [↩]
I wonder if there was ever a Saint in the history of the world who was able to attend daily Mass and simply chose not to.
Not a guilt trip, just an invitation to reconsider your priorities. If the purpose of your life is to be a saint, what’s stopping you? Maybe daily Mass is impossible for you. But if it’s just that you’re lazy or busy or easily bored…think about that.
I thought I was done with weddings. And then my students started getting married, and now wedding season has begun all over again. Seriously, I have 6 weddings and two ordinations in the next 8 months. I hope they’re not expecting gifts….
Soon after one of my kids got engaged, we were talking about how exciting it all is. She looked at me with 22-year-old, doe-eyed, twitterpated optimism, and asked, “You know what I’m most excited about?”
The cynic in me steeled myself for some saccharine answer like “Waking up every morning with my best friend” or “Falling more in love every day of my life!” A good answer, but one that was unaware of the difficulties of real love.
“When we’re married, we won’t be able to hide from each other. Think how much we’ll grow!”
I’d like to take credit for that answer. After all, I did teach her apologetics in 2009. But she may have taught me more in that one statement than I did in 9 months of essay tests and notebook checks.
This is a power couple. They’re good-looking, intelligent, successful, outgoing. The world is their oyster. They should be focused on a Pinterest-perfect wedding and a honeymoon to make their Instagram followers jealous. But instead, they’re focused on holiness and how marriage will transform them and make them saints. Shoot.
It got me thinking. I don’t meet a lot of married couples whose approach to their marriage seems to be that it’s intended to sanctify them. At best, people tell me that marriage is really really hard and suffering makes you holy, so marriage makes you holy. On rare occasion,2 I’ll meet a couple that’s intentional about praying together. Not just praying as a family or showing up at Mass together, but honest-to-goodness, bare-your-soul-before-God-and-your-spouse praying together. More often, couples (good, holy, faithful couples) tell me that praying together is too intimate. God help us who live in a society where physical intimacy is shared with anyone we find moderately attractive but spiritual intimacy has no place in marriage!
But while redemptive suffering and communal prayer are essential elements of Christian marriage, I think even those two aren’t enough. Marriage doesn’t make you holy just because your spouse is a thorn in your side or a prayer partner. Marriage makes you holy because it strips you bare before another soul and asks you both to challenge and encourage each other. It’s that accountability that makes saints.
So I’m going to go out on a limb again and give advice I have no business giving.3 Go ahead and discount anything that’s tinged by my unmarried optimism and adjust as needed.
Here’s what couples need: a couple’s examen of consciousness. Make a commitment that once a week4 you’ll get together just the two of you.5 Start by praying together—Mass or a rosary or adoration or whatever but also from-the-heart, awkward, intimate prayers. And then get real. Each of you go over the last week, talking about where you feel you failed in charity. Point out the times you got angry, the times you were lazy—not just in your marriage, but throughout your life. Mention the ways God helped you grow this week and thank God for the many blessings he poured out on you. Talk through the frustrations you endured and try to figure out together how those things are working for good. And listen. As you share the ways you fell, ask your spouse if there’s anything you didn’t notice. Listen when he points out both your faults and your victories. Ask her what you did that made it harder for her to love well. Process the advice he gives you and the strategies she suggests.
Then switch and talk through your spouse’s week. Listen more than you talk, but speak when you must. Console and challenge and encourage. Speak hard truths, but speak them gently and with reverence.6 Ask (and grant) forgiveness. Thank each other. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your tongue, that you might speak truth in love. Ask the Holy Spirit to guard your ears, that you might hear God’s truth. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart, that you might become holy.
Maybe some of you do this daily. But I imagine that more of you are living lives of quiet desperation, that the deep, intimate conversations of your courtship have disappeared under the weight of trivialities and exhaustion. So when your partner upsets you, you bite your lip and bury your frustration over and over and over until it explodes in unmerited rage that just causes him to close up. Or you try to say something each time and it comes across as nagging. You decide you’ll just be a martyr but you martyr her instead by your frigid response. When you speak, she takes offense and when you’re silent he doesn’t change.
But what if you had permission to correct each other? What if once a week, there was a peace accord, a free pass to examine your own conscience and encourage the other to grow? What if you were vulnerable before each other? What if you talked about little problems while they were still little? What if you saw your temper through her eyes? What if you saw your sullenness through his? What sins could you wipe away before they became habits that hardened around your stony heart?
And what if you were affirming each other as well? Balancing correction with congratulations? Taking the time to point out your pride in his patience or your pleasure in her hard work? Our herculean efforts often go unnoticed in the chaos of life and that lack of recognition becomes one more stone in the walls we build between us. What if every week you told him how marvelous he is? What if every week you told her how glad you are that she’s the mother of your children? What if you stopped letting life live you and started living like you’re saints?
It might be too much to jump into if you’ve got years of resentments and wounds built up.7 But you could start by praying together and affirming each other once a week and go from there. If you’re early in your marriage, you could amp up communication now; if it’s been 50 years, you could start talking about the things that have been swept under the rug since the Nixon administration. Figure out the formula that works for you, but start looking at marriage like its purpose is to make you a saint. Marriage isn’t sanctifying simply because it’s hard. What accomplishes the miracle of holiness in marriage is two people fighting together to become saints.
Obviously, I’ve never tried this. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has. Maybe it’s a ridiculous idea. All I know is I can’t get it out of my head in prayer and it sure isn’t doing me any good rattling around in there. Maybe it’s for one of you. Give it a shot for a few months, then tell me how it’s going. I figure prayer, communication, and the pursuit of holiness can’t hurt, anyway.
While we’re on the subject, can I recommend my favorite books on marriage? I just reread Alice von Hildebrand’s By Love Refinedand it’s just as good as I’d remembered. Note: it’s subtitled Letters to a Young Bride but is NOT written exclusively for women. It’s a book about love and sacrifice and it’s simply-written in short chapters—a perfect book to read together! Fulton Sheen’s Three to Get Married is (as I recall) not quite so simple but fantastic all the same. And it gives me hope that people can write well about things of which they have no personal experience….
Also, I fleshed out some of these thoughts in a talk I gave in Tennessee. Listen to it here:
Pick a time when you’re generally not too stressed or distracted or exhausted and when you won’t feel rushed. Get a babysitter if you have to. Your marriage is worth the investment. [↩]
Be very careful how you phrase things. Try “What was going on Tuesday night when you wouldn’t talk to Therese?” instead of “Have you forgotten what a baby you were Tuesday night?” “I feel as though this was a hard week for you to speak charitably about your coworkers” instead of “You were quite the gossip.” “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but I was pretty upset when you joked that I was fat” instead of “Calling me fat was a total jerk move, don’t you think?” [↩]
If this is the case, please, please don’t be too proud to consider therapy. Sometimes all we need is for someone to help us find a common vocabulary and we can take it from there. [↩]
The very first talk I gave to a large group was when I was in high school. I stood up in front of our Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle1 during Advent and talked about how Christmas hit me harder than Easter because Easter told me Jesus died for me but Christmas told me he lived for me. “I’d die for Jesus,” I said confidently. “Honestly, I want to be a martyr. But it’s not because I’m brave. It’s because I’m lazy. I figure I can be holy for 5 minutes; it’s the prospect of another 70 years of holiness that terrifies me.” I’ve been giving some variation of that talk for the past 15 years and it’s never more powerful to me than when I’m meditating on the Annunciation.
Our feast today celebrates a God who became ordinary, born to an ordinary mother in an ordinary town. Oh, of course we know there wasn’t anything ordinary about them–and yet for thirty years, their holiness consisted in the dull monotony of everyday life. Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection were the culmination of a life of quiet sacrifice, of dirty feet and skinned knees, of sweat and stomachaches and boredom and rejection and chores and loneliness. Mary, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, spent 30 years sweeping floors, fetching water, consoling neighbors, and getting sassed by her many (spiritual) children. St. Joseph sawed and sanded and carried out the trash and all three gave glory to God by the very ordinariness of their lives.
How many of us are content to be ordinary? We want to be marvelous and impressive, to have the world look on in awe at our holiness–or we want to be mediocre and comfortable. We see our options as daring, terrifying lives of holiness or everyday, ordinary adequacy. But the Annunciation tells us that holiness lies in the ordinary and that the ordinary is supremely sanctifying.
The great saints weren’t hobos or martyrs or visionaries–or at least not above all else. Above all else, they were mothers and brothers and lovers and friends. They were made saints by changing diapers, listening to complaints, shoveling snow, forgiving, begging forgiveness, chopping vegetables, wiping away tears, grading papers, and loving. Always loving. It wasn’t St. Gianna’s death that made her a saint; thousands of mothers have made the same heroic choice. It was loving her husband and washing dishes and sympathizing with her patients. Thomas Aquinas didn’t become a saint by being the greatest mind the West had ever known but by recognizing how small he truly was. Mother Teresa wasn’t a saint because she won the Nobel Prize or founded a successful religious order but because she loved one child of God. And the next. And the next.
This morning I was blessed to attend Mass at a beautiful Dominican parish where I received Jesus kneeling at the altar rail. Like Mary, I did nothing to deserve this gift. Like Mary, all I could do was say amen, let it be done unto me, not even reaching out my hands but just opening myself to receive. And now, like Mary, I am sent out to bear Christ to the world, not to kings offering gifts or to angels crying Gloria but to shepherds and widows and pagans and friends and enemies. I am theotokos to the cashier and the fussy baby and the man without hope. It’s everyday, ordinary, change-the-world holiness. It’s day-in, day-out, dull, radical holiness. It’s my cross and my crown, it’s tedious and glorious. It’s time I stopped looking for holy wars to fight and started looking for a holy life in what I’ve been given. I am an ordinary woman following an ordinary God, a great saint-in-the-making following a great saint-maker.
Fiat mihi. Let’s go be saints.
No, I was not an athlete. It seems to be rather a misnomer. [↩]
I’ve spent the past 16 months traveling this country. I’ve been to Mass in 36 states in the past year and a half and in half a dozen other countries in recent years. So let me tell you something, in case you haven’t noticed: this Church of ours is badly in need of reform. I know you feel it too. You read the headlines and sit in the pews and watch the youth fall away and you know that something’s gotta give. With clergy abusing minors while bishops look the other way, with vapid “catechesis” and liturgy that reminds one more of a carnival or a dreary deposition than the wedding feast of the Lamb, with Catholics who dehumanize the unborn and Catholics who victimize the poor, it’s no wonder that many of us resting in the arms of Mother Church feel compelled to do something.
The list of particular faults would be different, but the sentiment has been the same since Jesus ascended. The Church is already but not yet, divine and human, “holy and always in need of purification.”1 Whether it’s casting out heretics or letting sinners in, faithful sons and daughters of Mother Church have been drawing her along the path of purification (by God’s grace) since before anyone else knew there was a Church.
You and I are descendants of this noble tradition, this tradition of reform that made yesterday’s Saint a Saint and not the founder of a Protestant denomination.2 If you’re looking critically at the state of the Church, there ought to be elements that make you weep, not because of bitterness but because of a deep love for the Body of Christ, the Church. She’s preserved free of error but not free of sin. Made exclusively of sinners (in the Church militant, anyway), it’s no wonder that she’s so beset by scandal and failure. But we who love her will not despair. We will follow in the footsteps of Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales, of Nicholas and Augustine, of John XXIII and Mother Teresa. We will live in such a way that the Church and the world will never be the same.
So what can we do, we who have so much hope for this magnificent Church made up of flawed individuals? How can we love our Church as the beacon of truth instituted by Christ while working to make her more true, good, and beautiful? How can we reform without starting a reformation?
1. Know what the Church is supposed to be. If you’re concerned with the state of things, do your research first. Read the Catechism3 so you know what can and can’t change in the Church. Here’s a hint: doctrine can’t change. And won’t. Ever. If you’re big on the “spirit of Vatican II,” read the documents before you make a vague reference to the feelings you have about the council. If you want to question Church teaching, read the whole Bible. If you’re still unsure about transubstantiation or Mary or social justice, read everything written by the Church Fathers–it’s all been there from the beginning.
This is the difference between reform and dissent: a reformer fights to make the Church more herself; a dissenter tries to remake the Church in his own image. Teresa and Ignatius and Pius and Robert are reformers because they saw the glory latent in a broken Church and sought to draw it out. Luther and Calvin and Cranmer were dissenters because they tried to impose their ideas on the Church–and lost her in the battle. If you’re trying to turn the Church into a charitable organization or a social club or a rock concert, find another group to subvert. But if you know what Jesus and Cyprian and Gregory and Catherine and John Henry and John Paul meant by Church–an instrument of truth and goodness and beauty in a sin-ravaged world–then let’s get to work.
2. Don’t complain. The temptation when you’re in a spiritually dead parish or a liturgically heterodox parish or a parish led by a great sinner is to gossip. We get with like-minded people and whine about how bad things are which makes us more ill-tempered and more likely to see the bad. We miss the holiness and reverence and joy because we’re looking for the topic of our next tirade. Make this commitment: don’t say anything negative about the Church to people who can’t do anything about it. The less you complain, the less frustrated you’ll be.
The flip side is this: have the guts to say something. If you’re concerned that the religious ed program is too fluffy, don’t complain to the other parents, go talk to the D.R.E.! If you can’t take the liturgical abuses, talk it over with Father. If that doesn’t work and it’s serious enough, meet with the bishop. Or, if it’s appropriate, talk to a friend who’s closer to your pastor and would be willing to raise your concerns. If it’s important enough to “vent” about, it’s important enough to discuss with someone who can make changes. Reform doesn’t come from sniping in hushed undertones. If it matters, take a risk and say something. You might be crucified for it–but at least you’ll be in good company.
3. Be the change. Sometimes talking to someone isn’t going to help. But even if it would, you have to be willing to do something. If you think kids these days don’t know their faith, volunteer to teach them. Or if you have more money than charisma, make a donation specifically earmarked for sending kids to a Steubenville conference or a LifeTeen camp. If you think parishes need to be stronger communities, talk to your pastor about forming a welcoming committee. Be a mentor couple for young people in marriage prep. Host a mom’s group or a teen movie night or a young adult dinner. If you’re concerned that your parish isn’t doing enough to evangelize, offer to go door-to-door in the neighborhood inviting people back to Church. Stop saying “Somebody should really do something” and DO IT!
This covers little things, too. If you’re frustrated at what people wear to Mass, don a three-piece suit or a fancy (modest) dress with a matching hat. Get to Mass early and kneel quietly if noise in the sanctuary bothers you; it might just show people what the sanctuary is for. Receive the Eucharist like it’s actually the God of the universe. Because it is. Iron the altar linens. Teach your children to be reverent. But make sure you’re not taking it too far: you might want to kneel when the GIRM says to kneel, but if the bishop has issued different norms, you always defer to the bishop. Be the change by being obedient, by getting your hands dirty, by wasting your time and driving people nuts. Make a mess, my friends. Pope Francis will be so proud.
4. Live in the heart of the Church. The great Catholic reformers loved their Church, warts and all. If you’re serious about wanting to change the Church, it has to be at the service of the Church, not at the service of some ideology. If you don’t love the Church with everything you are, fight until you do. Get to confession at least monthly. Go to daily Mass as often as possible. Pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the “prayer of the Church.” Invite your priest over for dinner. Pray for the pope.
Because if you don’t love the Church–deeply, desperately love her as the body of Christ on earth–then your good impulses will be twisted. You’ll find yourself attacking the Church instead of supporting her. Before you know it, your reform will be a reformation.
You cannot change the Church from outside. If you truly believe that the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ against whom the gates of hell will not prevail, cling to her. Don’t be a Catholic in name only–submit your intellect and your will, your entire life to the Church. Consent to be a failure and watch the Lord emerge victorious.
5. Be a saint. It all comes down to this. You can write brilliant blog posts or start great programs or argue with a thousand priests and win and nothing will matter if you’re not holy. Be so freaking holy that people around you are drawn to Christ. Look at the history of our Church: you never find solitary Saints. St. Clare was holy and dragged her mother (Blessed) and two sisters (one Saint, one Blessed) along with her. Bernard of Clairvaux was so holy that his parents, six brothers, and one sister are all canonized or on their way there. John Bosco and Dominic Savio, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, and all their less famous companions–they spurred each other on, called one another to greatness. This, my friends, is how you reform the Church: you love so hard and you pray so well and you learn and you teach and you value humility second only to charity.
The great reformers of our Church were all Saints–not because we canonize people who do impressive things but because you can’t do great works unless you abandon your own desires and live only for Christ’s. Our Church and our world don’t need revolutionaries, they need saints. So before you do anything else, get your butt to confession and get praying. Real, serious prayer time, even when you’re “too busy.” Ask the Lord to use you, to work in you, to set you on fire with love for him. Then get out of the way.
I have great hope for our Church. I have to–I trust the Holy Spirit. But I’ve also met many of his chosen instruments. And you all have what it takes to be the great saints this Church needs. Let us begin.
When I decided I wanted to be a Saint,1 I knew exactly what to do. Saints, after all, are sweet, quiet, pink-cheeked girls who spend hours on their knees and never, ever yell, right? So I set about becoming a holy card.
I even made sure to fold my hands when I prayed and to gaze at heaven.2 I knew what it took to be a Saint, as I knew everything, and I was willing to mortify everything about myself. I knew I had to quit being loud and sarcastic. I could smile beatifically, but never guffaw. I should pray about everything–everything, even which sidewalk to take on my way to class. It was insane, and it lasted about five minutes.
But the idea that I had to change dramatically if I wanted to be holy stayed with me. It wasn’t just a desire to be purified of my sinfulness–obviously, holiness requires radical change. But I was identifying core elements of my character as “wrong” because they didn’t fit with the plaster images I’d seen in Saint books.
So I tried to be quiet and sweet and inoffensive. I tried to smile more and yell less. But you know what? God made me loud and obnoxious. And really, he’s called me to be obnoxious for the kingdom. I’d just as soon say nothing offensive and draw only positive attention. I’d gladly avoid calling anyone out, even people who are knowingly embracing serious sin. But I’ve realized, after years of hating myself when my best efforts were met with raised eyebrows or narrowed eyes, that that’s not who God made me to be.
And when I started to really get to know the Saints, I realized that most of them weren’t like that, either. In fact, there’s no one model for holiness that we all have to squeeze ourselves into. All Saints are like Christ, sure, but Christ was by turns gentle and wrathful, sarcastic and sweet. And just like holy people aren’t all priests and nuns, holy people don’t all fit that hands-folded, heavenward-gaze model so many of us are used to. People who are seeking Christ are messy and awkward. They’re all kinds of people living all kinds of lives in all kinds of ways. Don’t believe me? Check it out:3
All for the glory of God, all for the kingdom, all for love of souls. It’s not better to be a missionary than it is to be a fry cook, just like it’s not better to be a choleric than it is to be a phlegmatic. What’s better is to be just who you should be–whoever that is.
My friends, God did not make you to be anyone else. He doesn’t need another Dominic or another Elizabeth Ann. He made you quite deliberately to be you. Your truest self–your holiest self, your saintliest self–is most fully you. Which means that if you’re shy, you can let yourself be shy–within reason. Same thing if you’re loud. I’m not giving you permission to indulge your personality quirks to the point of sin, just pointing out that grace builds on nature. God gave you the particular personality and circumstances and work and vocation and body and home that you have in order to serve the Church and the world. He wants to use what is natural to you to do the supernatural through you.
This song by Danielle Rose expresses what I’m trying to say. Ironically, it was Danielle Rose’s beatific smile that inspired my college obsession with being quiet and sweet.5 I wanted to be holy like her. But just like me, she was trying to be holy like someone else.
Your homework this week: spend some time asking the Lord what parts of you need to be converted and what parts are exactly as he wants them. You might wish your holiness looked quieter or louder or more radical or more ordinary or less painful or less easy, but knowing who you ought to be requires that you know who you are. If I had succeeded in becoming the Saint I thought I needed to be, I’d be repressed and tense and miserable and totally ineffective. To be free and holy and do God’s work, I sometimes have to dance like a fool, fall on the ground at a dropped pass, or scream “heresy” around people who don’t quite understand the nuances. I have to cry more than is reasonable and laugh harder than anyone in the room. I have to stick my foot in my mouth and give people nicknames and (try to) look cute and make fun of myself and all kinds of nonsense. It’s not normal, but it’s good. And it’s me.
I’ve had people listen to me talk about my life with Christ and tell me that they don’t think they can be like me. Good! God knows the world doesn’t need more of me. It’s got about all it can handle with one. And, quite frankly, you’d be terrible at being me. Just like I’d be terrible at being you. But if you can figure out how to be you and I can figure out how to be me, we can change this world.
If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze. -St. Catherine of Siena
I know I should just want to be a saint–a person who’s in heaven–but I admit that I really want to be a Saint. I want statues and holy cards and a feast day. We’ve talked about my pride issues before, haven’t we? [↩]
This would be cute if I hadn’t been in college. [↩]
Hover over any of the names to see who I’m talking about without clicking away. [↩]