"How to Become a Saint
(In Fifteen Minutes)"
A talk delievered at Woodstock's May 2007 Riggs Dinner, and published in Woodstock Report No. 89, Fall 2007
James Martin, S.J., speaking at Woodstock's Riggs Dinner in May 2007
I am honored to be here in such an august setting, and on behalf of such an august body. Not being a professional theologian, I feel somewhat daunted by speaking at a Woodstock Theological Center forum.My own specialty these days is nothing grandly theological, or Rahnerian or Balthasarian, or even Sobrinoesque, but, rather, what the saints teach us about the Christian journey. So I thought we could talk about how the saints help us to find holiness in our own lives, and I’ll do all this in 15 minutes or so. Thus my title: “Become a Saint (In Fifteen Minutes)”.
You might be wondering what a young Jesuit has to say about the saints. (And, by the way, these days a young Jesuit is anyone under 85 years old.) So I qualify.
To that end, you might have heard the story of the Jesuit priest and the Franciscan friar who are driving to Georgetown for a theology conference. They get into this big argument over liberation theology, swerve off the road, hit a telephone pole and go straight to heaven.
The Jesuit and Franciscan suddenly find themselves standing in front of the gates of heaven, which are hidden behind some clouds. They’re pretty excited, thinking, “Hey, I can’t wait to see what heaven is like!”
In a few minutes, the clouds part, and the gates open, the trumpets sound and hundreds of angels start flying around and start singing. Then a long red carpet rolls out, right up to the Jesuit. And out come all these Jesuit saints—Aloysius Gonzaga, Francis Xavier and Ignatius Loyola himself. They all hug the Jesuit, who is just overjoyed. And then out comes Mary, and St. Ignatius introduces her and she hugs the Jesuit, too. Then a trumpet sounds and out comes Jesus, who embraces the Jesuit and says, “Welcome to heaven.” They all hug each other, and everybody starts singing St. Louis Jesuit songs, and they all go inside to heaven, laughing and singing.
Then the carpet rolls back up and the angels go away and the gates close and the clouds come back. And the Franciscan is left standing there in front of the gates by himself.Well, he’s excited, wondering what his welcome is going to be like. He waits some more. And some more. After an hour he starts to get ticked off.
Finally, after an hour and a half, a side door opens up and St. Bonaventure says, “Hey!” And the Franciscan says, “Who, me?” And St. Bonaventure says, “Yeah, you. So he goes to the door and St. Bonaventure says, “Oh yeah, um...so...welcome to heaven.” And the Franciscan says, “That’s it?” And St. Bonaventure says, “Is what it?” And the Franciscan says, “Come on! That’s the welcome I get? I mean, the Jesuit gets the trumpets and the angels and the red carpet and the saints and Mary and Jesus, and all I get is this lousy welcome?”
And St. Bonaventure says, “Oh yeah...well you have to understand something.We get Franciscans up here every day.We haven’t had a Jesuit in heaven for three hundred years!”
Now, I’m not a saint either, but after spending ten years working on a book on the saints, I know a little bit about them. And my interest in the saints started early. At age nine, I sent away for a plastic statue of St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, and promptly started to pray to him for various favors: Let me get an A on my next test. Let me do well in Little League this year. But as I grew older, my affinity to St. Jude began to seem childish and superstitious. By the end of junior high, I stuck the statue of St. Jude in my sock drawer, and he was brought out only on special occasions, like the SATs.
My faith was another thing, you could say, that was relegated to the sock drawer for the next few years. After high school, I was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.While at Wharton, I was only an occasional churchgoer, even though I still prayed to the Great Problem Solver, especially when it came time for accounting exams. And, as my faith grew weaker, my fondness for the saints began to seem a little childish and even embarrassing.
That changed for me at age 26. After six years in the corporate world, I realized that while business was a real vocation for most of my friends, it just wasn’t for me.
So I started to think about doing something else with my life, though I had no idea of what “something else” would be. From that desire, however, God was able to work. The Great Problem Solver was at work on a problem that I barely understood. In time, God would give me an answer to a question that I hadn’t even asked.
One evening I came home and flipped on the TV and caught a documentary about a Catholic priest named Thomas Merton. The documentary was sufficiently interesting to prompt me to track down, purchase and read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. After that it seemed like the only thing that made sense was doing something like what Merton did. Maybe not entering the Trappists but doing something like that. Of course there were some doubts and some false starts, but two years later I quit my job and, at age 27, entered the Jesuits.
In this way Merton became a sort of companion for me: someone who helped me along the way to God. And that’s one of two traditional models for devotion to the saints.While the most common model today is the patron—the person we ask for favors—in the early church the more common way of looking at the saints were as companions—people who accompany us along the path to God.
As a novice, I began to read about the lives of the saints and found myself growing more attracted to these men and women, and feeling a real friendship with them. I began to see them as models of holiness relevant to my own life and to appreciate the marvelous particularity of their lives. Thomas Merton was very different from Thérèse of Lisieux who was very different from Ignatius of Loyola. Each saint was holy in his or her own unique way, and revealed God’s way of celebrating individuality.
This gave me a lot of encouragement. It dawned on me that none of us are meant to be exactly like Thomas Merton or Thérèse or Ignatius.We’re meant to be ourselves, just like they were themselves. As Thomas Merton wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.”
Each saint lived his or her call to sanctity in different ways, and we are called to imitate them in their diversity. There is no need for anyone to do precisely what Mother Teresa or St. Francis of Assisi did. They’ve already done it! Instead, we are called to lead holy lives in our own way.
Each of us as well manifests an individual holiness that builds up the reign of God in ways that others may not be. You know that famous saying of Mother Teresa’s that everyone quotes? “Let’s do something beautiful for God?” Well, that’s just part of it. The complete saying is much more beautiful, and addresses this wonderful diversity in the Christian community. “You can do something I cannot do. I can do something you cannot do. Together let us do something beautiful for God.” Business people, doctors, lawyers, mothers, fathers, friends—all of them together are able to do something beautiful for God.
Think of someone like Pedro Arrupe, the superior general of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1981, and the namesake of Woodstock’s Arrupe Program for Social Ethics in Business. Arrupe was born in 1907 in Spain, studied for a time in medical school and then, after having witnessed a miracle in Lourdes, decided to become a Jesuit. After his studies he was sent to Japan as a missionary. In 1945, by the way, he was the novice director at the novitiate in Hiroshima, and was there when the atomic bomb was dropped. Using his training, Father Arrupe converted the novitiate to a rudimentary hospital and cared for the wounded.
Arrupe had a great sense of humor. You know that the Jesuit superior general is called Father General or the General. Once, in the mid-1960s, he was visiting Xavier High School in New York, where the students used to wear military uniforms and had daily military drills. As Arrupe’s car drove down the street, hundreds of students in uniform lined the streets, and when he got out of the car they all snapped to attention and saluted. And Father General turned said, “Now I feel like a real general!”
Arrupe is perhaps best known for his embrace of social justice, encouraging his Jesuits to work more with the poor. But that work would earn the Jesuits suspicion in the Vatican, and
when Arrupe had a stroke and appointed a successor, that successor was removed by Pope John Paul. Yet Arrupe counseled obedience in his Jesuits, and he accepted both the rebuke by the Vatican and his declining health.“More than ever,” he wrote, “I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life, all the way from my youth. But now there is a difference: the initiative is entirely with God.”
This is a unique brand of holiness, unique to that person, in the same way that all of us called to be unique saints.
Now, the primary difficulty in grasping the universal call to holiness is that many of us feel that we have to be something else, or someone else in order to be holy. A businessman or lawyer or doctor who spends most of his or her waking moments working hard and supporting a family, may say to himself or herself, sadly, “I’m nothing like Mother Teresa.”
But you’re not meant to be Mother Teresa—you’re meant to be yourself. That’s not to say you can’t learn a lot from their lives, but you’re not meant to be them. If you think that you need to become someone else then you’re overlooking the beauty of the person God has already created. Holiness consists, as Merton said, in discovering your “true self,” the person you are before God, and striving to become that person.
This means letting go of the desire to be someone else. Because most of the problems arise when we begin to believe that we have to be someone else to be holy.We use someone else’s map to heaven when God has already placed in our soul all the directions we need.When admirers used to visit Calcutta to see Mother Teresa, she would tell many of them, “Find your own Calcutta.” In other words, bloom where you are planted. Discover sanctity in your own life.
The saints show us that being holy just means being ourselves. They show us that sanctity really is the goal for all of us in life, and it’s a goal you reach by becoming who you are.
Over the course of my life, then, and quite by surprise, then, I have gone from someone suspicious of devotion the saints to someone who counts it as one of the great joys of my life. They’ve taught me that the path to holiness is also the path to self-discovery to freedom and to joy.
All of this, I like to think, is thanks to St. Jude, who, for all those years stuck inside my sock drawer, was praying for a boy who, all along, didn’t even know that he was being prayed for.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and associate editor of America magazine. His latest books are My Life with the Saints, winner of a 2007 Christopher Award, and A Jesuit Off-Broadway.