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“On fire, but not consumed” – What I finally understand about the Saints


Tod Worner - published on 12/24/17

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“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

– Flannery O’Connor

Before I became Catholic, I held a certain antiseptic notion about the Saints. Undoubtedly, it was wrong-headed, but I envisioned the Saints as undramatic, lily-white, cloistered types who never so much as hurt a fly. Their carriage was pristine and their life’s work was unswervingly singular. Garbed in habit or cassock, their eyes were starry and their countenance light. Now, this was not a view intrinsic to my Protestant upbringing, but rather, was intrinsic to me.

And it was wrong.

The raucous, decadent beginnings of St. Augustine’s life, the wearying toil and pronounced doubt of St. Teresa of Calcutta, the intellectual tenacity of St. Thomas Aquinas and the astounding strength of St. Maximillian Kolbe are anything but mundane. The dying St. Therese of Lisieux, the galvanizing St. John Paul II, the steadfast St. Thomas More and the leprous St. Damien of Molokai are more than just figures on Catholic baseball cards. They are (to borrow from George Weigel) “lessons in hope”.

The difficulty of being a Saint (much less a Catholic) was well-articulated by Flannery O’Connor in a private letter collected in The Habit of Being.

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. 

In Diary of a Country Priest, French Catholic novelist (and polemicist) Georges Bernanos spoke to the difficulty of faith for even the average person.

Truth is meant to save you first, and the comfort comes afterwards. 

And the painfully accurate words of the young, bright Cordelia served to distill the plot of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, but also spoke to the essence of Sainthood.

No one is ever holy without suffering. 

Okay, okay. So Sainthood isn’t boring.

But it seems awfully painful.

And to be sure, these quotes from the pens of O’Connor, Bernanos and Waugh give stark testimony to the cost of faith. But the suffering and sacrifice are nothing compared to the transcendent joy found in serving God and getting a glimpse of the beatific vision. And this joy is anything but boring. It is, in fact, the only thing worth striving for.

G.K. Chesterton countered those naysayers who insist that the Saint and his orthodoxy are simply musty, dry bones which deaden  the exhilarating philosophies of the modern world.

People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic…It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own.

And going beyond the cost of discipleship, George Bernanos pointed to the inestimable privilege of Sainthood.

Our Church is the Church of the saints. If one approaches her with distrust, one sees only closed doors, barriers and fences, a sort of spiritual police force. But our Church is the Church of the saints. To become a saint, what bishop would not give up his ring, his mitre and his crozier; what cardinal his purple; what pope his white robe, his chamberlains, his Swiss Guard and all his temporal power? Who would not want to have the strength to embark on this wonderful adventure; it is indeed the only adventure.

It is the only adventure.

Properly understood, the Saints show us that we must step outside of ourselves and recognize that our Faith is liberating, not burdensome. Just as we recognize the indispensable discipline essential to achieve academic, athletic and professional success,  we must see how much discipline is required to be in deep and meaningful communion with God.

But if we are serious, this fine balance between the rigors and rewards of faith is something we must reckon with. It is unavoidable because it applies to you and me. Recently, Bishop Robert Barron opened my eyes with this relevant insight during his Erasmus Lecture for First Things magazine.

I would suggest that the best biblical image for God is the burning bush—on fire, but not consumed—which appeared to Moses. The closer the true God comes to a creature, the more radiant and beautiful that creature becomes. It is not destroyed, nor is it obligated to give way; rather, it becomes the very best version of itself.

For all intents and purposes, an initial encounter with God can be jarring, unnerving, even harrowing. But this is not a God intent on cramping our style or rending us a shell of the dynamic, unique individual we could be if “left to our own devices.” God seeks to  transform us, to make us better. He seeks to challenge us – even to burn a little – before unveiling us as the true beauty that he always saw, but which we overlooked amidst the cloud of our ego and the stain of our sins.

God’s hope – no, God’s active intent – in our lives and the lives of the Saints is not to destroy, but to liberate. A life devoted to God is anything but antiseptic. In the hands of God, we will never be Bernanos’ “stumps of men”; we will become the best version of ourselves. Radiant and beautiful. On fire, but not consumed.

Sainthood awaits us.

If only we allow it.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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