One of my favorite books by a contemporary Catholic author is Fr. James Martin’s memoir, “My Life with the Saints.” It is an interesting look at how God works in our lives through His holy ones and how God chooses them to be our friends in various circumstances from the mundane to the unusual.
Since reading, Fr. Martin’s book, I have also been thinking about the many different saints that have played an important role in my own life. St. Therese of Lisieux, for example, was the saint that led me to speak to a priest about my conversion through truly miraculous circumstances that I will talk about at some later point. St. John Baptist de La Salle, patron saint of teachers, has also been a good friend and has encouraged me many times when I’ve wanted to give up the teaching profession and do something else with my life.
With few exceptions, most of the saints that have come into my life are utterly ordinary people that were not renowned for sanctity during their own lives. I realized this while reading Fr. James Brodrick’s biography of St. Robert Bellarmine, a favorite saint of mine.
In reading about Bellarmine, I realized how utterly ordinary this great Doctor of the Church was.
Although he carried out his mortifications and penances in secret, there was really nothing to distinguish him from any other Jesuit living during this period of time. While he was a most erudite man who wrote treatises on every imaginable subject, he was also a quiet, meek, and humble man who desired nothing more than peace and quiet in which to write his books. Countless popes honored him during his lifetime including giving Bellarmine a cardinal’s hat. Yet Bellarmine felt all of these to be a burden. Yet it was a burden that he carried humbly and meekly trying to do those things that God asked of him.
In many ways, St. Therese of Lisieux also exemplifies the idea of an ordinary saint. During her lifetime, there was nothing about St. Therese which distinguished her from the other nuns living at the Lisieux Carmel. She may have been sweet, kind, and gentle, but all of these things could be found in other nuns at other Carmels around the world. Yet her life of oblation was such that she was raised to the altars a mere 26 years after her death due to the thousands of miracles that she worked. In life, her sanctity was unknown outside of the Carmel walls. Yet with the publication of her autobiography, the whole world grew to love little Therese.
St. Catherine Laboure, another favorite saint of mine, was also a very ordinary person. Although she experienced the apparitions that gave us the Miraculous Medal, she led a very hidden life. Due to her silence, nobody knew that she was the sister of the apparitions until shortly before her own death. Yet St. Catherine was blessed by Our Lady with a very large heart and saintly patience. Working with cantankerous old men may not be our idea of apostolic work, but it was what St. Catherine Laboure did for more than 30 years. During that period of time, none of St. Catherine’s charges died without the Last Sacraments. A miracle in itself.
What is it then that attracts us to these models of ordinary holiness? What is it about their lives that makes them so worthy of emulation? In many ways, they speak to us because we are very ordinary people. Not everybody is called to be a nun or priest, but we are called to live holy lives to the best of our abilities. The call to holiness is universal and the Caller does not distinguish between such things as intellectual abilities or lack thereof. Everybody can achieve holiness as long as they have the tools and live a life that is worthy of their call.
The thing about holiness that we need to understand is that we first need to work on ourselves before we can work for others. Sometimes, we tend to put the cart before the horse and to work ourselves into a frenzy so that we can serve others. While the active life is important, as Fr. Chautard writes, the contemplative is even more so because from it sprout the apostolic fields of endeavor in which God wills us to work.
St. Francis, for example, spent a great deal of time alone in prayer before he was called to work among the people in Assisi. Of course, his heart was ready to do the Lord’s will, but God had not chosen the time for this activity. St. Ignatius of Loyola, another great founder, also spent a great portion of his time praying at Manresa before God inspired him to found the Society of Jesus.
In our own lives, let us think about ordinary holiness and what we can do to accomplish it. What minor tasks can you do that can make you holy? What is it in your daily duties that you can offer to Our Lord?
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!