Yesterday, I wrote a short essay on saints that led seemingly ordinary and unremarkable lives such as St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Catherine Laboure. Today, I thought that I would continue by talking about other saints who have inspired me greatly in my own spiritual life and who have given me a great deal to meditate on.
If there is any one quality that unites these saints, it is practicality. Each saint that I will mention today may have been a great mystic or founder, but he or she had their feet planted firmly on the ground.
One of my favorite saints, whom I mention very frequently in this blog, is St. John Baptist de La Salle. When De La Salle embarked on his life’s work by establishing the Brothers of the Christian Schools, he had been a canon at the cathedral in Rheims for several years. He had received an education at some of the finest Catholic schools and colleges then in existence. Yet intellectual gifts aside, De La Salle was able to understand the psychology of young children in a way that was revolutionary at the time.
Here, for example, is an excerpt from one of De La Salle’s “Conduct of the Christian Schools” in which he discusses assessment: “It is most important, therefore, never to place a student in a lesson that the student is not yet capable of following; otherwise, the student will find impossible to learn anything and will risk being kept in lifelong ignorance. Therefore, teachers should not take into consideration the age, the size, or the length of time a student has been in a lesson, but only the ability when promoting to a more advanced lesson. Thus, for instance, a student must spell perfectly and read by syllables before learning to read fluently.”
In our day and age, this concept of assessment is nothing really new. Yet when De La Salle embarked on his apostolate, it truly was. In 17th century France, children were often taught in a classroom that verged on chaos. Older students were placed in grades in which they could not function since they did not have any prior knowledge. The teachers were frustrated also because they could not control their classrooms at all. When looking at the above, therefore, it is easy for us to see how practical De La Salle was.
St. John Baptist de La Salle, however, was only one of many famous practical saints that had their feet firmly planted on the ground and saw the needs of their contemporaries. Two great mystics stand out in this respect: Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila.
St. Teresa of Avila was a mystic that lived a spiritual life in which she was consistently in conversation with Our Lord. Yet she was also a reformer that knew and understood the needs of her Carmelite sisters. Whenever a problem arose in the convent, St. Teresa would say that the sisters should pray to St. Joseph for its resolution. Not only this, but St. Teresa was able to stand up to some of the most powerful men of her day and tell them exactly what she thought of the way that the Carmelites were being run. St. Teresa’s mystical life entirely complemented her active life. In many ways, she made both of them work together harmoniously with Our Lord’s help.
St. Catherine of Siena was also a great mystic. To her was given the great mission to help the Pope come back from Avignon to Rome. While there are countless accounts of St. Catherine’s mystical gifts, it is also important for us to remember that she was an instensely practical woman, who did not forget those that needed her. Indeed, she cared for the sick and the suffering as well as for the needs of Holy Mother Church. Like St. Teresa of Avila, she was a practical woman.
In our day and age, we tend to think of mystics as people who have their heads in the clouds all day. It is difficult for us to imagine mystics, who spend most of their lives accomplishing great deeds for Our Lord. Yet some of the greatest mystics were among the most practical people that you will ever meet. Read the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, especially her “Autobiography” and tell me whether she was not one of the down-to-earth people that ever lived.
When we look at our own lives, we may not be able to recognize that the active and the contemplative lives are part of the same equation. But they are and one is necessary so that the other is able to breathe and function. Let us think about these saints and see how we can imitate them in their practicality.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!