During the persecution of Diocletian, there was a maid in Spain named Eulalia. She is now a saint, after being tortured to death at the tender age of 12 or 13. She is celebrated in Barcelona and the French have a heroic poem about her. In the poem it says in part:
… Raising her voice: ‘Pray, what madness is this
Sending your souls to destruction hell-bent,
And laying hearts so expensive of selves
Down, to do worship before polished stones,
While you deny God, the Father of all?
Are you in search, O you miserable band,
Of the Christ-following folk? Here am I,
Foe to the rites that the devil receives;
Idols I trample in scorn underfoot,
I confess God with my heart and my lips. …
Roused to a fury by words of the kind,
Praetor exclaimed: ‘Take her quickly away,
Lictor, and torture on torture apply.
See that she knows that our sires’ gods exist,
And that the emperor’s command isn’t slight. …
A saint from those days had to be made of hardy stuff. This is why it makes it so difficult to read some of what people say today about being a good person, nay nearly a saint. It seems today that it is sufficient for someone to attend church every Sunday and to behave very nicely and to take a few dinners over to someone who has had a baby or is sick to be considered a saint. I have begun to realize that our expectations of what it takes to be considered a saint are rather low. The idea of a saint as someone who has fought their sinful impulses in order to lead a holy life is not an idea that is really present in this culture. We have some rather lowered expectations of what it means to be called a saint.
Now, I know that there is a sense in which we are all saints because we have been made holy by Our Lord Jesus Christ. We have been set aside in a special way (the root meaning of holy) to be his possession. But, we play games when harrumph that we are all saints in Christ. We know very well that this is a definition that is not commonly used when we talk of someone being a saint.
I fear that we are the victims of low expectations. It is true that we are saints in Christ. We are indeed those whom he has separated for his service. But, it is also true that we are called to strive to grow into his likeness. We cannot and must not rely simply on our position in Christ. Mind you, that is a tempting argument, but it has all the marks of a convenient humility. Why do I say that? Well, because all too often the argument of our position in Christ is misused to mean that we need not strive, nay that somehow it is unspiritual to strive too much rather than to rest on our position in Christ. It is a convenient humility because it wrests from our Christian life the imperative to grow into the image of Christ. It is a convenient humility because it allows us to think of ourselves as saints for merely behaving with basic human kindness rather than misbehaving as does much of the world. It is a convenient humility because it mutes the call to go “Onward and Upward! To Narnia and the North!” If you do not know what that means, I recommend reading C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle.”
No, I am not like Santa Eulalia. I do not have her guts that allowed her to publicly disdain the gods of her persecutors. But, I can try to follow her example. I can try to understand what it means to be a real saint, not merely a saint by imputation. I can try to open myself more to God’s Holy Spirit so that he may guide my strivings. I can try to open myself more to the guidance of the bishop under which he has placed me. I can try to listen to my fellow priests. I can try to listen to God’s people as they speak to me. That is the calling that we all have. We have the calling to imitate Christ. Saint Paul said to imitate him, and from that we have the calling to imitate the saints. We are called to imitate to the point where people see another saint growing in us. It is a hard road, but it is a road we are called to travel.