Wednesday 9 March 2022

Perfect Saints

On Saturday we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the canonisation of Our Holy Father St Philip. He was canonised on 12 March 1622, in illustrious company, together with St Ignatius Loyola, St Francis Xavier, St Teresa of Avila, and St Isidore the Farmer. All five are famous saints, who in their own different ways have had a profound effect on the Church: St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, St Francis Xavier, perhaps the greatest missionary since St Paul, the Carmelite mystic, reformer and Doctor of the Church St Teresa, and St Isidore — the odd-one-out — a married man, father and farmer, the patron saint of Madrid and of the Spanish Royal Family.  

We might find it hard to identify with saints like these, whose stories we know so well, and whose great deeds and holiness are so rightly renowned. They seem so different from us, so otherworldly. We put them on pedestals and light candles in front of them, but they are not like us — or rather, we think we are not like them. They are perfect; we are very aware of our imperfections. They have done amazing things and changed the world in significant ways; we think we are pretty insignificant and ordinary. But when we look at the whole communion of saints, we see such variety, so many different expressions of holiness and virtue in such very different individuals; we see in the lives of the saints glimpses of what God can do in any person’s life. 

St John Henry has rather a lot to say about this very point. All Christians have the same basic calling, the call to sanctity, the call to perfection. But what that means is peculiar to the individual person, and the state of life to which one belongs. There are, Newman writes, very different modes of pursuing and practising perfection, though they look very different from each other. One person may observe one counsel, and another another, and yet each may be perfect. St Gregory the Great was perfect, although he did not fast like St Basil, who was himself perfect though he did not give up reading secular literature like St Teresa did. She was perfect although she could not go on the missions like St Francis Xavier, and he was perfect even though he did not spend his days singing the praises of God in choir or withdrawing to the desert like St Bruno. Even within the same Order there are different way to perfection: St Thomas and Fra’ Angelico were both Dominicans and both saints, although Thomas wrote theology and Angelico painted pictures of Our Lady. St John Chrysostom and St Gregory Nazianzen were both bishops, but Chrysostom commented on St Paul and St Gregory wrote poetry. Our task in this life, says our Cardinal, is to become saints, and becoming a saint is to find the service God has created us for, that which he has not committed to another — and to do it perfectly.

So our perfection probably will not lie in reforming a great city or founding an Order, preaching the Gospel in far-off lands or ascending the heights of mystical contemplation in a convent, but rather in the perfection of a priest, or a mother, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a housewife, or a student. And what, for Newman, is perfection? It does not mean any extraordinary service, anything out of the way or especially heroic — not all have the opportunity of heroic acts or sufferings. By perfect, he writes, we mean that which has no flaw in it, that which is complete, that which is consistent, that which is sound. He then is perfect who does the work of the day perfectly and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. We are perfect, if we do perfectly our duties.

We are all called to be saints, but most of us have to work out our salvation in fear and trembling in all the thousands of great and small tasks we have to do throughout the day, in our own place among our own people and in our own communities. For most of us, our perfection will be found among the dirty dishes, at the desk, behind the wheel of a car, in the supermarket, at work, at school. That is difficult, precisely because it is so ordinary. But it is consoling too, because we don’t have to be St Philip or St Ignatius or St Isidore the Farmer, to enter the kingdom of heaven. We just have to be ourselves, but be that perfectly: performing the ordinary duties of the day and of our state well, doing them consciously and deliberately, with care and attention and devotion and love.

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