Saints by Calling

John Nava’s Communion of the Saints tapestries at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles

Shortly after he converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s, Thomas Merton was walking the streets of New York with his friend, Robert Lax. Lax was Jewish, and he asked Merton what he wanted to be, now that he was Catholic.

“I don’t know,” Merton replied, adding simply that he wanted to be a good Catholic.

Lax stopped him in his tracks.

“What you should say,” he told him, “is that you want to be a saint!”

Merton was dumbfounded.

“How do you expect me to become a saint?” Merton asked him.

Lax said: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”…

Thomas Merton knew his friend was right. Merton, of course, would go on to become one of the great spiritual thinkers and writers of the last century. His friend Bob Lax would later convert to Catholicism himself — and begin his own journey to try and be a saint.

My mother had two books of saints, I remember that one of them had a red cover and that the other one had a blue cover, and I read them over and over again when I was a child.  They were far and away my two favorite books growing up.  When other kids my age could rattle off the batting average of their favorite Dodger, or the latest movie credit of their favorite actor or actress, or recite the lyrics of the most recent hit from their favorite British Invasion rock and roll band, I could have told you about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian (they shot him through with arrows), or the generosity of St. Nicholas (you know him as Santa Claus), or the intellect of St. Thomas Aquinas (they called him a “dumb ox” as a kid, and then he grew up become one of the church’s most brilliant theologians), or the courage of St. Jean de Brebeuf (a missionary who endured capture and torture for the sake of Christ), or the spiritual sensitivity of St. Francis de Sales (the other St. Francis).  Their stories stirred me and their examples challenged me.  And quietly, when I was a kid, an aspiration was gradually nurtured in me; an aspiration to be a saint.  And every year about this time we sang a hymn in church that endorsed the whole project –

I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true,
who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.
And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was a shepherdess on the green; they were all of them saints of God, and I mean, God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong;
and they followed the right for Jesus’ sake the whole of their good lives long.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast; and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.

They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, in church, by the sea, in the house next door; they are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.

Later, when I switched teams and became a Bible-toting Protestant of the Evangelical variety, part of what I left behind as being “too Catholic” was my fascination with the Saints, and my aspiration to become a Saint.   Nobody in the circles I was running in talked about the Saints very much, unless it was to criticize how other Christians were mistakenly praying to them, improperly pleading with them to be able to make a withdrawal from the treasury of their merit, and inappropriately trying to go through them to get to God.

“Just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so you can’t be a little bit Christian”” I heard the preacher say from the pulpit of my new church one Sunday morning, and the point he was making was that there are no degrees of belief, no levels of sanctity, with some Christians being closer to God than others.  It’s binary; yes or no; in or out; you are or you aren’t; you’re saved or you’re lost.  To be sure the emphasis of that church was all on the initial decision of faith, on coming forward to make a public confession of faith by praying the sinner’s prayer and then getting baptized as the sign and seal of what had just happened in your heart.  And so I did.  I went forward, made the confession, prayed the prayer and got immersed.  And this was enough for a while, but just for a little while.

It actually was in a Bible Study at that church where I got baptized that my longing for “something more” first got aroused.  We were looking at I Corinthians when it began to dawn on me with particular force that the Apostle Paul held in careful balance the conviction that the decision of faith by which a person becomes a Christian creates an actual status for the believer – that binary “in” or “out” thing – with a parallel expectation that being a Christian involves a process by which we continue to grow into greater and greater conformity with Jesus Christ.  In I Corinthians 1:2, in the very same verse, Paul talked about the Corinthians as already being “sanctified in Christ Jesus” – read that as already having become saints, already having been made into a “holy people” by the initial decision of faith – a completed past action, something that’s already finished; with the reminder that at the very same time the Corinthians were still “called to be holy” or were expected to be “saints by calling.”  This refers to a continuing process; to something that progresses only gradually over time.  The rest of the book of I Corinthians is something of a diagnostic on the spiritual well-being of the Corinthians who at the time that Paul wrote should have been much further along the journey of faith than they were.  “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not ready to receive it.  Indeed, even now you are not able, since you are still fleshly – carnal – spiritually immature” (3:2-3).  Paul didn’t throw the Corinthians out of the Christian pool.  He addressed them and regarded them as being his fellow Christians. At the same time, Paul was very clear that the Corinthians weren’t anywhere close to where he thought that they should have been spiritually.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul told them that God had shown “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6), and that they, by beholding that glory, should be “transformed into that same image from glory to glory” (3:18).  In other words, they should begin to increasingly reflect the glory of God in Jesus Christ as they continued to grow in their faith.  Because they weren’t, Paul knew that there was something wrong with them, and he wrote his letters to try to fix things.

I really needed that church that emphasized the importance of becoming a Christian when I first left the faith tradition of my parents.  I needed the definitive experience of the decision of faith that they taught, expected and encouraged.  But after I had made that decision of faith, after I had become a Christian, I needed something more.  I needed some help in actually being a Christian, in growing up in every way into Jesus Christ, in becoming more spiritually mature.  And on that quest, somewhat ironically I suppose, my journey has gradually brought me back to where I first began.  By way of the Holiness and Pentecostal Movements and the Deeper Life tradition, I’m now back to reading books about the Saints again, being stirred by their stories of faithfulness and challenged by their examples of spiritual maturity.  And suddenly, here on the cusp of the sixth decade of my life, I strangely find myself wanting to be a Saint again. 

As Wayne Watson the contemporary Christian composer and artist put it in one of his songs – “One day Jesus will call my name.  As days go by, I hope I don’t stay the same. I want to get so close to Him, that it’s no big change on that day that Jesus calls my name.” And what that means is becoming the saint that we are called to be.  DBS+

My Top Books on the Saints

1. Saint Watching – Phyllis McGinley (1969)

I had a seminary professor who used to say of his favorite books, “If you ever find this book in a library, steal it.”  Now, married to a librarian, I can’t sanction such behavior, but I certainly understand the sentiment.  I feel this way about this book.  This is my very favorite book about saints, in fact, this is one if my very favorite books.  This is a book that’s hard to put down when you start reading it, and once you have read it, it’s a book to which you will return again and again.

2. Holy Company – Elliot Wright (1980)

Calling saints “People who knew they belonged to Christ,” and in whom “faith showed,” this book uses the Beatitudes from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount as a way of looking at categories of men and women, Catholics and Protestants,  contemporary and historical, conventional and unconventional, who fit that description. 

3. The Heart of a Saint – Bert Ghezzi (2007)

This is a recent book that identifies 10 “matters of the heart” that have resulted in certain men and women being officially named “Saints” by the church, and a biographical sketch of 10 men and women who have particularly embodied these ten qualities.  This is a very practical book.
4.  My Life with the Saints – James Martin, SJ (2006)

I am a James Martin fan, and it all started with this book.  This book is in part James’ own spiritual autobiography, and in part an examination of the lives of 16 men and women of faith who have has a direct impact on his own thinking and being.  This is a compelling book, but be warned, just like potato chip slogan – “Nobody can eat just one!” – once you’ve read one James Martin book, you’ll want to read more.

5.  365 Saints: Your Daily Guide to the Wisdom and Wonder of Their Lives – Woodeene Koenig-Bricker 6.  (1995)

Each year I choose one daily devotional book to function as a resource for my spiritual formation, and a number of years ago this is one that I chose.  It remains as one of the best ones I have ever used.  The readings are short, interesting and inspiring.  This is an easy way to cover the breadth of the people that God has used through the centuries to challenge and nurture the church.

6. The Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition – Jon M.  Sweeney (2005)

This is a great book for Protestants who don’t “get” what the big deal with the “Saints” is.  It’s a kind of “Saints 101” book that answers lots of questions thatpeople who didn’t grow up with  “Saints” have.

7. My Cousin the Saint: A Search for Faith, Family, and Miracles – Justin Catanoso (2008)

This is a funny little book that I stumbled across a while back about an American whose distant cousin in Italy was actually named a “Saint” by the church.  Now, we don’t often think of the saints as real people (although I have a “brother” at the monastery in New Mexico who likes to tell the story of how one of his seminary professors was actually knocked out in a fight with St. John Vianney when they were both young men), but this book explores what having an actual “Saint” in the family looks and feels like.  It’s not a great book, but its uniqueness makes it a fascinating read, and one of the most unusual books about the Saints that’s out there.


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