Tag Archives: holiness

Being a saint: Merton and Pope Francis

Reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate – Rejoice and be glad, I thought of an exchange between the poet Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, soon after Merton was baptized.

Jim Forest relates it thus, in Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, based on Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain:

Walking with Lax on Sixth Avenue one night in the spring of 1939, Lax turned toward Merton and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
It was obvious to Merton that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” and “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of freshman English” were not good enough answers.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton was silent. He hadn’t figured that out yet.
“What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.”
That struck Merton as downright weird.
“How do expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to.”
“I can’t be a saint,” Merton responded. To be a saint would require a magnitude of renunciation that was completely beyond him. But Lax pressed on.
“All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe 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.

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is offering a call to holiness, to sanctity. “Don’t be afraid of holiness,” he writes (¶ 32) and adds (¶ 34), quoting Leon Bloy, ““the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

And so Pope Francis urges us, “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness, [sanctity].”

This call, from our baptism, is to live this holiness, this sanctity, in daily life – to be a saint in the ordinary.

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. (¶14)

The letter of Pope Francis is direct and practical. It is well-worth the read, a good choice for Easter reading. But even more for Easter living.

Above all, be a saint.

To get started, take a look at the video.

Ordinary holiness

“We, the ordinary people of the streets,
believe that this street, this world, where God has placed us,
is our place of holiness.”
Madeleine Delbrêl

When I was working in campus ministry in Ames, Iowa, and even now serving in rural Honduras, I often heard people lamenting that they weren’t involved in church as much as they wanted.

I would often ask them what they mean. “I don’t have time (or interest) in being active in any of the ministries in the church.”

My reaction has been the same, in the US and here in Honduras. “We live our faith not only in church, but more importantly in the world. If you cannot do something ‘in church’ live your faith in your ordinary life. Be the sign of the Church, of the Reign of God, in the world.”

In the US, in a talk during the Antioch retreat, I would tell students that God doesn’t want church mice. Lay people need to be the presence of Christ where they are, “whether in the bedroom or the boardroom” – in our daily work as well as in the church.

Here in Honduras I tell people that we need to live our faith in our daily life, making tortilla, weeding the corn field, studying in school.

Madeleine Delbrêl was a French Catholic lay women who died on October 13, 1964. In her life, in her foundation of small core groups of women living simply in community, wrote about the importance of immersion in the world.

Christ does not provide his followers with a set of wings to flee into heaven, but with a weight to drag them into the deepest corners of the earth. What may seem to be the specifically missionary vocation is in fact simply what it means to be embraced by Christ.

Despite any apparent contradiction, we diminish and falsify our love for Christ and the Church wherever we diminish that which draws us to the world and enables us to plunge ourselves into it. This is what the love of the world means, a love that is not an identification with the world, but a gift to it.

Most of us live our holiness in the world, not apart. We do not identify with the world, but we offer the world the gift of revealing Christ’s presence in our midst. This can be done, I believe, best where we find ourselves, in the ordinary work of our daily life.

The quotation is from an important book of Madeleine Delbrel, We, The Ordinary People of the Street. 

Saint Isidore and the holiness of manual labor

“…these hands of mine have provided
for both my needs and needs of those with me…
…by working hard one must help the weak…”
Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians
Acts 20: 34-35

In the Western world and in the upper class societies throughout the world there is a prejudice against manual labor. I even saw this in Ames, Iowa, where Iowa State University is the first land-grant college in the US.

Yet even St. Paul is proud that by the work of his hands he cared for himself, his friends, and the poor.

Maria and Isidore (NCRLC image)

Maria and Isidore (NCRLC image)

Today the church celebrates Saint Isidore the Farm Laborer, a Spanish day laborer on a farm near Madrid, who lived from about 1070 to 1130. His wife, St. Toribia or St. Maria de la Cabeza, is celebrated on September 9.

Robert Ellsberg’s remarks on Isidore, in All Saints and in his short biography in the May 2013 Give Us This Day, are telling.

St. Isidore was canonized in 1622 with five great saints of the Counter-Reformation; unlike them, “he accomplished no great deeds (apart from tilling the land). He was, in fact, a simple farmworker.”

Tilling the land should be seen as a great deed, a way to holiness. St. Isidore lived a live of heroic holiness doing what the people here in rural Honduras do everyday – the hard work of tilling, weeding, harvesting.

“[St. Isidore] knew the hardships, the toil, and sorrows of all farmworkers then and since. And he displayed the simple though profound faith so common to campesinos the world over.”

Today I recall all those people who work the land – here and throughout the world. I recall friends in Iowa who are farming, often with little machinery, to provide food for themselves and others. I think of those here in Honduras who are now preparing their lands to plant the corn that is the staple of life.

By the work of their hands they are sanctifying the world and themselves. By farming they are seeking to be saints.


Growing Harmony Farm T-shirt

They may not write great tomes of theology or spirituality (though one of my farmer friends, Gary, is a spiritual director). They may not ever be known outside of their family and friends (though Gary is known throughout central Iowa as the carrot king.)

But their work on the land not only provides food; it is their way of living the Kingdom of God, especially those who use sustainable and organic farming methods. It is their way of trying to be saints.

The last line of Robert Ellsberg’s biography of St. Isidore merits our attention, today and every day:

In the list of canonized saints, his type is surprisingly rare; in heaven, presumably, less so.

Let us today celebrate these saints who became holy by the work of their hands.



William Stringfellow was an Episcopalian theologian, lawyer, and friend of the Jesuit poet and peace activist Father Dan Berrigan. Stringfellow was influenced in part by the French Reformed Church theologian Jacques Ellul. He died on March 2, 1985.

Here is a description of holiness from The Politics of Spirituality:

…being holy, becoming and being a saint does not mean being perfect but being whole; it does not mean being exceptionally religious, or being religious at all, it means begin liberated from religiosity and religious pietism of any sort; it does not mean being morally better, it means being exemplary; it does not mean being godly, but rather being truly human; it does not mean being otherworldly, but it means being deeply implicated in the practical existence of this world without succumbing to this world or any aspect of this world, no matter how beguiling. Being holy means a radical self-knowledge; a sense of who one is a consciousness of one’s identity so thorough that it is no longer confused with the identities of others, of persons or of any creatures or of God or of any idols.