What Is a Saint?

How the diversity of saintly lives reveals multiple paths toward God.

Mother Teresa statue in Kolkata.
Mother Teresa statue in Kolkata.

The saints offer us encouragement, like the runner just ahead of us in the race, urging us on and reminding us to pace ourselves. This is true not simply when we are sick or discouraged but also when we’re leading healthy, active lives. When I’m busy, I remember Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century multi-tasker; the man who employed three scribes to take down his notes simultaneously reminds me that prayer is as important as work. When I write, I remember Thomas Merton; the famous writer reminds me that fame is not the reason one writes. When I work with the marginalized, I remember Mother Teresa; the servant to the poor reminds me that it is Christ I am serving. When I’m fighting for something that I believe is just, I remember Joan of Arc; the lifelong fighter reminds me of the need to trust in God, not in results.

The saints are models of what our lives could be. In following the example of their lives, we can be formed by them. In the words of the Notre Dame theologian Lawrence S. Cunningham, “We hope to be what they are.”

I feel their friendship, too. The more I get to know them, the more I feel that these men and women who enjoy life with God are pulling for me, that they are on my side, that they want me to succeed in the Christian life, that they want me to be a good Jesuit and a good priest. This is impossible to prove, but since first encountering them, I’ve believed that they are praying for me. “Don’t give up,” they say. “Don’t worry,” they remind me. Or, as Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

I also turn to the saints for their intercession. As Elizabeth Johnson says in her book Friends of God and Prophets, there are two traditional ways in which Christians have understood the saints: as companions and as patrons.

These two models overlap in my life. I turn to a saint in prayer (patron) because his or her story resonates with my own and I have sought out his or her company (companion). So while I look to Thérèse of Lisieux during illness, or to Thomas Merton during my struggles with the church, or to Peter for faith in dark times, I also ask for their intercession at those times.

Read more on saints in James Martin's book.
Read more on saints in James Martin’s book.

How does intercession work? For some it seems a superstitious belief—all those candles and statues and medals and prayers that sound suspiciously like magical incantations. For others, intercession is one of the foundations of their faith. The Apostles’ Creed says in part, “I believe in . . . the communion of saints,” which includes the belief that they are praying for us. For me, the help of the saints makes sense on a practical and theological level: Why wouldn’t those who are with God desire to help us here on earth? Why wouldn’t they want to intercede for us? To me, it seems natural. But, again, it’s impossible to prove.

All I know is that when I’ve received something for which I’ve prayed, and for which I’ve asked some assistance from a saint, I am first grateful to God, but also grateful for whatever extra help the saint may have given me.

How do I feel about the variety of ways in which people relate to the saints today? What about the seemingly bizarre piety surrounding the cult of the saints? What of the tradition of burying statues of St. Joseph in the ground in order to get a house sold? Or those front-lawn shrines to the saints sometimes housed in overturned enamel bathtubs? Just a few weeks ago, I was walking through a heavily Italian section of Brooklyn and was amazed at the number of homemade shrines to Mary and St. Anthony and St. Jude, whose painted concrete statues were festooned with colorful plastic flowers and twinkling lights.

As a Catholic I am used to that. It’s part of Catholic culture. It may disturb some progressive Catholics, and certainly many Protestants, but it’s good to give people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their faith. If such practices help people feel closer to their favorite saint, and that in turn helps them feel closer to God, then that’s terrific—as long as people remember that it is God to whom they are praying and that devotion to a saint should never blind them to the centrality of Jesus in their lives.

But as with any friend, a saint should not be seen from a strictly utilitarian point of view: that is, we shouldn’t see them simply as models, as intercessors, as ones who exist to encourage us. This is far too narrow an understanding of the saints. Too often we reduce their role to doing things for us. Or, worse, getting us things.

If we reduce the saints to a purely functional role, we overlook the invitation simply to rejoice in the variety of gifts that they reveal in the kingdom of God. The saints are not just useful tools; they are people to celebrate. The stories of their lives on earth are gifts for which we can be grateful, as we are grateful for works of art. Someone once wrote that the saints are like actors in a play, and the script of that play is the gospel.

To borrow another metaphor, from Thérèse of Lisieux, loving the saints is like enjoying the marvelous variety of a garden. You don’t love a flower for what it does, but for what it is. Now I know that the most common image of the saints is probably the “cloud of witnesses” that comes from St. Paul. And while I like that image for its notion of the saints as a hovering presence, it also seems a bit cold and impersonal. I much prefer the image of the garden, where each of the saints shows forth God’s beauty in a different way.

Without a doubt, that’s the most important aspect of the saints for me: they teach me about being who I am. Each of the saints has been, to quote John XXIII, “holy in a different way.” Each was placed in a different situation and time. Each had a different personality and dealt with life differently. And each related to God a little differently.

Think of the variety of holy men and women in Christian history. Not only did they live in different times and places and speak different languages, but they also possessed their own personalities and followed their specific calls to holiness.

Some examples: Though both of their lives were rooted in God, Thomas Merton and Aloysius Gonzaga approached life in very different ways. Merton was forever questioning his vow of stability, his place in the monastery, and his vocation as a Trappist, almost until the end of his life. Aloysius, on the other hand, seemed to have known precisely what he wanted to do—that is, become a Jesuit—from childhood.

Dorothy Day in 1934.
Dorothy Day in 1934.

Or think about Thérèse of Lisieux and Dorothy Day. Thérèse realized that God had called her to spend life cloistered behind the walls of a Carmelite convent, while Dorothy Day understood that her invitation was to spend life on the “outside,” working among the poor and marginalized in the big cities. Both grasped their respective calls. But both appreciated styles of sanctity that varied significantly from their own. Thérèse, for instance, greatly admired the Catholic missionaries working in Vietnam. And Dorothy Day admired Thérèse enough to write a little book about her.

Each of us brings something to the table, and we each, through our own gifts, manifest a personal way of holiness that enlivens the community. We help build up the kingdom of God in ways that others cannot. Mother Teresa echoes this in her famous saying: “You can do something I can’t do. I can do something you can’t do. Together let us do something beautiful for God.”

This diversity is an outgrowth of human desire, whose place in the spiritual life was illuminated by Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises. Put simply, the saints had different desires, and those desires led them to serve God in different ways. Such desires affected not only what they did but who they became. These natural inclinations are means by which God accomplishes his work in various places and in a variety of modes.

God awakens our vocations primarily through our desires. At the most basic level, a man and a woman come together in love out of desire and discover their vocations as a married couple. Out of desire, a husband and a wife create a child and discover their vocations as parents. Desire works in a similar way in the lives of the saints, drawing them to do certain types of work, giving rise to special vocations, and leading to an individual brand of holiness. Angelo Roncalli (later known as John XXIII) became a priest because he desired it. Dorothy Day entered the Catholic Church because she desired it. Charles de Foucauld embraced a life of poverty in the desert because he desired it. Ultimately, one’s deepest desires lead to God and to the fulfillment of God’s desires for the world

Following these individual desires led each of the saints to a special kind of holiness. Grace builds on nature, as Thomas Aquinas said. Ignatius of Loyola gave up a military career to follow God, while Joan of Arc began one. Dorothy Day worked in a newspaper to spread the gospel, while Bernadette Soubirous shrank in horror from the idea of her story being published. Thomas Aquinas spent his life surrounded by books, while Francis of Assisi told his friars not to own even one lest they become too proud.

The multiplicity of desires leads to a multiplicity of paths to God. And a marvelous multiplicity of saints, our patrons and companions.

Excerpted from My Life with the Saints, by James Martin, SJ.

Lead image via Shutterstock.

James Martin SJ
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  • Ed

    I love Fr. Martin’s book and DVD on the lives of the saints, and I get it that all were flawed human beings like the rest of us… But I cannot understand canonizing someone who protected and even promoted men like Fr. Maciel and others who sexually abused children, and who never disciplined the bishops who shuffled them around and allowed the abuse to continue. I mean, had he repented of this, it might be a different matter… As a life-long Catholic I am embarrassed by this canonization, and sad that it mars the canonization of Pope John XXIII.