Dear Father John, why does becoming a saint seem to make us less human? I don’t mean “less human” in that we cannot observe beauty, drink wine, listen to DeBussy, cry tears of joy or make love. What I mean is that if you take Mother Teresa as an example or even Pope Francis, it seems that it’s in the denial of their human needs (or in putting the needs of others first) that they are more Christ-like and more aligned with God. So, what I gather from this is that the more I am able to deny myself pleasure and provide it to another, the holier I will become. And that’s the paradox I don’t think I understand. Can you help me out?
Well, there is a short answer to this question, but I don’t know if you are going to like it. The reason that saints often seem to deny themselves all kinds of worldly pleasures is simply because they have found a much greater pleasure. They actually discover such an intense spiritual pleasure in fulfilling the mission that God has given them that they, in a certain sense, just stop thinking about the other pleasures. The devil even has to find other ways to tempt them – and he does so by spiritualizing the seven capital sins (gluttony, lust, anger, sloth, pride, envy, greed). But we have already covered that topic here.
The Greatest Pleasure
[Saint] Mother Teresa’s great desire in life was to live in greater and greater intimacy with Jesus. When Jesus invited her to become a nun, she said yes because she was so in love with him, so drawn to him. She wanted to do what he wanted so that she could achieve greater spiritual intimacy with him. When he then asked her to start a new religious order to care for the poorest of the poor, she said yes again, because her love for him was so intense that she derived her greatest pleasure from giving him the pleasure of her commitment, her life, her love, her work, her faithfulness to him. Compared to the pleasure of intimacy with God, the other pleasures simply didn’t really matter as much.
This happens in the spiritual life. Our desires and our experience of pleasure are kind of transformed as we grow in spiritual maturity. We find more intense satisfaction in simply doing God’s will, in fulfilling the mission that he gives us, than we do even in wonderful worldly pleasures like great art and great food and great friendships. I know that it seems like saints are “less human” because of this, but that’s not really the case.
New Categories of Delight
Here’s a comparison (from the contemporary Catholic philosopher, Dr. Peter Kreeft) that may help clarify things. If you try to tell a little boy about the pleasures of marital intimacy, it won’t really seem that attractive to him. He might ask, “Well, can you eat candy while you’re doing that?” That would make it more exciting to him, because candy is a pleasure that fits his level of maturity. It’s no use telling him that he won’t even care about candy on his honeymoon, because he just doesn’t have any categories in his experience for pleasures greater than candy.
It’s certainly an incomplete analogy, but I think it can help. As we grow spiritually, our capacity to know, love, and enjoy God grows and grows. And so, we become less and less attached to God’s many wonderful gifts, and more and more desirous of simply living in a constant and constantly deeper union with him. Insofar as created things will help that union, we make use of them, but they become much less important as our soul is given the ability to taste God more directly, more spiritually. This is why the saints often seem so indifferent to things that we consider make life more “human.” It’s not that they don’t value those things, it’s that they value them more properly, more contextually than the rest of us. Our humanity reaches is fullness insofar as we are living in communion with God, and when we are fully immersed in that communion, things that aren’t God take up less bandwidth in our minds and heart – rather, they more and more directly lift our minds and hearts to God and intensify our communion with him.
God’s Good Gifts are Still Good
But I have to reiterate that Catholic spirituality never ever denigrates the wonderful gifts of God in this world. Music, art, food, beauty, nature, friendship, learning, literature, sports – these are values that the Church always encourages and praises and supports and develops. Jesus was not a sourpuss, and neither were the saints. They may seem that way from our perspective at times, but it’s just not true. God’s ways of reaching out to each soul are unique, because each person is unique. And there are plenty of saints who never took a vow of poverty or chastity. The proper use of God’s wonderful gifts here on earth is never an obstacle to intimacy with God, even though as we become more and more intimate with the giver of those gifts, the gifts themselves hold less allure.
The key thing is to seek God in all things, and to seek his will. Enjoy a Broadway play, and use the experience to enrich your understanding of the human condition and to praise God for giving us the capacity to create and enjoy beauty. Enjoy a beautiful sunset in the same way. But when God nudges you to resist a temptation or to make an act of generosity, trust him then too; say yes, and continue to say yes, and let him lead you to the mysterious and dizzying delights of deeper intimacy with him.
God bless you!
Art: Mother Teresa of Calcuta [sic], portrait painting by Robert Pérez Paulou, 1 January 1994, CCA 3.0 Unported; Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, Catholic apologist, English wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kreeft.jpg, Nov 2006 Marax |Permission= from P. Kreeft (see En; Wikimedia Commons); both Wikimedia Commons.