The Saints Prove That You Can
Overcome Weakness and Temptation
It is a strange thing how little we Catholics, who make so much of devotion to the saints, really understand of the secret of sanctity. We read the lives of saints, and we are filled with reverence and admiration. We see their statues in our churches, and we honor them as we might honor some great man who is otherwise no concern of ours. We look at their figures in our stained-glass windows, and we are induced to fancy them to have been different creatures altogether from us; not men and women of living flesh and blood, as we are, but some kind of privileged being, some kind of angel in human form, sent to earth to win our esteem, it may be, but scarcely one of us, scarcely near enough to us to be seriously taken as our friends.
And yet, when we come to understand them better, how very like our own we find their lives to have been: the same kind of trials and temptations, the same sense of failure and shortcoming, the same unceasing disappointments. They, too, knew all the weakness of human nature, and they knew it as much from their own experience of themselves as from what they saw around them. “You do not the things that you would,” says St. Paul, writing a word of pity and encouragement to his children in Galatia; but of himself he says no less spontaneously, “I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do.” Again, in another place he says, bearing witness to the sense of his great weakness: “I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
What a tale all these words tell us of a man who, with all his chosen sanctity, had first-hand knowledge of temptation! And the same may be said of all the saints. All of them who have left any record of their lives in writing tell us how they realized their own great weakness and how they feared for themselves in the face of their temptations.
“Life spends itself in sorrowing, but, indeed, there is no amendment.” So writes the great St. Augustine, a man who in his early life had drunk deep of the cup of sin, who had found it so hard to recover, and who to the end of his days felt the consequences of his early misdeeds press hard upon him.
Every morning of his life, we are told, the great St. Philip Neri, that most happy because innocent of saints, added this to his daily prayer: “ Have a care of me, O Lord, or I shall certainly betray Thee today.”
St. Teresa, who stands so high because of her intimate union with God in prayer, confesses that for seventeen years she was so beset with every temptation that she could scarcely hope to be able to persevere.
St. Alphonsus Liguori, who has written about sin and its nature as has no other Doctor in the Church, was to the end of his days so overcome with scruples and temptations as to be almost persuaded that God had foredoomed him to Hell.
No, in this, at least, the saints were more like us than we imagine, more like us than the written lives sometimes let us see. For the written lives tend to dwell on the golden harvest; they do not always tell us either of the seed-ground or of its tilling. There is no royal road to Heaven, not even for the innocent saints of God. “Man’s life on earth is a warfare,” says Holy Scripture; it does not say that the saints are excepted. Everyone, whether saint or sinner, whether innocent or guilty, whether priest, religious, or layman, has his particular battle to fight, his particular temptation to conquer, and in that fight, in that conquest, lies precisely the secret of his sanctity. Men and women have worked miracles before today and in the end have been found wanting. Men and women have been raised to great heights of contemplation and prayer and at the last have failed. Men and women have apparently lived lives and died deaths of peace and security, and yet the Just Judge has been compelled to pronounce on them the sentence “Amen, I say to you, I know you not.” But no man and no woman yet has fought on against crushing trial and temptation and has failed to win a crown of glory; has stood up and gone onward in spite of past misdeeds and has not been received into the company of the saints. This it is that makes the basis of sanctity, this never giving in, this constant resisting, this refusing to accept the dead level of our own failures. The rest is the structure that is built upon it.
So very human a thing is sanctity, so very ordinary. When the apostle addresses his disciples as those “called to be saints,” he makes no selection; he does not seem to think that he is asking something quite extraordinary. It does not demand special notice; it does not require that a man should live any other life than that which he is living. In every rank of life, under every condition, true sanctity has been and yet can be found. St. Onesimus was a slave; St. Genevieve was a simple shepherdess; St. Isidore was a country farmer; Marie Lataste was a servant girl, St. Benedict Joseph Labre was a common tramp.
And yet we tell ourselves that this can mean nothing for us. In theory it may be very well; in practice it is not possible. We must earn our daily bread; we must endure our circumstances. We are crushed beneath temptations that are inconsistent with sanctity. My own household is against it—a wild and reckless son or brother, a careless, irreligious father or mother, a systematic persecution that is roused to madness by the very shadow of a holy deed. St. Stanislaus was the most innocent of saints, yet for years he lived with, and was in everything subject to, a restless, selfish brother, who would kick the poor child to the ground and trample him beneath his feet, because he would not join in his nightly revelry. Is our lot worse than that?
St. Elizabeth was a great saint, although she was turned out of house and home by her brother-in-law to starve with her children in the street, while he sat drinking in his palace. Is it worse for us than that?
And if we speak of our temptations, which one of us will dare to say that we have one particle of the trials, interior and exterior, that some of the saints have been compelled to endure? Nay, more than that—to go no farther than our own immediate surroundings, if we had but the sight of the angels, perhaps if we had but the knowledge of some confessor, if we could but see the battles, far greater than our own, that many around us are fighting, and fighting with success, although they may not know it, we would be shamed into silence when we would complain, and into greater bravery in action.
“Why cannot I do what these and those have done?” This is a question that has turned two sinners into two of the greatest saints in the Church. Before St. Augustine and St. Ignatius of Loyola put it to themselves, no one would have suspected they were the material of which saints are made; and even if they were, no one would have thought that they would have paid the price. What it cost the first we know, at least in part, for he has told us himself, and his story is of the kind that is understood by every human heart. What it cost the second we do not know; but if any master “knew what was in man,” he did, and he learned it from his experience of himself.
Indeed, that is the value of it all. The more difficult our particular trial, the greater our particular temptation, so much the more shall we know when our turn comes for action, so much the deeper shall we see into the hearts and lives of others.
Most of us have courage for other things that are hard; if we would only have a little courage for this! If, when temptation is pressing most upon us, we would only not turn cowards and give up! If we would only keep always in mind the words of St. Paul: “God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted beyond that which you can endure, but with the trial will also give the means to overcome it.” It is just the little more that we want; it is just because we fail to give the little more, to hold out a very little longer, that all the rest comes to grief. It is just that little more that makes the difference between us and the saints; that little more of spiritual character, not less of trouble and temptation.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.