By Fr. Evans
Over the past century or so we’ve seen significant changes in the way saints’ life stories are offered to the reading public. It’s not been too surprising to find emphasis placed on what made saints extraordinary while they were on earth—and thus different from most other people. So, many saints are portrayed as exhibiting some or all of these attributes: signs of God’s favor at birth, precocious holiness in childhood, early and consistent renunciation of the world, miraculous powers, and a foreseen death. Presented in this way, saints seem to be perched on pedestals.
Over that same time, various developments have changed the ways we see saints. There have been advances in ways of writing history. In the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council called for heightened scholarly research and more honest presentations of saints’ lives. We might say that the saints—without at all losing their place in heaven and their imitability—have come off their pedestals to join us: they’re pilgrims who trudged toward heaven as we are doing now. While we acclaim the saints for being heroically holy, at least by the end of their lives on earth, their struggles are now not only included but highlighted. Realistically we see not only that they faced obstacles beyond themselves but also how they experienced internal struggles of conscience and decision-making.
Since John of the Cross is a canonized saint of the Church, we will not be surprised that his life should come across as quite special. Some of what made him extraordinary in his response to God had to do with how his life’s circumstances and talents played out. His poor background, his natural gifts as a thinker and a poet, and his experiences of rejection all are part of what life presented to him. These realities affected his response to God’s love. They all presented him with challenges that daunted him somewhat but also made him the man and the saint he became. For John, an embrace of simplicity took root: a desire for quiet peace came to characterize him, and loving service of people won out over any possible bitterness stemming from relational burdens.
“I’m only human” can be an expression often used too narrowly to mean that people are bound to make mistakes and to sin. Saints, while they are human and remain so even in heaven, can teach us how to be human in the best sense. God our Creator has made us, as the Bible teaches us, in his own image. God has given us knowledge, freedom, and a capacity to grow in virtue. While we fall into sin, Jesus gives us the opportunity to be forgiven and strengthened. In baptism, we have faith, hope, and love poured into us. We are saints-in-the-making. The lives of reliably attractive saints, real people who have finished their earthly journeys, can help us. The “saints by our side,” and not up on those pedestals, guide us in life and toward heaven.