Commencement Mass Homily: Embracing the Call to be Saints
By College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
We recently welcomed back to campus an ’07 grad, Matthew Weber, to give a talk on his book Fearing the Stigmata. The arresting title arises out of a childhood experience. Matt was a fourth-grader in a Catholic grammar school looking at a picture book about the saints and noticed what he thought must be some typographical blotches on the picture of St. Francis of Assisi; he seemed to have a red blotch on his hands, his feet, and his side. So he went to the teacher and asked why. She explained that these were the stigmata that St. Francis shared in the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. Matt asked why St. Francis got them, and the teacher replied “because he was good … a good Catholic.” Fearing the consequences of goodness and holiness, Matthew went home and immediately did a few small bad things so he would not wake up in the morning with blood gushing from this hands, feet, and side. Looking back on this childish response from adulthood, Matthew realizes that he has been struggling his whole life with the fear of being holy, and plagued by the question of how good did he really want to be and at what cost? I think it is a fear that we all struggle with. We are afraid of holiness because we know it will cost us something and we fear the changes that we would have to make in who we are. So we settle for mediocrity and relegate holiness to the religious professionals and heroic people in the Church.
On this feast of the Holy Spirit, we need to remember that all who have been baptized were given the gift of the Spirit to be holy, indeed to be saints. No one is exempt from the universal call to holiness. As Leon Bloy famously said, “The only tragedy in life is not to be a saint.” So in this last chance to preach to you before you depart, I want to challenge you to embrace your call to holiness and sanctity. Do not be afraid of it. It is only in embracing that call can you become who God made you to be.
Let me flesh out what this means by telling you a few things about Dorothy Day, the guiding force of the Catholic Worker movement depicted in a window in our chapel, who struggled mightily with the idea of sainthood. She famously quipped once: “Don’t call me a saint — I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” But earlier she wrote: “We are all called to be Saints, St. Paul says, and we might as well get over our bourgeois fear of the name. We might also get used to recognizing the fact that there is some of the saint in all of us.” There is some of the saint in all of us; we are saints in the making, but we do not like to acknowledge this.
Part of this is because, as Dorothy Day also once wrote, “Like Lord Jim in Conrad’s story, we are all waiting for great opportunities to show heroism, letting countless opportunities go by to enlarge our hearts, increase our faith, and show our love for our fellows, and so for Him.” What Dorothy Day came to understand, largely through the inspiration of St. Therese of Lisieux, was that holiness can be found in all things, including the most mundane of human activities. As a young nun, St. Therese found herself lamenting that she was not able to do something greater for God than living in a cloister. But God gave her the insight that there was a “little way” to holiness that Dorothy Day describes:
She was so like the rest of us in her ordinariness. What did she do? She practiced the presence of God and she did all things — all the little things that make up our daily life and contact with others — for his honor and glory.
The smallest and most ordinary actions and interactions of our lives can be suffused with holiness if done with love. For Dorothy Day, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and welcoming the homeless with love and hospitality was a constant encounter with Christ. There is no job, no family, no human action or interaction that you can experience that cannot be holy. For most of us, our call to be saints will be played out in what seems like a very ordinary life. There are as many ways to being a saint as there are human lives.
Our common calling to be saints in the midst of our ordinary lives will make us distinctive from those who do not live that calling, just not distinctive in the heroic sense. Timothy Radcliffe writes that “sinners are people who have not yet dared to become fully individual but settle for ready-made identities … they do not take the risk to be someone particular.” As the hero of Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers says: “Our vices are general, dull, the ordinary rotten mud of human meanness and cowardice and cruelty and egoism, and even when they’re extreme they’re all the same. Only in our virtues are we original.” It is likewise true for us: in our sins we are dull and ordinary, in our holiness we are an original image of the God who uniquely created us to live the holy life that is his gift to each of us.
Now I know what you have been thinking all along: How can a sinner like me actually become a saint? Every canonized saint wrestled with that question. They all understood that in our lifelong struggle to become holy, there will be a constant need to ask and receive forgiveness from God and from each other. That is why Jesus gives the disciples in the gospel a Spirit of forgiveness. Our holiness lies in our acceptance of forgiveness over and over again. As Rowan Williams writes: “Humanly speaking, holiness is always this: God’s endurance in the middle of our refusal of him, his capacity to meet every refusal with the gift of himself.” Our possibility to be holy is God’s fidelity to us despite the many ways, small and sometimes large, that we refuse his love.
When you first arrived at PC we Dominicans did not tell you that our job was to make you saints because you would not have come! But we can tell it to you now, because you are almost out the door. It has been our secret mission all along. It was not to get you jobs or job credentials, although I hope you have one. It was not to get you into grad school, although many of you will go there. It wasn’t even to get you to appreciate the magic of knowing for its own sake. It was always our hope that you would recognize your individual and unique call to holiness. Whatever jobs you take, no matter what shape your family looks like, no matter what happens to you, you are called to be holy saints. Do not settle for anything less, and do not be afraid. The only possible tragedy your life can suffer from is for you not to be a saint. The choice lies in your hands and God’s grace. Embrace your call to holiness.