Anyone who attended a Catholic school will remember learning about the saints. The saints, as my children once remarked, were always bishops, priests, martyrs, nuns or virgins. They questioned, "Can't ordinary people be saints?" The recent canonization of Brother Andre Besset throws some light on the question of who can become a saint.
Brother Andre was a poorly educated man, considered simple by many. Outwardly, there was nothing extraordinary about him. At first, even his religious order considered him capable of only menial tasks. .
Brother Andre cultivated holiness. His humility drew people to God and enabled him to become a conduit of grace for others. Jean-Claude Turcotte, Archbishop of Montreal, said Brother Andre became a saint "because he loved God and placed himself entirely at the Lord's service."
Brother Andre is a role model for us. From him, we see that holiness is achievable regardless of the circumstances of our birth, our intellectual capabilities, or our jobs.
Most of the major religions of the world have a concept of sainthood. In a generic sense, saints are individuals who are models of holiness as understood according to a religion's teachings.
In Christianity, saints are those who are in heaven, those of exceptional faith, those who have purified their attachment to worldly things, or simply those who profess faith in Jesus. Sometimes individuals are canonized.
Judaism, Sufism and Hinduism also have concepts of saintly people. In Judaism, the tzadik, or "righteous one," has overcome the tendency to sin, and conforms his desires to God's. The wali of Sufism is a master in the art of spiritual purification. The mahatma of Hinduism is a "great soul," a highly evolved individual who influences the spiritual growth of others.
Holiness, it seems, involves the ability to "get over your self." Getting over your self, in the context of sainthood, is the ability to risk being imperfect in order to become purified. To be imperfect is a great risk; it means swimming against the current of today's values.
Everywhere we are bombarded with images of someone's idea of perfection. From fashion to business to relationships, superficial images of perfection have become the measures of beauty, success, and happiness. If we can attain these projected images of perfection, we have arrived.
The human notion of perfection, even if it were achievable, is not holiness.
The Biblical concept of perfection, according to Thomas Merton, means becoming more human. By this, Merton means cultivating a greater capacity for concern, suffering, understanding, compassion, joy, humour, beauty and goodness. Holiness grows as we respond to God's call and love for us in our everyday circumstances, despite our personal limitations.
The Scriptures describe the holiness of God in images of fidelity, justice, and compassion, and indicate that sanctity is possible for people. God exhorts the people, "You shall be holy for I am holy." Jesus encourages his disciples, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Can ordinary people be saints? You bet. Is it easy to be a saint? No way, but nothing is impossible when we allow God to find us and love us.