“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
In mid May I was privileged to be part of the Seton Heritage Pilgrimage to France. The purpose of this pilgrimage is to follow in the footsteps of St. Vincent De Paul and St. Louise De Marillac, founders of The Daughters of Charity. In the ten plus years that I have been part of the Seton Family of Hospitals’ mission to respect the dignity of every human being and to provide care for those who are poor, vulnerable, and marginalized I have often heard the stories of Vincent and Louise. I have admired and respected these founders, but too often thought of them as saints to be revered and emulated and not as a brother and sister who could actually guide me in my daily challenges of living out the Seton mission.
As Vincent and Louise passed into the iconography of sainthood, it is possible to see how, for a person living over 400 years after their deaths, they may have lost their humanity. I think it is easy for us to look back at a saint’s life and believe that things were somehow easier for them because they possessed some mystical goodness and power that the rest of us lack. Their accomplishments were so monumental and far-reaching that we may naturally assume that they were superhuman. But to assume this is to completely misunderstand the definition of sainthood.
According to Ronald Rolheiser, a saint is someone who can channel passion and desire in a creative, life-giving way. He quotes Soren Kierkegaard’s definition of a saint as someone who can will the one thing. As I followed in the footsteps of Saints Vincent and Louise, it was clear that they did not begin their adult lives knowing what that one thing was. Instead they simply took step after step, forging a path of self-knowledge, wisdom, and compassion as they moved through their lives. Neither started out to be “a saint.”
Vincent may have initially seen the priesthood as a promising way to make a living in 17th Century France. At some point he said yes to a call to the service of a prominent and wealthy family in order to tutor their children. This was the beginning of a career that would lead him to the work he is remembered for today. Similarly, Louise initially felt called to join the Capuchin nuns in Paris, but her request was turned down and instead she married a young man that her family had chosen. What made both of these people saints is that they kept alert to what has been called the sacrament of the present moment. They paid attention to their innate talents and gifts. They were, as our Buddhist brothers and sisters would say “mindful.’ Most importantly they accepted the challenge and responsibility of being made in the image of God.
This is where Thomas Merton’s definition of sainthood, quoted above, becomes relevant. Vincent and Louise are models of what an authentic life looks like. Such a life is to keep forging your path even in the darkest woods and to keep saying yes to the invitations that unfold before you. It is to take the time to attend to one’s inner life so as to gradually become more attuned to your True Self. Sr. Mary Rose McPhee, the Seton Cove’s founder, used to remind me in times of confusion and discernment that “if it is of God it will endure.” The flip side of that is that if it is of my egocentric self it may be best if my plans are redirected to “finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” St. Vincent and Saint Louise did this constantly throughout their lives. By following in their footsteps to True Self I become an essential part of their legacy and can willingly and gratefully accept the mission they have passed to me and to so many others.