Monotonous Sinners and Sparkling Saints

St Therese of Lisieux

C.S. Lewis once observed, ‘How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.’

In his little biographies of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Francis of Assisi, G.K.Chesterton revelled in the sparkling individuality of both saints.  Aquinas was the greatest philosopher of his time while Francis was a troubadour for Christ. Thomas a great bull of a man; Francis a scraggy fool of a man. Thomas was a restrained logician; Francis an extravagant poet. In their uniqueness, Aquinas and Francis display the magnificent full blooded humanity which every saint exhibits.

Chesterton and Lewis weren’t the only ones to be delighted by the variety of the saints. Writing to her prioress Thérèse of Lisieux said, ‘How different are the variety of ways through which the Lord leads souls! Souls are more different than faces.’

Take three women who share her name: Theresa of Avila, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Teresa of Calcutta. They all wear a dull uniform and submit to a regime which seems designed to obliterate their individuality, yet each of them emerge as feisty, formidable and utterly unique individuals.

The saints are unique because they are ordinary people who have allowed an extraordinary power to bring them to their full potential. The saint is fascinating because she is the person she was created to be; and the more we become who we are, the less we will be like anybody else. The saint has no time for role models. She cannot spend time pretending to be someone else because she realises it is the work of a lifetime to become oneself.

While the saints are unique, they also complement one another. Threading through the life of every saint is a strand that links them to every other saint. Chesterton shows how Aquinas and Francis, despite their differences,  complement one another and reflect the light of Christ back and forth. Thérèse makes a charming observation about how saints depend on one another spiritually. In heaven, she says,

‘all the Saints will be indebted to each other……who knows the joy we shall experience in beholding the glory of the great saints, and knowing that by a secret disposition of Providence we have contributed there unto…and do you not think that on their side the great saints, seeing what they owe to quite little souls, will love them with an incomparable love? Delightful and surprising will be the friendships found there—I am sure of it. The favoured companion of an Apostle or a great Doctor of the Church will perhaps be a young shepherd lad; and a simple little child may be the intimate friend of a patriarch.

In the divine drama God creates a cast of heroes and children. The thought is echoed in the words of Pope Pius XI about Thérèse, ‘God created such giants of zeal and holiness as Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier. Behind these, on the far horizon, we catch a glimpse of Peter and Paul, of Athanasius, Chrysostom, and Ambrose. But behold! The same heavenly Artist has secretly fashioned, with a love well nigh infinite, this maiden so modest, so humble—this child.’

Benedict also hints at the surprising complementarity in the communion of saints. For him the magnificent community of heaven is reflected in the monastic community on earth….

This is an excerpt from my book St Benedict and St Therese–The Little Rule and the Little Way

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  • Dixibehr

    Tolstoy disagreed with Lewis when he wrote something like this, “Every happy family is alike; miserable families are unhappy each in its own way.”

  • u3

    Great writing, Fr. Dwight! The saints only role model was imitating that of Jesus Christ–everyone other model would pale in comparison to the Divine Son.

  • Steve

    If you think sinners are unoriginal you have never met me.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The only way a sinner can be original is to go deeper into perversion

  • Angel

    Are you saying that you’re the Anti-Christ?

  • Jim J. McCrea

    The differentiation of the saints has its origin in the differentiation within God Himself, in that He is three persons in one divine being. The persons of the Trinity are differentiated by their relations of origin only. The Father is a distinct person from the Son, only because the Son is begotten by the Father and the Father begets the Son. In all other ways they are the same. However, these relations of origin are not simply bare trivial facts but the difference in relations contains an infinite difference in a wealth of hidden personal attributes. The Father and the Son are identical in *what* they are – they are one in being or consubstantial – but are infinitely different from each other in *who* they are. The particular relation of origin that belongs to each one is identical with the personality of each one, and these personalities are infinitely different from each other as this infinite difference flows from the differences in relations of origin. These personalities are a mystery to us on earth, and are quintessential divine attributes, for they are above and beyond the attributes of the “what” of God, which is the same for all three persons and which is partially accessible to our understanding on earth. This oneness in difference is reflected in the saints, who were one in virtue – that is they were all perfectly chaste, truthful, charitable, humble etc. – yet were very different in personality.

  • BM

    I understand the point. However, there is a truth to the opposite view that even Chesterton noted. To fall short in one respect makes something bad, but to be good, all the elements need to be in place. So, for example, the object, the end, and the circumstances of an act all need to be right for the action to be good. But if only one of these is wrong, the act is wrong. This means that for every act of doing right, there are countless ways of sinning. Or as Chesterton put it, there are an infinite number of angles at which to fall down, but only one at which we stand up straight. Therefore, etc..

    Moreover, Christ himself said the way to perdition is broad, while the way to Heaven is narrow. Broadness signifies more diversity and difference than narrowness. Therefore, etc..

  • Ruthann

    Count the “I’s, me’s, my’s” in your posting and humble yourself! We are not here for ‘us’ nor ‘about us’… May you be humbled by God!