Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It’s Because We All Do)

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It’s Because We All Do) November 28, 2015

An editor at Patheos recently pointed me to the following trailer, and suggested I blog some thoughts in response to it.

Well, aside from being very interested in seeing the film, it makes me ponder how so many people we think of as “saints” or “mystics” or particularly “holy” often have interior lives shaped by profound struggle.

We need look no further than Thomas Merton. Granted, he’s nowhere near canonization (and I doubt he ever will be — he’s more like Meister Eckhart than John of the Cross), but thanks to his voluminous journals and equally impressive correspondence (not to mention his writing for publication), we have quite a candid glimpse into the contours of his interior life struggling to respond to God and grace. From a youth filled with misconduct — sexual and alcohol-fueled — to a continual restlessness over his more-than-a-quarter-century as a monk, wrestling with what it means to be a person of faith, to be a monk, to be human, to deal with the sometimes stifling nature of institutionalized community — all pointing to the final dramatic arc of his life, unexpectedly sidetracked at age 51 by an infatuation with a nurse half his age, followed by his fatal trip to the far east, motivated by his interest in Buddhism as much as anything else. Clearly, Merton was no placid contemplative, but rather one who continually encountered an interior chaos even as he sought to comment meaningfully on the chaotic world in which we find ourselves.

But don’t think this kind of interior restlessness only belongs to the “failed saints.” As a Trappist (Cistercian), Merton professed his monastic life in an order that stretches back to the late eleventh century, with its most eloquent and renowned spokesperson, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the most influential churchman of his day and ultimately recognized as a Doctor of the Church — a theologian of high renown. But if Bernard was as much an insider as Merton was an outsider, he likewise seemed to be characterized by a stormy psyche. The founder of Clairvaux was beset by horrific physical illness, including a digestive disorder that led to frequent vomiting and perhaps contributed to an extended period when he was practically forced into convalescence (clearly, being a patient was not his long suit). Like Merton, Bernard struggled with the character of the Cistercian order (which values stability, humility, and even obscurity) in contrast to his own charismatic, perhaps even flamboyant personality, which led to his continually being asked to intervene  in matters pertaining to the church at large. This included what became the great tragedy of Bernard’s life — being asked by the Pope to go on a preaching tour to drum up support of the second crusade. Bernard took on the task with enthusiasm, although he ran afoul of delicate church-state diplomacy when he travelled to areas in Europe where the Pope did not wish to have the crusade promoted. Eventually, when internal conflict led to a disastrous outcome for the crusade, Bernard took the brunt of the blame. In some ways, his reputation has never recovered. Certainly the entire affair left him disillusioned, and within five years of the crusade’s defeat he was dead.

Flannery O'Connor, who understood the relationship between sanctity and struggle (photo credit: CMacauley, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Flannery O’Connor, who understood the relationship between sanctity and struggle (photo credit: CMacauley, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Hagiography may try to depict the lives of saints as filled with serenity and beatitude, but the truth is usually much messier, if also somewhat more reassuring. I personally find it much easier to relate to saints who struggle. Flannery O’Connor once commented on Hazel Motes, the tortured protagonist of her darkly comic novel Wise Blood. He was in many ways an “anti-saint,” an eccentric southerner who proclaimed a religion without Christ, even as he clearly was “haunted’ by the Christian saviour. For O’Connor, Hazel’s “integrity” was directly related to his interior struggle, even as he proclaimed himself to be free of the trappings of Christianity. “Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” she asked. “I think that usually it does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”

What goes for a novel applies equally well to the spiritual life. Daring to follow Jesus is to consign oneself to struggle — to the reality of a lifelong attempt to sort out the “many wills” that dance cacophonously within us. I’m not suggesting that we can reduce this to a simplistic conflict between  good and evil (like the old Saturday morning cartoons where Bugs Bunny would have an angel sitting on one shoulder and a devil on the other). No sometimes the struggle involves shades of good, and/or shades of evil, and shades of the morally neutral. Saints struggle not with black and white, but with millions of colors, all flowing in a life seeking to find harmony and beauty and balance. We know that this is true, because it is the human condition. To be a saint is not to be rid of the struggle, it is merely to have a relatively greater ability to remember the direction toward which one’s compass points.

This post is part of a Patheos Movie Club on “The Letters.”

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