Donald P. Richmond:
The true and only vocation of every Christian is to be a saint. This rather unusual assertion was pointed out by the poet Robert Lax to Thomas Merton, Lax before his Christian conversion, and Merton long before he entered Gethsemane Abbey. As they were walking down the street, Lax looked at Merton and asked him what he really wanted to be. In response, rather uncommitted, Merton said that he supposed he wanted to be “a good Catholic.” In a flash, Lax told Merton that his response was unacceptable, and that his only true calling was to be a saint. Merton was stunned.
And it is likely that we, also, will be stunned. It is possible that we will begin to think of St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, St.Augustine, Mother Teresa, of martyrs such as Bilney, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer (not to mention Thomas More or Edward Campion), or of authors such as Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, J. C. Ryle, A. W. Tozer, E.M. Bounds, Andrew Murray, or Thomas Merton, and we will assert that we are not in any way like them — men and women of great passion and commitment. To be sure, we are not these men and women. We are who God has made us to be, and, according to the Holy Scriptures, we are called to be saints.
The question is “how?” Lax suggested to Merton that it was simply a matter of will. Lax is correct. But sainthood is not achieved, nor is it in any way a matter of self-will.
Over the past several decades there have been a great many books about self-help that have been published. Within certain contexts this may be well and good, but not in regard to spiritual awakening, growth, and formation. Flying in the face of monastic tradition (which in most ways I embrace) I am as suspicious about John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent and St. Benedict’s Ladder of Humility as I am about modern texts that seek to provide the reader with twelve easy steps to Christian maturity. Rarely, if not always, does such an approach lead to anything but pride or frustration.
Of course we must be disciplined. There are priorities and practices (such as Bible reading and meditation, private prayer, public worship, and participation in the Sacraments) we must observe. But this does not mean that we should support any form of “cookie cutter” spirituality — one size fits all. Such an approach is little more than a Christianized form of Babel. One Greek Elder had to remind one of his spiritual disciples that what the Elder said only applied to that particular disciple and to no one else. Luke Timothy Johnson, in Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making In the Church, tells us that “freedom is the most rigorous of all asceticisms.” These are wise words, and it is to the theology of individual freedom in Christ that we must look for help in our quest for sainthood.
St. Paul writes, “All things are permissible, but all things are not profitable.” The committed Christian, the monk in the world or in the monastery, takes this statement seriously. As those who are called and challenged to be saints, we seek to live our lives from the position of profitability and not from permissibility.
But we must be very cautious in this regard. We need balance. People tend toward extremes, and we will often be too “hard” or too “soft” upon ourselves. I am a perfect example. As a child, in imitation of St. Dominic Savio, I slept on sticks in order to mortify my body. Not a wise choice, most especially at ages 7 – 9, because I had no idea what true “mortification” really meant. As an adult, as another example, I have always sought a spiritual guide who would “[spiritually] beat me up as an old world Jesuit.” God has never seen fit to provide me with a director who was hard and harsh. Invariably, my directors were (and are) the most gentle of persons. I sought holiness, I sought to be a saint, but I did not have the insight to be able to bring God’s desire for and in me to fruition.
The insight and inspiration we need requires self-awareness. Most frequently this requires objective insight, an insight that can only be provided by another person who, with us, listens to both the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures as they intersect with the context of living our lives. The Celtic Christian Tradition has said that “a person without a spiritual director is like a body without a head.” We need a spiritual director, a spiritual mentor or guide, to help us along our path of freedom and sainthood —- or freedom to sainthood.
But I must be blunt: I am not talking about accountability groups among peers, as useful as these may be. I am not talking about Bible Study, Cell Groups, or Catechesis — as helpful as these may be. I am not referencing transformative worship. I am not talking about pastoral counseling either. What we need is an Elder (the classic spiritual “Elder” of antiquity), a Starets (of the Russian Tradition, and found in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov), a Soul Friend, or “Anam Cara” (of the Celtic Tradition), a Spiritual Director. We need a mature believer who knows God, the Bible, Church Tradition, human psychology and the traditions of spiritual guidance, to help us navigate our freedom in Christ, our pathway to sainthood.
In his wonderfully inspiring book for young people (gorgeously illustrated by Caryll Houselander), My Path to Heaven, Father Geoffrey Bliss writes these words, “All the roads go to Heaven and to Hell; and they go through all sorts of places with the names of the different kinds of lives. Sometimes I can choose my own road; but generally God chooses it for me, if I keep in the right direction” (emphasis mine). A Spiritual Director helps us to keep our choices profitable, providing us the safest and surest way to God and the grace (SHEER GRACE) of sainthood.
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a priest with the Reformed Episcopal Church, has been a monastic associate/oblate for over twenty years and connected to St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo California.