Tuesday 17 April 2012

With a Little Help from My Friends

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

Today is the feast day of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Now I have only read one book on Blessed Kateri, so I am by no means an expert on the Lily of the Mohawks. I know that she underwent much suffering and discrimination to become a Christian, and that she was also known for her chaste life. She is perhaps most renowned for being a Native of North America.

I suppose this is how we conventionally learn about the saints of the Church: we read about them. A criticism on hagiography – the writings on the saints – is that this kind of “literary genre” is written in a way that portray the saints as perfect, impenetrable spiritual warriors. The portrayals of the saints are not human enough. It places too much emphasis on the good, and little, if any, on the bad. It is difficult to relate to them.

This brings up the question of how we are to relate to saints. First of all, I propose that it is more fruitful to consider saints as personal friends rather than cold, distant historical figures; in particular, saints as friends whom we look up to. Most of us have had enough life experience to realize that there are those who have a kind of extraordinary goodness about them; they are not perfect by any means, but their lives point to something beyond themselves, something more grand.

Speaking of perfection, I am a firm believer that saints are sinners during their life-time. Perhaps not all of them spit and swore, but they certainly sinned and fell short of perfect love like the best of us. It matters not to me whether these failures were documented or not. More importantly, it would be tragic to search out the shortcomings of our friends and allow them to govern our friendship; if such is the case, this relationship is going nowhere. On the other hand, the relationship becomes more meaningful when we choose to focus on our friends' virtuous side; we can learn from and appreciate them. They help us to grow.

If the deeds of the saints are “too good to be true”, that is because they are, on this side of heaven. While the saints certainly strive to live holy lives, it is not because they are all type-A go-getters who overachieve to reach their lofty goals. Being holy has nothing to do with achievements or checking off items on a list. Sanctity is impossible to attain with human power, and it is not meant to be such.

The earthly lives of the saints are heroic, inspiring and courageous as a result of the grace of God. We run the danger of flattening God when we try to explain the lives of the saints through a purely anthropological perspective. Their earthly lives necessarily radiate something unearthly, to be sure. They are but signs that point towards Christ: the Christ who is the Lord of our lives, to whom we surrender our entire beings. This is not an abstract idea that is only fit for the intellectually capable or the spiritually receptive; it is a fact that applies to you and me.

Just as there is no shame in admitting that God is God and we are not, there is also no shame in admitting that we are not perfect and in looking to positive role models for inspirations. We make no qualms about asking friends for advice or for prayers; it should be no different with the saints as well. This bonds us together in the communion of saints.

Blessed Kateri's spiritual directors were also Jesuits. I wonder whether they knew at the time that this young lady would one day become the first Native American saint. This reminds me that I am most likely ministering to future saints in my apostolic work as well. In that sense, we live in the midst of saints: those who allow Christ Jesus to transform them so that they more and more become who they truly are.


  1. The last paragraph really begs reflection. Thanks, Edmund.

    Blessed Kateri, pray for us.

  2. Authentic acts of love of those whom we encounter remind us that sainthood is a reality.