It is a doctrine of St Thomas that angels not only differ numerically but that each one constitutes a different species in himself. Such a teaching gives us a wonderful insight into the nature of that multitudinous angelic host, and into the prodigality of God’s creative power in endowing with life and intelligence so many glorious spirits vastly superior to us in every attribute that we can conceive.
Not two leaves of the forest are exactly alike
In the material order we see a similar lavishness displayed in the stars of the firmament, in the living things of earth and sea; and yet not two leaves of the forest are exactly alike; not two drops of water or two particles of dust are identically similar. So it is, too, that among the myriads of human beings who have existed upon this earth no two have been indistinguishable from each other. We know as a certain fact that no two persons leave the same finger marks.
Each human person is unique
In the supernatural order things are similarly disposed by an all-wise Creator. “Just as He ordained,” says St Francis de Sales, “that plants for instance should bear fruit, each according to its kind, even so He has willed that Christians, the living plants of the Church, should bear fruits of piety, each according to his character and vocation.” Thus God distributes His gifts and graces in inexhaustible abundance, and yet with such diversity that it is impossible, so the saints tell us, for two human beings to possess those graces in exactly the same form and degree.
God never repeats Himself. We see that statement evidenced in the saints and holy men and women whom we venerate. All of them have had some points in which they differ one from another, some virtue which they practised otherwise and in a less greater degree than others: indeed, leaving others out of consideration, they have not applied themselves at all times with equal zeal or success to the cultivation of every form of holiness.
God never repeats Himself
Now if we enter into most of our Catholic art shops, we shall see there, exposed to view, pictures of the saints (saints who lived before the days of photography) and we would gather that they all had the same eyes, the same features, the same bodily deportment. And were it not that one holds a sceptre, another a lily, and another something else, you would never know which was St Louis of France, which St Aloysius, which somebody else.
Are the saints really too lofty and remote for us to imitate?
Of course there are seldom reliable portraits dating back to those times, and accordingly one can make excuses for those artists. But what is insupportable is when a writer, in describing the life and character of a saint does away with all that is distinctive in his life, and instead of dealing with facts, gives us an account only of those good deeds and virtues which recommend themselves to him and which he fancies that servant of God must have possessed or should have possessed. And what makes it worse is that, whereas the artists who perpetrate those pious images have perhaps never seen an authentic picture of the saints whom they depict, the writers of the saints’ lives referred to have had at their hand truthful sources on which they could draw, historical documents which they were free to consult. By neglecting these they have produced a work mainly of the imagination, a caricature more than a biography, something which has the effect of exciting our doubts instead of offering us examples which we might follow. We have indeed to be thankful that this style of hagiography has been, in the last thirty years or more, markedly on the decline, and we may congratulate ourselves that we have among us those who write saints’ lives as they should be written.
We do not do the saints justice by glossing over their faults and shortcomings
If there is anything that rouses the wrath of the mild St Francis de Sales it is when the class of writers first alluded to make it their object to pass over in silence, as much as possible, all mention of the failings or sins of those same saints and exaggerate almost beyond credibility their good points and qualities. “We are guilty of no injustice to them,” says St Francis, a Doctor of the Church, “if besides giving an account of their virtues, we also represent what were their weaknesses and deficiencies. We need not fear that in doing so we take away from the high esteem in which they are held.” Pius XI, in his encyclical Rerum Omnium (1923), explicitly condemns as erroneous the proposition that “those who have attained the summits of Christian perfection did not suffer the same weakness of nature as other men, or were not exposed to the same dangers.”
There has been, however, a class of hagiographers whose practice has certainly not been founded on these principles. Their procedure was to take the broad lines of the saint’s life and embroider upon them just those facts which they deemed edifying and pious, and carefully to eliminate all failings, all imperfections even, which they imagine might tend to lower ever so little the esteem in which the holiness of their saint might be held.
We may take an example from the life of St Francis de Sales himself. At the end of a letter to Madame de Chantal – a great saint writing to another great saint – we find, “Bonjour, Mon unique, ma très chère, mon incomparable chère fille.” This was too much for the English translator, who did not scruple to render this delightful ending by the curt “Good day, my child.” And it is in this way that the writings of the saints have often been treated. It is not fair either to them, or to the Catholic reader. And thus it is that not merely isolated sentences have been bowdlerised, but the entire lives of many servants of God have been mutilated, dressed up, garbled, “edited” (as the saying is) – everything that is thought disparaging to the saint being carefully excluded. Thus, until comparatively recent years, it was an entirely different Aloysius who was offered for our admiration, an ethereal, unapproachable, “stained-glass-window” saint – not perhaps very lovable in consequence. It is difficult to understand what these goody-goody writers mean to achieve. Sometimes they are quite incomprehensible. A story is told of one who in a conversation ventured to say that he could wish that the Canticle of Canticles [Song of Songs] was not in the Bible. And when it was remarked to him that after all the text was inspired by the Holy Ghost, he replied: “Well, it was not one of His happiest…” Fortunately he stopped there, but it was easy to see what he had in mind. The incident shows, however, to what lengths unconscious prudery may sometimes lead.
Through the saints’ example, we are to be encouraged to rise up from the quagmire of our sins and failings
But to return to our theme. The considerations which have been laid before the reader have an important bearing on the subject of the imitation of the saints. We are therefore to be careful not to put them on a pinnacle where it is impossible for ordinary mortals to reach them, and where even saintly souls can only make the attempt on occasion and imperfectly. A badly-written saint’s life is one which makes the reader exclaim, “Oh, but that was a great saint, and I am not called to speak or act as he spoke or acted.”
When, on the other hand, we take up a life written on the lines laid down by Pope Pius XI, a life in which all the imperfections, faults, mistakes of the saint are exposed boldly and without concealment, a life which was perhaps stained by many sins and delinquencies, and yet was subsequently adorned with the most sublime virtues, we are encouraged to rise up too from the quagmire of our own sins and failings.
“What these have done I can do also”
On reading the lives of saints who had gone before them, both St Augustine and St Ignatius exclaimed: “What these have done I can do also.” And though the sentence as it stands is not strictly correct, it serves to show how the example of the saints can incite us to deeds of penance and to the practice of perfection.
Yes, what others have done, we can do also, but only on the condition that the grace of God accompanies and assists us all through as it assisted them. “Without me,” says our Saviour, “ye can do nothing – certainly not follow in the footsteps of the saints.
No two saints are exactly alike
Now the graces that were bestowed on these favoured servants of God were given to them for a special purpose, and were accommodated to their characters and to the circumstances of time and place in which they lived. Hence no two saints are alike, inasmuch as the actual graces afforded to each have all been different; and similarly no two ordinary men can be alike in the spiritual order, to say nothing of the natural.
Accordingly there may be a fallacy in the statement that the saints were given us in order that we should imitate them. In point of fact we may endeavour to reproduce in ourselves one or the other of these holy men in some detail of their conduct or of their life, but beyond that we cannot go.
Can we “copy” a saint?
In the lives of the Fathers of the Desert, we read that many of them made it their chief effort to study the methods and actions of those amongst their number who were most in renown for their holiness and spirit of mortification, in order that they should copy them and attain a similar degree of sanctity. Such a desire may be in itself laudable, but it is not without dangers.
In Egypt it was soon to degenerate into a sort of ambition for each to outdo his neighbour, or even those very men on whom they were striving to model themselves, a rivalry which pushed them to go one better in the penitential and ascetic life, and aim at what we should call holding the record.
The danger of vainglory
St Anthony, and others among the Fathers, were aware of this tendency and frequently warned their flock, hermits as they might be or cenobites, against such competitive spirit, which could only lead, they said, to vainglory or pride in those who succeeded: and worse still, to envy and jealousy in those who failed, because they had not the stamina to keep up the pace. And these often lost their vocation in consequence.
At what point do we leave safe ground?
And the same danger exists in our own time. If by imitating a saint we mean drawing edification from his example, or even seeking to resemble him in certain points of conduct, we are on safe ground, provided the imitation be in keeping with our state of life and other obligations. But if what we aim at is the copying in ourselves of the life of any particular saint, we are off the right track. Indeed many canonised saints are more to be wondered at than imitated, says a holy writer. They acted on the impulse of the grace given them. We have not been given that grace, and until we actually receive it, we should be very imprudent if we sought to do what they did with that grace. We may wonder at St Benedict Labre and his vermin, but we should be acting very wrongly in trying to be like him. All men are certainly not obliged to follow the Poverello in his practice of poverty, but all would benefit by endeavouring to resemble him in his love of poverty and detaching themselves from this world. So we may not emulate St Patrick in his (probably) legendary daily recital of the Psalter and other long devotions, but the recital of our own prayers could not but gain if we put into them some of the intensity of his prayer.
It is no doubt helpful to have some great model proposed to us as an example for our own life, but the masters of the spiritual life warn us very earnestly against making a slavish copy of the original. And the reason is that what was for a particular personality in special circumstances the right course to adopt, or the right thing to do, cannot without further investigation be right for other men in other conditions.
A principle which was not always well understood
This is a principle which in former times was not always well understood. But with the progress of ascetical science – for ascetics is a science, in which study and research can bring to light much that was unknown or dimly realised in the past – it has come to be generally acknowledged that every saint has his own personality, his particular cachet or stamp, wherein he cannot be imitated by others.The Almighty never intended that the life of any saint should be a sort of prototype, a photographic negative, from which any number of copies could be struck off, all alike, and more to follow if wanted.
“All these things one and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to every one according as he will” (1Cor. 12:2)
A final consideration on the subject may be drawn from the teaching of St Paul. “To every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the giving of Christ” (Eph. 15:7). And after describing to the Corinthians the different gifts which God imparts to men, he concludes: “All these things one and the same Spirit worketh, dividing to every one according as he will” (1Cor. 12:2). Holiness indeed is always the same, inasmuch as it implies man’s entire conformity with the will of God.
That Divine Will, however, as it affects us, has a regard to our personality and idiosyncracy and mental constitution. Grace and nature go together: the one supposes the other. Grace does not destroy what we have received in the natural order but it raises and ennobles it in each one according to his own disposition, given to him at the outset; and in each one too according to the station and occupation in life to which he has been called.
We never can be like any saint: we may attain a distant resemblance in one or two respects. But our imitation will never result in producing a portrait. And God never intended that it should. We might take as a principle of conduct that is true in the supernatural order as well as in the natural, the well-known lines in Hamlet:
This above all: – to thine own self be true; and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
Let us take ourselves – and we are all different – as God has made us, and by imitating the saints in those things that fit in with our characters, disposition, and circumstances of life, we may hope and pray that, God aiding, we shall arrive at that degree of holiness to which He has called us.
Attaining the degree of holiness to which God has called us
Saints are found in every class and condition of life, among queens and kings, among the lowly-born, among the servants and slaves (when slavery existed) and among the many who occupied no conspicuous position in the eyes of the world but were just ordinary folk. There is no Catholic who cannot by fervent exercise of his religion reach a high degree of sanctity, and it is by striving to be as much of a saint as with God’s grace he can be that he will find his greatest consolation on earth.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949