Have you ever thought of the Saints as impartially blessed or favored by God, as virtually super-human, and basically incapable of sin? Have you ever felt that their claims of being vulnerable to even the most serious temptations were at least excessive, if not disingenuous? Do you hold, or have you held the view, that someone so immensely blessed by God, so utterly disposed to the good by their practice of virtue, must be incapable of falling into grave sin? I’m willing to bet that most people reading this have thought or felt along these lines; I know for sure that I have. And while this way of thinking is understandable—the Saints, after all, are often portrayed only in a heroic light—it is simply wrong. Moreover, and more importantly, this way of thinking is dangerous.

It wasn’t until very recently that I had this “epiphany.” Unsurprisingly, it came about through a conversation with a priest friend, who is a truly good and wise man. He warned me against the temptation of seeing myself as the protagonist in my relationship with God—of thinking, in effect, that my spiritual life is all about what do, and that I have “made it” in the spiritual life once I have succeeded in doing all the right things. He explained further that, even as a man matures in the spiritual life, if he averts his eyes from Jesus, the ultimate cause of his sanctity, to look at himself and his accomplishments, then sin, surely, “lies in wait at the door” (Gen 4:7) for him.

I was grateful for this warning, and I expressed to him how I was glad that he had made this point. I then recounted how I had once read writings of St. Teresa of Kolkata (Mother Teresa) wherein she claimed, if I recall correctly, that all of us (herself included) are completely free to outright reject God at any moment. I remember thinking that she couldn’t have been sincere in saying that. There was no way, I thought, that she, a woman so far advanced in the spiritual life, so habituated by His grace and her virtuous actions to the good, could sin gravely. It seemed to me at least far-fetched that a Saint (a Blessed at that time, I think) could seriously believe that about herself.

I explained all this to me priest friend and, of course, he sided with Mother Teresa. He went on to explain that believing this way was characteristic of all the Saints. “There but for the grace of God, go I,” he said, is what every Saint was convicted of—and that was why they were so compassionate. They knew, he went on, that were it not for the grace of God, they themselves would be in the same place as the most wretched of sinners. Father then told me a little gem of phrase (from “the Italians,” apparently) that I had never heard: “Saints don’t eat.”

The meaning of the phrase, he explained, is two-fold. The first and most obvious is that, if one wants to be a Saint, one must live an ascetical life. The more cryptic meaning is this: every Saint in history, is dead. So of course, the Saints never felt themselves to be Saints. They never thought that they had “made it” in the spiritual life, that they were no longer free to reject our Lord before arriving at his heavenly banquet. They were Saints precisely because they knew that they were free to do just that.

So yes, let’s portray the Saints as the heroes (and heroines) that they were. Let’s honor them for their exceptional lives of holiness. But, let’s also portray them as the fallen human beings that they were—it’s quite possible, for example, that St. Jerome was kind of a jerk…but a Saint nonetheless. To portray the Saints in this honest way is of the utmost importance. It allows us neither to despair if we can’t live up to their example, nor to gloat over our own achievements in the spiritual life.

Remember, Saints don’t eat. Until you’re dead, you free to reject our Lord and forfeit your salvation—so you must remain vigilant. Live as if that’s true. Because it is.

  • Phil Alcoceli

    True Sainthood is our highest mission in life, the very happiest way to live and a Miracle of Grace allowed by our constant, tenacious and many times repentant choice for God (no melodrama or any ungrounded high mysticism here). Real Sainthood strongly avoids all emotional, over-mystical, activist counterfeits of holiness inside and outside the Church. Our growth in it is alive and well as far as we insist in choosing and obeying God’s Will even when we feel we are failing miserably at it, falling pathetically short, and/or stuck with no progress. All the Saints felt this way at some point, sometimes for years, but kept going back to choosing God like a Pitbull on steroids (a great gift of Grace we must all ask for daily). Holiness and Truth are not tied to feelings because feelings should just submit, follow and obey God for them to be highly blessed. Faith first feelings second. Counterfeits inverse this and cause easy falls and defeat.

    To get up to what St. Paul calls inseparable holiness (Romans 8:31-39) we must grow into accepting the suffering to our sinful ego that comes with choosing God. It’s a Gift of Growth not a punishment. Also, Humility (What do you have that was not given to you? – 1 Cor. 4:7) and Magnanimity (growing willingness and strong courage to face and confront evil) must work together. One without the other is dead and today we have too much humility with little or no magnanimity (“Knowing the Love of God” by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, pg. 87-88). We’re the humble dead, easy targets, not saints. The engine of the strong, exclusive choice for God must be kept warm and running (or re-started very often) with humility and magnanimity, whether you’re shy or bold, nervous or even tempered, very social or more introverted, etc., etc. God gives Divine Beauty for our human ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3) as far as we are loyal to His 2,000 years of Catholic Teaching. That’s Real Ultimate Life with no fear (1 John 4:18)!!!

  • Phil Alcoceli

    Excellent article. I suggest you read and watch everything from Mother Angelica, as she was very good at de-romanticizing the saints down to solid reality, which is immensely much holier than fiction and hyped devotionalism. It makes me laugh how she reminded us that St. Thomas Aquinas was so fat that he had the table where he would write his famous teachings to be cut with a semicircle to accommodate his prodigious girth. The thing is, her de-romanticizing of the saints gave me a great passion for becoming one of them as Jesus commands. Having been immersed in all that in my past, I find ungrounded over-mysticism (inside and outside the Church) to be detestable and belonging more to things like the New Age Movement, Eastern religions, etc. which are cheap caricatures of sainthood and holiness. As for the great dangers of all this, you may read: “A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment”, formerly titled “The Enlightenment Trap” (a lot more appropriate but attacked by PC).

    True Sainthood is a Miracle of Grace allowed by our constant, tenacious and many times repentant CHOICE FOR GOD (no melodrama or high mysticism here). It is alive and well as far as we insist in choosing God’s Will even when we FEEL we are failing miserably, falling pathetically short, and stuck and paralyzed like a professional loser. All the Saints FELT this way at some point, sometimes years, but kept choosing God like a Pitbull on steroids (a great gift of Grace we must all ask for daily). Truth doesn’t care about feelings because feelings should just follow and obey to be highly blessed. To get up to what St. Paul calls invincible holiness (Romans 8:31-39) we must grow into accepting the suffering that comes with choosing God. It’s a Gift not a punishment. Also, Humility (What do you have that was not given to you? – 1 Cor. 4:7) and Magnanimity (growing willingness and strong courage to face and confront evil) must work together. One without the other is dead and today we have too much humility with little or no magnanimity (“Knowing the Love of God” by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, pg. 87-88). We’re the humble dead, sitting ducks, not saints. The engine of the choice for God must be kept warm and running (or re-started very often) with humility AND magnanimity, whether you’re fat, thin, wrinkled, attractive, not attractive, snore, your ears are too big, have cellulite, have too much gas, etc., etc. Beauty for ashes (Isaiah 61:1-3).