top of page

Imitating the Saints: Madly in Love with God [I1]

Updated: Feb 3


Original painting by Guido Reni (1640), "The Four Evangelists"

The ninth topic of the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP, “I”, is about Imitating the Saints. When scrolling through my social media feed, I came across a meme that attempted to explain, in one sentence, what each of the 4 Gospels were about. For the Gospel of Mark, the meme was very direct “let’s get down to business”, alluding to the fact that the Gospel skips the prologue of John, does not “bother” with the Genealogy of Jesus either from his mother or foster father’s side, but simply starts with his “business”, i.e. the announcing the Good News of the Kingdom.


The idea of “getting down to business” should appeal to Singaporeans eager for the “bottom line”. What then is the bottom line? French philosopher Leon Bloy puts it well when he declares that “there is only one tragedy in life, not to be a saint.” If being a saint is the “business” of Christianity, drawing inspiration and imitating other humans who are already saints, would be a very fruitful way of living one’s life.


But what exactly is a saint? Why would not being one lead to tragedy? And can the stories of the saints still serve as inspiration and models for us to imitate today? Tune into this podcast as we explore this and more.


Listen to the podcast here:



Opening Prayer – From the Letter to the Hebrews 12:1-3


“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”


Opening Song


Introduction – What Does the Word "Saint” Refer to?


The English word “saint” is a translation from the Latin “sanctus” which in turn is a translation of the Greek word “hagios” or Holy. A holy object/person in the Catholic understanding, is something or someone “set apart”. This setting apart is for a purpose. The object/person is dedicated to God alone. Yet there is a crucial difference. A holy object e.g. a chalice, is set apart for liturgical use, to contain the blood of Jesus Christ. Using it for “ordinary” purposes i.e. for a meal would be abuse not because having a meal is in itself sinful, but because the chalice has been specifically dedicated to only one purpose.


A holy person on the other hand is also “set apart” and dedicated to God. This “setting apart” however, is different from the setting apart of an object. Apart from sin, nothing truly human is incompatible with being set apart for God. You do not need to perform a liturgical function to be a saint. This is why St. Paul can address the Christians he was writing to in his letters as “saints”, regardless of their specific occupations, gender, age, or social status, because every Christian is set apart for God’s purposes.


There is, however, a second way in which we can understand the word “saint”. This second way refers to a Christian who during the course of his/her natural life, because he or she attempted to put the love of God and neighbour into practice, becomes a morally excellent person, someone worthy of imitation. All those who do this are saints, and honoured on the 1st November i.e. All Saints’ Day.


Among this group, however, are also official “saints” of the Catholic Church with their own individual feast days. They are identified as having lived lives of heroic virtue. Their help is sought by the Church on earth and they continue to be examples worthy of imitation.


The Church uses a special term to describe this relationship between “saints” and “saints in the making”, namely the Communion of Saints.


Adoration of the Trinity by Vicente López Portaña (1772–1850)

The Catechism describes this relationship as follows:

“When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him. But at the present time, some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is’.” (CCC 954)


The Saint, an Imitator of Christ


It is one thing to know who a saint is. But what does a saint do? Fr. Thomas Dubay notes in his book Saints a Closer Look that that the number one characteristic of a saint is that he or she is “madly in love with God [1].” All saints take seriously the commandment from Jesus to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30).


In a nutshell, the saint is, to use the title of a medieval classic, engaged in the Imitation of Christ. They ask themselves WWJD? I.e., what would Jesus do? And they do it in their own concrete circumstances.


While there are many different ways to be a saint, the choice not to be one is always a tragedy. It is a tragedy because opting not to strive to be a saint is the equivalent of choosing to grope in darkness when light is available. As the Imitation explains”


“He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, says Our Lord… In these words, Christ counsels us to follow His life and way if we desire true enlightenment and freedom from all blindness of heart… Let the life of Jesus Christ, then, be our first consideration… Whoever desires to understand and take delight in the words of Christ must strive to conform his whole life to Him [2].”


The Imitation, in a nod to the “let’s get down to business” nature of this topic, goes on to warn different groups of people not to miss the point. To those bent on a hedonistic lifestyle and chasing power as an end in itself, the Imitation declares:


“It is vanity to solicit honours, or to raise oneself to high station. It is vanity to be a slave to bodily desires (Gal 5:16), and to crave for things which bring certain retribution. It is vanity to wish for long life, if you care little for a good life. It is vanity to give thought only to this present life, and to care nothing for the life to come. It is vanity to love things that so swiftly pass away, and not to hasten onwards to that place where everlasting joy abides [3].”


To the intellectuals, i.e. those who like to talk and think, the Imitation also warns:


“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God [4]?”


The Imitation concludes that the path of the saint is different. The saint keeps constantly in mind the saying “eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing”. Hence they “[s]trive to withdraw [their] heart[s] from the love of visible things, and direct [their] affections to things invisible [5].”


"Narrow road of virtue and wide road of sin (Matthew 7:13-14)" by Jan Micker (ca. 1599-1664). Those who enter through the narrow gate are depicted here as imitating Christ in carrying their crosses.

Be Imitators of me, as I am of Christ – 1 Cor 11:1

While the saints direct their attention to things invisible, it is fortunate that their lives on earth are visible. And it is their concrete lives that are worthy of imitation.


How does this life of “heroic” virtue look like? What follows is my own personal take at some stories of the Saints and how they illustrate either a “human” or “cardinal” virtue. They are of course far from the only or necessarily the best examples. They are chosen only because they have resonated with me and might also do the same for you.


Prudence


The cardinal virtue of Prudence, as the name suggests, is the habit of being able to discern what is “our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC 1806).


The example of St. Josemaria Escriva (1902-1975) can help us here. The founder of Opus Dei, his emphasis on the value of ordinary work as a path to God has struck many as full of practicality, accessibility and common sense. Not only that, in his spontaneous responses to questions from his audiences, his wit, sense of humour and Christian outlook shines through.

In one of St. Escriva’s large gatherings, someone from the upper floor shouted a question at him, “Padre, up here! What is the most important virtue of a teacher?”


Without skipping a beat, the saint responded, “I will answer you who are so high up. It’s humility”, evoking peals of laughter among the audience. He goes on to say that “you should have humility and the clear conviction that you who have prepared the class know more than anyone else, and that both of these attitudes i.e. humility and confidence are compatible with each other.” He later goes on to remind the questioner of the importance of praying in a serious fashion, and ended off with another joke that the questioner looks like “he knows so much already [6].”


In an age of social media and decreasing attention spans, St. Josemaria’s short aphorisms, packed with common sense and wisdom, is a powerful example of what it means to practice the virtue of prudence, to choose the right words, right actions, for the right circumstance and to make an impact in a direct and decisive fashion.


Justice


Justice is the moral virtue that consists in “the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbour” (CCC 1807). In the age of the echo chamber, it is very tempting to caricature those whom you disagree with.


Not so for St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).


Aquinas is considered as one of the most brilliant churchmen and philosophers that the West ever produced. Yet his brilliance was rooted in a passionate desire for truth, including to give those whom he disagreed with their due. In his masterpiece the Summa Theologica, Aquinas was always very careful to produce the strongest arguments against his position, before attempting to explain in his own words, why they are mistaken. For Aquinas, this is a duty rooted in justice. As he so charitably explains, “We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”

Fortitude


Fortitude is the moral virtue that “ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good” (CCC 1808). The life of St. Theresa of Calcutta (1910-1997) illustrates this virtue in a palpable manner. Known as the saint of the slums, her work among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta was already difficult enough. Worst, she had to deal with opposition to her work, from people who not only refuse to help out, but who accuse her of nefarious motives, particularly the charge of forced conversion to Christianity.

The Mocking of Christ by Fra Angelico (ca. 1440). Christ's tormentors are drawn without their full figures; only their body parts inflicting the torment are depicted. On the foreground are our Lady and St. Dominic. The fortitude of Mother Teresa when being spat on reflects that of Christ here.

One incident stood out (at least for me).


Mother Teresa went to the baker to beg for bread for the orphans she was caring for. When she asked the baker for bread, she extended her hand. The baker spat in her palm. Withdrawing her hand, Mother Teresa told him, “I will keep this for me, but give me some bread for my children”. The baker, now greatly embarrassed and also touched by the saint’s remarkable tenacity and grace, subsequently became one of Mother Teresa’s frequent donors.


Temperance


The last of the cardinal virtues is that of Temperance. The Catechism defines this as “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC 1809).


You might be surprised but the story of an obscure saint, St. Mark Ji Tian Xiang (1834-1900), an opium addict, resonates with me.


St. Mark was a Chinese doctor and devout Catholic. One day, to treat a severe stomach ailment, he felt that he could prescribe himself opium. Unfortunately, he would develop a lifelong dependency on opium and could be described as an addict. He would confess his addiction, make a firm amendment to change, but find himself relapsing again. Eventually his parish priest wondered if he was “truly sincere” in changing and barred St. Mark from the sacraments until he can demonstrate that he has been “cured” of his addiction. One can only imagine the devastation to St. Mark’s morale. Yet he never lost faith, and continued coming for Mass, praying and witnessing. His moment of truth came during the Boxer rebellion in 1900 where he was caught up in an anti-Christian persecution by the Boxers. Facing his persecutors with serenity, he requested that he be the last to be martyred, so that he could continue ministering to those around him and to give them hope. He was finally beheaded while confidently chanting a litany to the Blessed Virgin.


At a superficial level, the life of St. Mark did not seem to illustrate “temperance”, considering his frequent opium relapses. But at a deeper level, his life illustrates the messiness of grace. He was perfectly “temperate” when it came to the most precious earthly good of all, namely his life. He was “moderate” in clinging on to it and willingly gave it up as a witness to Jesus Christ, even if he himself may have borne deep disappointment towards how the ministers of the Church might have treated him.


The examples of the Saints chosen began with something very ordinary i.e. St. Josemaria, a witty man giving pithy responses, and ended in the dramatic story of St. Mark Ji Tian Xiang’s addiction and martyrdom. In the saint, the ordinary and dramatic are simply the same canvas in which to strive to imitate Christ.


Conclusion


A popular commercial by the South Korean Tourism office encourages Singaporeans to visit Seoul by having interesting taglines “beautiful soul, Seoul”, “healing soul, Seoul”, “my soul, Seoul.” For good measure, the commercial featured South Korea’s greatest cultural export - the members of BTS. The commercial suggests of course that you can count on South Korea to be a beautiful and healing place because it can produce a group like BTS. With BTS as “testimony”, your eventual decision to visit Seoul is guaranteed to do “your soul” a lot of good.


When he was then a Cardinal, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI argued that at the end of the day, the “only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”


Benedict XVI recognised that a “holy soul” is the greatest argument for the truth of Christianity. Very often, the use of reason can be used to cleverly “excuse” the actions of Christians when they fall short or when they are at their worst. The holy soul on the other hand demonstrates Christianity at its best.


To imitate someone, we need to experience an attraction. The saint attracts because they are a promise of what life can be when totally permeated by God’s love.


And imitating these beautiful souls, we experience healing, and will do our soul a lot of good.


Closing Prayer


Mary our Mother, Queen of all saints, help us to know, love and imitate the saints in their matchless devotion towards our King and Master Jesus Christ. May we grow in our relationship with them not only as companions, but also as fellow disciples of your Son Jesus Christ. Help us to experience their assistance and inspiration, and may we be granted the grace to finally meet our heavenly patrons face to face in Heaven, where we will enjoy perfect Communion with all the blessed. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

* Is there anything in this session that struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.


** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we dive into the letter “J” for Journeying with Others.


Recommended Closing Songs




Recommended Resources


Thomas Dubay, Saints a Closer Look (Cincinatti: Servant Books) 2007


Reflection and Sharing Questions


This month’s podcast is just so rich with so many things to reflect about.


Generally speaking, would you agree that the “business” of Christianity is to be a saint? If “Yes”, Why? And if “No”, Why?


Do you think that the greatest tragedy in life for Christians is not to be saint-like? If “Yes”, Why? And if “No”, Why?


Let’s “concretise” ways in which different groups of people can work at imitating the saints.

Post-Confirmands

Young Adults/Working Adults

Married Couples

Parents

Single / Separated / Divorced / Widowed

The above questions can also be downloaded in PDF form here:

I1 Imitating the Saints Sharing Questions
.pdf
Download PDF • 100KB

Download the slides here:

Imitating the Saints [I1]
.pdf
Download PDF • 373KB


© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha.


Footnotes


1. Thomas Dubay, Saints a Closer Look, pg 9.


2. Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 1 Chapter 1.


3. Ibid.


4. Ibid.


5. Ibid.


6. St. Josemaria Escriva, The Main Virtue for Teachers


248 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page