The Secret of Sanctity

 

Many years ago a French writer, I think it was Leon Bloy, wrote that "There is only one real tragedy in life, and that is not to have become a saint."

Apparently I was not the only one to be struck by that observation, as someone wrote to me from sunny California, asking me what my definition of holiness was, or what it took to become a saint. After a bit of thought on the subject, I came up with my answer. It was that to become a saint, one must see God in all things, and act accordingly.

As the years have passed, I have become more and more convinced of this. But as tough or demanding as the "acting accordingly" part may be, I see the really fundamental problem as being first of all in the challenge of how to go about seeing God in all things.

It may be that at certain times, for example, immediately after escaping from a serious danger or threat to one's life, that you are suddenly seized with the realization that someone or something is watching out for you. This may be reassuring, but I wouldn't recommend courting "near death experiences" as a way of looking for the presence of God. Your good fortune may be just dumb luck.

On the other hand, there is the kind of "peak-experiences" that the psychiatrist Abraham Maslow famously wrote about, claiming that just about everyone has them from time to time. This may be a very gratifying thing, but wise spiritual directors have warned us that attempts to seek such esoteric or mystical experiences can be dangerous and rife with self-delusion. Or even if not so misleading, it is nevertheless inherently self-centered. It can easily become, as one old saying on the subject puts it, "Seeking the consolations of God rather than the God of consolations." In other words, a form of idolatry.

This leads me to believe that the safest route is more or less philosophical. It is to cultivate, as much as possible, a deeper awareness of the wonder of existence, what the philosopher Jacques Maritain called "the intuition of being" or the wonder of existence in itself. It is to try realize, as much as possible, at all times, that nothing exists except to the extend that it is grounded in God, whom philosophers have understood as the source of all that exists, or as St. Augustine put it, as "Being in itself."

For some, as for Augustine, this intuition is, as it were, a presence discovered primarily within ones own self, as he put it in his Confessions, "You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you." But for others, it is more like we are in God, so much so that when St. Luke describes the Apostle Paul proclaiming "the Unknown God" in Athens, he quotes an ancient pagan poet, the stoic Epimenides, who wrote that "In Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

In fact, I am so convinced that so important is this sense of existing within God, that I am often drawn to quoting another "pagan" philosopher, this time not a Stoic, but the last of the great Platonists, Plotinus (205-270AD), who undoubtedly had a great influence on Augustine. As Plotinus put it: "God is not in the everywhere, but is the everywhere the giver of existence to everything" (Enneads VI, 8, 16. Translation mine). In other words, whether God is thought of as being in everything, or everything being within God, it all comes down to the same. Without the sense of God's presence in everything and in everyone, we are unlikely to advance very far in the spiritual life or, even less, have an adequate idea of God.

R W Kropf (August 23, 2007) 07-08-23.html