A common misunderstanding that many people have is that a saint is someone who never does anything wrong. That is unrealistic. If you read any reasonably accurate life of any of the saints, you will notice two things that all of them have in common. First of all, they were ordinary people who struggled with their humanity like any of us, but they also had a great love for God and they were open to God. Secondly, they all suffered quite a lot during their life and this struggle, which all of us are faced with, is part of what brought them close to God. The suffering they went through, and which all of us have to go through, was part of what formed them and drew them close to God.
Perhaps one of the differences is that in spite of the difficulties they were faced with, they kept coming back to God. They kept getting up again when they were knocked down. They didn’t give up. As you well know it is often very tempting when you are down to say, ‘Where’s the point in trying again? I’m not getting any better.’ It is not always easy to get up again, to admit you are wrong, or to have to try again. But that is what we are called to. That is what makes a person blossom. There is a proverb that says, ‘It doesn’t matter if you fall six times, so long as you get up seven times.’
St. Therese of Lisieux
One saint who always inspires me is St. Therese of Lisieux, who died at the age of 24. She didn’t come across as anything special during her life, even in religious life. In fact, when she was dying, she overheard two sisters talking about her and one was saying to the other, “I wonder what will mother abbess say about her when she dies? She never really did anything.” It was only after her death, when her writings were discovered that people began to see the holiness of her life. But it didn’t consist in great things, only in very small things. She admitted herself that she wasn’t very good at doing any kinds of extraordinary penances or fasts, but she came to realize that the greatest thing she could do was to be love in the heart of the Church. That meant doing the smallest, most ordinary things each day, with love. It is encouraging, because it reminds us that it isn’t about doing extraordinary things, but just doing the ordinary everyday things with love.
The other side of the lives of the saints is the struggles that they went through, not just physically, but spiritually too. You could get the impression that the saints were constantly so aware of the presence of God and at peace, but that is not so.
St. Teresa of Calcutta
After her death many people were astonished to read in her letters how St. Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa) spent much of her life in total spiritual darkness. Listen to this short passage from her writings.
‘Now Father—since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss—this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart.—Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason.—The place of God in my soul is blank.—There is no God in me.—When the pain of longing is so great—I just long and long for God—and then it is that I feel—He does not want me—He is not there.—God does not want me.—Sometimes—I just hear my own heart cry out—“My God” and nothing else comes.—The torture and pain I can’t explain.’
People were really astonished when they began to realize that this is what she was feeling inside, for years! Yet, on the outside she radiated God’s love everywhere she went.
St. Therese of Lisieux also went through terrible interior darkness during the last year of her life when she was already dying physically and suffering a great deal. She says that she understood what it meant to be an atheist as her faith seemed to completely disappear. She said she was also tempted to suicide, because of the pain and she asked the sisters not to leave medication around her. Again, it’s not what you expect to hear.
I find the accounts of both of their lives and many others, comforting, because they show us that they journey that brings us closer to God is not an easy one and that is normal. So when you find yourself struggling to believe and wondering where God is, think of these saints and so many others. It is part of the journey, but it is the greatest journey we will ever undertake.
"I believe that if God finds a person more useless than me, He will do even greater things through her, because it is his work." - St. Teresa of Calcutta