Saints, Idols, and Good Works

“The saint does not have to bring about great temporal achievements; he [sic] is one who succeeds in giving us at least a glimpse of eternity despite the thick opacity of time.” Dorothy Day quoting Father Henri De Lubac, S.J.

I have come back to this quote over and over again this past week. I have found it both challenging and inspiring. It has challenged me, because I tend to idolize the life of “good works.”  Father Henri De Lubac is not in any way suggesting that we should not do good works. But he is calling into question our tendency to judge and value others, especially people of faith, by the success or failure of their projects.

saint-francisSaints, like the rest of us, must live their lives here in historical time, with its many challenges and demands. And it makes sense that many of them would be doing the work of resisting oppression and assisting the afflicted. But this work is only a reflection of an inner quality. The work itself, while beneficial and necessary, is not the goal.  Rather the “goal” is the life lived in deep faith.

The works in this world, successful or not, are just the temporal and transitory expression of the depth of one’s faith. They are signs pointing us towards the reality of immeasurable wisdom and compassion. The moment that we lose sight of this fact, the “signs” become idols. We get caught up in what Trungpa called “spiritual materialism.” We mistake the finger, that is pointing to the moon, for the moon itself. As Paul Tillich points out in his Systematic Theology, holiness is only holiness in so far as it negates itself in pointing to the divine of which it is the medium. The saint is a saint because his or her life points beyond themselves and towards the Truth.

Garchen Rinpoche

Being a saint is not about being perfect. Saints are human. They make mistakes. They are subject to all the many sufferings that befall humans. Most saints are hidden, unseen until we begin looking for them.

Saints take on the impossible. They see some good that should be done, and do it. They live an uncompromising religious life, even if such a life seems totally unrealistic. We, as ordinary beings, might ask how one person can make a difference?  For the Saint, however, the question might be, how can one person’s faith not make a difference? And herein lies much inspiration.

Peace, Paul

Images: St. Francis of Assisi, Garchen Rinpoche

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