On a Sweeping Challenge
(Rev.7:2-4,9-14; 1Jn.3:1-3; Mt.5:1-12)
Today, on All Saints Day, let’s begin with two questions. Do you want to go to heaven? And do you want to become a saint?
Most people, I’ve found, will happily say they’d like to go to heaven, but few will actually admit they want to become a saint. Yet, you can’t go to heaven if you’re not a saint.
So, what is a saint? There are two kinds: there are canonised saints, who’ve been officially proclaimed as such by the Church (there are about 10,000 of them). And there are uncanonised saints, who make up the huge majority. They might not be known to anyone but God, but they’re still saints. [i]
The word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’ (meaning ‘holy’), which itself comes from the verb ‘sacrare’ (‘to set apart’). Saints, therefore, are holy people who are set apart. But how are they set apart?
St Paul says that Christians are saints who’ve been set apart by their baptism. Baptism makes us children of God, and it also gives us the graces we need to live a holy life. But we should take none of this for granted, because no-one is born a saint. As St Peter reminds us, we must work to achieve this holiness in our daily lives (1Pet.1:14-15).
Indeed, it was St Teresa of Calcutta who said that holiness isn’t the privilege of the few, but the simple duty of each of us.
Now, some people think that the only way to live a holy life is by living as a hermit in the wilderness. But in his meditation, A Short Road to Perfection, St John Henry Newman says that to gain spiritual perfection, all we have to do is perform the ordinary duties of the day well. [ii]
In other words, sainthood isn’t about doing extraordinary things, but doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way. Even washing the dishes!
To help us achieve this, Jesus gives us his Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel today. These Beatitudes tell us that the way to live a holy life, and to receive the joys flowing from it, is by living humbly; by recognising our brokenness; by living meekly and gently; by hungering for the truth; by being kind and forgiving; by having a pure heart; by being a peacemaker, and by having the courage to live openly for God.
‘Be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy,’ Jesus says (Mt.5:48).
Ed Bloom, in his book Humdrum to Holy, says that this call to sainthood isn’t really the strange, foreign and externally-imposed standard we may think it is.
The human heart, he says, has an insatiable hunger for Our Lord (Ps.42:1). We may try to replace him with food, sex, power or fame, but these are false gods. They are idols. Deep down, he says, it’s really God whom we seek.
Bloom goes on to say that holiness is something that has to be learned and lived and practised. He explains the Beatitudes and he suggests several ways for us to achieve greater holiness. These include starting every day with morning prayer, praying before every meal, and meditating on the Bible.
He also offers other practical approaches to sainthood, such as cultivating gratitude, cherishing our families, forming a healthy conscience and learning from great saints such as St Faustina and St Teresa of Avila. [iii]
St Therese of Lisieux joined the convent at 15 and died of tuberculosis aged only 24. Like all the other nuns, she lived a very ordinary life, following the daily routines of the convent. However, she did all these things in an extraordinary way, by doing everything out of love for God. She called this her ‘Little Way’. As she explains in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she offered up absolutely everything she did as a beautiful flower for God. [iv]
It’s because of this that in 1998 Pope St John Paul II declared her a Doctor of the Church. Why? Because she has something significant to teach us about how we might live our own lives.
Shortly before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr said something similar. He said that the secret to living a saintly life is to always do our very best in everything we do.
‘If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper,’ he said, ‘sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’ [v]
So, here’s a sweeping challenge: today, our world desperately needs saints.
What about you?
[i] Ed Bloom, From Humdrum to Holy. Sophia Institute Press, Manchester NH, 2016:3.