For several years, I’ve read about the lives of hundreds of saints. No one knows why Valentine ever became the saint for lovers, but it’s possible to see trends in how saints have been made.
Saints’ lives share many similarities. It’s possible to pinpoint at least 10 frequently repeated characteristics of the lives of those who have been recognized as saints over the centuries. You might, in turn, consider these to be 10 steps for anyone striving to live as a saint today. Each is presented here in the contemporary language of spiritual practice, highlighting how it might be possible to use them in daily life. They are in no particular order.
1. Saints use primitive means of helping themselves toward conversion (a lifelong process, beyond salvation). Chief among these primitive methods are journeys—usually by foot or some other slow process—that serve as penance or simply as a time for solitude.
2. Saints have private relationships with God. Their closet expressions—quiet, uncomplicated and alone with God—become the foundation for the saintly things they do later.
3. Saints have developed heightened sensitivities to and perceptions of the thoughts, desires and needs of those around them. Often regarded as miraculous, this ability is known in theological language as discernment.
4. Saints help others toward conversion with an easy understanding of sin, as well as release from sin.
5. Saints are lovers of life, not just heaven. Even the martyrs, who willingly give up their lives, know how great a sacrifice that is. Just as a saint loves God, creator of all things, a saint also loves the creation and works to change or remove those human institutions that stand in the way of others’ love of life.
6. Saints are very self-aware. They question themselves—their motives, actions, feelings—with great honesty.
7. Saints see the holy throughout the phenomena of the natural world. They see connections between people and animals, and between people and people, that seem obvious to them and few others. They are good mediators, reconcilers, healers. These skills are so uncommon in the world that they seem miraculous when we experience them.
8. Saints serve God and humanity from the underside. Many a saint has had aristocratic beginnings, to be sure, but it’s difficult to remember one who didn’t actually become a saint by leaving that behind.
9. Saints are able to pay attention, sit still for a long time, and do the same thing over and over again. They don’t seek much entertainment but, rather, become skilled at things.
10. Saints listen more than they talk or ask questions.
And here are two bonus guidelines:
11. Saints are often misunderstood. They often have trouble at home and at school and are misunderstood by parents, siblings and contemporaries. This trend imitates the remarkably dismissive comments made at times by Jesus to his mother but also mirrors the divine purpose attached to many of the disputes known in every home with teenagers. Imagine Catherine of Siena’s mother, for instance—a mother to 25—when Catherine, the youngest, sheared her long, blond hair so as to spend less time accepting suitors and more time in prayer and seclusion.
12. Saints practice resurrection: They are continually working to put aside any things or relationships or pursuits that aren’t eternal and to help others along the path to do the same.
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