What does it mean to be a saint?
In ancient times, this could mean anyone who is a part of the Christian community. Today when we speak of saints, we are talking about those people of heroic grace and virtue on whom we can model our lives.
As someone obsessed with movies, I always thought that Batman Begins had a very Catholic understanding of the need for saints. Bruce Wayne says, “People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
The character understands that people need others to inspire them. We hold our saints up as symbols of Christ like living.
It is very human to desire role models. We all look for heroes to follow. This is why the Church has tapped into this very natural desire and has given us such a large and diverse communion of saints to follow.
But we must be careful about our heroes. And we must not fall into the trap of believing good works alone make a person holy. How often does the media hold up some Hollywood celebrity for laudatory praise because of some kind of charitable endeavor? But good works alone do not make us holy.
Back in the 4th century, a man named Pelagius taught that human beings could earn their way to salvation. If we are only good enough, we can achieve heaven. The good will outweigh the bad.
This heresy, known as Pelagianism, was refuted by St. Augustine. But the underlying idea still lingers. Particularly, we should be wary of the idea that charity is the same as holiness.
To be sure the Scriptures say things like kindness to a father will help your debt before God (Sir 3:14). And other places it says giving alms will cover sin (Dan 4:27).
But we should not be confused to think that this means we can buy our way to heaven with charitable giving or with good deeds.
Must we give to charity and do good deeds to be saved? Of course. The Letter of James makes that point clear. But the question of our salvation does not rest on the giving itself, but why we are giving.
Mother Teresa once had the opportunity to expand her charitable giving with the help of the Indian government. She refused. If the giving itself were the measure of holiness, this would make her les holy. If the matter was simply about the giving, then the more one gives, the holier one becomes. Donald Trump has given more money to charity than I ever will. It would have to follow that he is holier than I. And while I am I open to this last statement being true, it would not be true BECAUSE he has given more to charity.
Jesus makes this point in the story of the Widow’s Mite. The poor widow is held up as a model of faith and charity because she gave from her need. Others who gave more did so from their surplus. The difference, therefore, was not in the external action itself, but in the disposition of her heart.
We follow saints because of the disposition of their hearts which impels them to good works. It is what is inside that matters.
Why am I belaboring this point? Because in our society, I think we like to conflate acts of philanthropy with saintliness.
Many of us give our time, treasure, and talents to charity. This is good. But if we are engaging in immoral behavior, the charity does not absolve our souls. There is nothing wrong, for example, with admiring the good work a celebrity does by visiting sick children in the hospital. But we should not say that they are a role model if they also engage in immoral behavior, like cheating on their spouses.
And we must also hold this standard to ourselves. When I stand before God, I do not know how much weight my tax-deductible donations to Toys-For-Tots will be taken into account. I cannot think that putting alms in the collection basket by itself makes me a good person or somehow excuses my bad behavior.
“I have a bad temper? That’s okay; I donate blankets to the homeless.”
“I cheat on my spouse? That’s okay because I’ve donated time to the local soup kitchen.”
“I abuse alcohol or drugs? Who cares as long as I’m in the pews each Sunday and write the check?”
Look, I am being a bit facetious here, but the point is that we have to be careful about excusing our vices (or the vices of others) simply because of good actions.
Perhaps we like to make role models out of the rich and famous who do charity because it is easier on our consciences. I look at St. Francis or Mother Teresa and it makes me uncomfortable at how frivolous material things are important in my life. But if I see a celebrity lauded for their generosity while still living a posh lifestyle, I might feel less challenged to make the radical commitment that the saints did.
That isn’t to say you have to be poor to be a saint. We have had rich saints. The question is simply who controls your money: me or God.
Being a saint is a total surrender to God’s will. It is a sacrifice of the self. Christ said that following Him would require our lives. He meant it.
Giving to charity is a good thing. But it should be the outward expression of the interior change. Telling someone that you love them is good, but only if you really mean it. Philanthropy is good, but only if done out of love.
We aren’t perfect. So if we don’t give with hearts full of pure love, that doesn’t mean that we should cease giving. It means that we should challenge ourselves to continue to give, but with a deeper sense of love.
Because in the end, God does not want our money. As Mother Teresa once said, “God has lots of money.” He doesn’t need any more.
He wants our hearts.
And he whose heart, not just their wallet, is possessed by God is a saint.
Copyright 2015, W.L. Grayson