Last year, Fr. Mike Schmitz came out with a video. And this year, I showed it again to all of my classes. Sometimes I mind watching the same video six times in one day, but this was not one of those times. Each time I watched it, I was filled with this desire to be holy and to persevere in running the race.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Before we watched the video, I put this passage on the board and gave my students time to reflect on it. Each class period, I found something new to consider in the passage. I could go through it, line by line, and tell you what stood out to me, but that probably wouldn’t be interesting for you. Instead, I’ll highlight just a couple. Of course, the video focused on the “cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us and how the saints are there to push us forward when we want to give up. Yet I also noticed the “also lay aside every weight” as it shows that we are to, like the saints, strip ourselves of everything that does not help us reach the finish line. Finally, I was struck by how we are to run the race “set before us” and that it is not necessarily the race that we choose or would want to run.
In listening to Fr. Mike Schmitz and reflecting on that Scripture passage, I am filled again with the desire to be holy. Though my life is a good one, I do not always feel the adrenaline of being in the midst of a race. I want it to be exciting always, otherwise I tend to forget that I am in a battle/race.
Waking up in the morning? I’m using snooze after snooze, trying to hold onto every extra moment of repeatedly interrupted sleep that I can. There was one time, not that long ago, that I woke up to my alarm and I felt fairly awake, even though I wanted to keep sleeping. And this thought actually went through my mind, “Lord, You are giving me the grace to get up right now, aren’t You?” Do you know what I did? I rolled over and fell back asleep. St. Josemaria Escriva would say that I failed the first battle of the day.
That is one example; I could give you a million more. The point is that I don’t often remember that I am in a battle or running a race. I’m more prone to think of the easiest way to get through the events of the day rather than seeking a path of sanctity. At times I will offer up little sacrifices, but I tend to make them ones that I choose instead of ones that naturally come to me.
Yet in the midst of my mediocrity, I see the witness of the saints. Their zeal and passion for the Lord makes me desire a similar fire. While I know that I am not called to be exactly like them, they are an inspiration of what one can do in a life surrendered to the Lord. Some of them had experiences and gifts that are mind-boggling. St. Pio with his stigmata, bilocation, soul-reading, and such. St. Joseph of Cupertino with his levitation. St. Gemma Galgani with her experiences of suffering that mirrored the Passion of Jesus.
Other saints have stories that reveal how holiness is living an ordinary life well. A living saint, Msgr. Reilly, once said that a saint is an ordinary person doing ordinary things until death. Saints like St. Gianna or Bl. Pier Giorgio or Bl. Chiara. Their lives don’t seem that extraordinary, but it was how intentionally they lived them, pursuing holiness in the mundane. Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur spoke of enduring the pains of illness and the teasing of her atheist husband as a path to sanctity. Her words, written in a few diaries, were the impetus for her husband’s conversion when he read them after her death.
Yet all of these saints, dramatic stories or ordinary lives of holiness, make my heart burn for a deeper relationship with God. Their longing for God and their zealous pursuit of His heart makes me want to do the same. I tend to look at my life and see the monotonous details instead of a dramatic race, but the battle is being waged even there. Though simple and ordinary, God is desiring to transform my heart in the midst of daily activities. In conversation with others, in how I respond to my students, in the way I carry myself, in how I manage a pile of dishes–all of these things are the avenues through which God can work in me.
As in the spiritual life, different parts of a physical race are exciting and dull. The start is exciting, as is the ending, but the middle parts can be less than thrilling. Yet we need to race that middle section if we ever want to reach the end of the race. The saints provide beautiful witnesses of the race endured in the hills and valleys, in the starting kick and the dragging middle miles. When I learn about them and hear their stories, I am motivated to be a saint myself.
In fact, I imagined the “cloud of witnesses” in Heaven surveying the Church on Earth persevering and thinking about the difficulties we face. Perhaps some of the saints are even amazed by how we engage in the battle/race in its current state. Hopefully one day in Heaven, we will meet them face to face and they will tell about how they have been cheering us on and praying for our victory since our birth. Let not the witness of the saints leave us untouched or unchanged. May our burning hearts bring about our own deeper conversion, one that will bear fruit in our lives and in the lives of others.
There is only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.