James Martin: The saints seemed so far away. Then I started to climb.
In the 10 years since My Life With the Saints was first published, I hope that I have gained a bit more wisdom on the Christian life. This has come as the result of some hard knocks, some retreats, some conversations with insightful friends, some experiences in prayer and some counsel from spiritual directors, mentors and even psychologists. For me, this wisdom comes mainly in the form of insights. I see an aspect of the Christian life more clearly than I had before. Then I try my best to put those insights into practice. I am by no means a saint—you can ask my friends if you doubt that!—but I am trying.
One of those insights came around the time of my final vows as a Jesuit, in 2009. A few weeks before the big day, I was given a wonderful gift. And since it was not cash, I did not have to hand it in to my Jesuit superior. It was more of a spiritual gift.
There is a church in New York City run by the Jesuits called St. Francis Xavier. (The other Jesuit church in the city is called—no surprise—St. Ignatius Loyola.) Until a few years ago, the interior of the church was depressingly dark. With its decades of grimy soot from passing cars, smoke from thousands of candles and countless grains of incense and a very high ceiling that was probably never well-lit, it was a gloomy place. But around the time of my final vows, the church began an extensive restoration. Ever since I heard about the project, I was longing to peek inside.
For one thing, I hoped that the saints would be easier to see. St. Francis Xavier Church has dozens of wonderful statues of the saints. But unlike other churches, where the saints are more or less at eye level, at Xavier the saints are perched high above the congregation on ledges overlooking the pews. In the gloom, you could hardly make out who was who. In the back of the church, in the apse, so high that you can barely see them at all, are five statues of saints, larger than the rest. I never knew who they were; the saints seemed so far away.
Making the Climb
During the restoration project, I had dinner with a friend who lived in the Jesuit community at Xavier. “If you come early,” he said, “maybe we could get into the church.” Providentially, we ran into the pastor, who pointed us to a side door that opened into the interior of the church, which was completely empty and utterly quiet.
It was breathtaking. The newly cleaned church glowed with glorious colors: whites and creams and yellows and golds. Overall, the interior is a kind of butterscotch color. And the first thing I saw, perched above the aisles on both sides, were the gleaming white statues of the saints. The church had made it easier to see them.
“But oh,” my friend said, “let’s climb up the scaffolding. I really want to show you something.”
The back half of the church was filled with a matrix of metal scaffolding from floor to ceiling. We ducked under the intricate framework and stepped onto a flimsy staircase, which was the reason they coined the word rickety. When we took that first step, the whole staircase shook loudly.
“Uh, I don’t think so,” I said to my friend.
“No, really,” he said. “You have to see this.”
We started to climb. Soon we were halfway up the full height of the church, and I did not dare look down or up. I confess to experiencing some real fear.
“Um, I think this is fine here,” I said, grabbing tightly onto the railings.
“No,” he said. “It’s worth it.”
Just then the pastor came into the church and said, “Hey, you’re going up! Let me help.” He turned on a switch, flooding the space with light. We kept climbing, and soon I saw the underside of a makeshift wooden floor, just above us. We got closer, and I poked my head through a small opening in the floor.
When we emerged into the small space, I was amazed. We were in the very rear of the church, way up in the apse, in front of those five saints who had always seemed, at that great height, not only small but also far removed. We were impossibly high, only a few feet away from the ceiling of the church, glowing in yellows and golds. Now I could see clearly the life-size statues of these saints, who stood silently before us: St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and St. Joseph. Toward the center was Mary. And in the very center was Jesus.
It is hard to say why it was so moving, so consoling, as St. Ignatius would say. Maybe because of the sheer beauty of the statues and the church itself. Maybe because I was so close to the statues of five people I love so much. Maybe because I remembered a line from the Jesuit vow formula that I would pronounce in a few days, about standing before the “entire heavenly court.” Maybe all those things. Then I had an insight.
It dawned on me, as I stood on that temporary platform, that the Christian journey is something like this climb. Sometimes the saints can seem like their statues in many churches: obscure, hard to identify, far off. But when you get to know them, by learning more about their real lives, your vision changes; you see them clearly, and you see how close their lives can be to yours, if you are willing to begin that climb.
Seeing the Saints
Interestingly, that same year, something similar happened in the other Jesuit church in New York—the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, where I regularly celebrate Mass. It, too, was undergoing a restoration, and that restoration also revealed something about the saints.
In the rear of the church is a lovely altar dedicated to three young Jesuit saints, each of whom is depicted in a beautiful statue. When the marble was cleaned and the brass polished, the altar gleamed, and it was easier to see St. Aloysius Gonzaga, S.J., St. Stanislaus Kostka, S.J., and St. John Berchmans, S.J. Each of them had died young after leading a heroic life. Aloysius was the scion of a wealthy family who renounced his fortune to become a Jesuit, then died at age 23, after becoming infected during his work with plague victims. Stanislaus, who was beaten by his brother because of his desire to live a more charitable life, walked 450 miles to enter the novitiate; he died there at age 18. John, a model Jesuit who, like St. Thérèse of Lisieux, did small things with great love, died at age 21.
After the church was cleaned, a parishioner said to me, “I didn’t know those saints were even there!” And I thought, That’s true for many of us. We can overlook these incredible saints and forget about their astonishing stories, which is a sad thing. Because underneath the years of grimy forgetfulness lies a great beauty.
The climb up that staircase in the Church of St. Francis Xavier was like the Christian journey in another way, too. As I climbed, I realized something about Christianity, something you may have figured out long ago: It is hard. That might sound obvious, but it took me a long time to realize that. When I entered the Jesuits, I figured that if I understood the Gospel, prayed hard and got my act together—spiritually, psychologically, emotionally—I could live the Christian life with ease. Once I figured it all out, I thought, it would become easy, something I would not even have to think about, like riding a bike. But that is not true at all. It is an effort. It takes work. It is hard.
Forgiving people is hard. Loving is hard. And, like climbing those steps, it can be frightening, too. Working with the poor can be frightening. Caring for someone who is ill can be frightening. You start to doubt that you will make it. You think, I’ll never be able to do this. I’ll never be able to climb this far. But you can. You can with the help of friends who urge you on, saying, “Come on, just a little farther.” You can climb that ladder within the church. You can walk toward Jesus.
You can climb that ladder with the help of the saints, who encourage you from their posts in heaven, as our patrons and our companions. It is wonderful when churches renew the statues of the saints, because the saints do the same thing for the church.
One of the old Preface prayers in the Mass included a magnificent line in praise of God, which says, “You renew the church in every age, by raising up men and women outstanding in holiness.” The saints clean the church with their holiness, coming precisely when we need them most. St. Francis of Assisi came preaching simplicity when people needed relief from corruption and scandal. St. Ignatius Loyola came when people needed a new way to find God in all things. St. Teresa of Calcutta came when we needed to be reminded of the call to care for the poor and forgotten. It was not easy for them. The saints knew, more than anyone, that the path to God, like that rickety staircase, is frightening and can tempt us to doubt. But they knew something else too: it is worth it.
Sometimes in our daily life, or in our prayer, we take that path and we feel close to God. When I was standing in front of those statues, I said to my friend: “You know, we’ll never be here again. We’ll never get this high again. The scaffolding will come down and we’ll only look up at them.”
My friend said, “Don't forget to touch one before you leave.”
So I reached out and touched the foot of St. Ignatius. And then the hem of Jesus’ marble robe. And I thought, Well, I’ll remember that the next time I’m in here and look up at them.
How like our lives! We have a deep experience of God, we feel lifted up, or close to the divine, and may not have another experience like that for years. We must look from below, remembering. Think of Mother Teresa, who had a profound spiritual experience early in life that led her to care for the poor, then faced silence from God for the remainder of her days. I was thinking about all these things at the top of the ladder.
What is that ladder? How do we get closer to Jesus, Mary, and the saints? How do we travel to God? The ladder is the Gospel. And each rung, you might say, is one of the Beatitudes in the Gospels of Matthew (5:3–12) and Luke (6:20–22). “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” begins Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Then he lists the path to holiness by laying out all the characteristics of the disciple.
That is the climb the saints made. Each beatitude is a step on the staircase. Poverty of spirit. Mercy. Meekness. Righteousness. Purity of heart. Peacemaking. And the willingness to suffer persecution.
Each of those steps may seem hard, even dangerous, to step on, and it may seem that we cannot do it, but that is the path we are invited to climb. And it is Jesus himself who urges us on, saying, “Come on. It’s worth it. I know it looks hard. I know you think you can’t do it. I know you think you can’t strive for holiness, but you can. Wait until you see what I have in store for you.”
At the end of the climb is something that may seem hard to see, something that God calls us to: sanctity. Blessedness. For blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the peacemakers.
Sanctity is God’s goal for us. But there is something else waiting for us, something that the saints show us with their lives. It is something you don’t hear much hear about in religious circles: happiness.
For there is another meaning to the word normally translated as “blessed” in the Beatitudes. Makarioi is the Greek word, and it has another meaning: happy. So happy are the peacemakers. Happy are the merciful. Happiness awaits those on the road to sanctity.
So why not step onto the Christian ladder with your eyes fixed on the heavenly court, confident in the prayers of our patrons and companions—the saints—and knowing that you can make it, no matter how difficult or how frightening it may seem? Know that at the end of the climb, both now and in the time to come, you will be near the saints; you will touch Jesus, and you will be blessed. And happy.