Last weekend I watched the documentary on former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason called, “The Diary of a Saint.” It’s really excellent and hard to watch, as it chronicles his personal and familial battle with the degenerative neurological disease, ALS.
There’s so much in this film to comment on, but I will limit myself to a brief exchange between the film interviewer and Steve’s wife, Michel. And I don’t even know what exactly I want to say, just have an intuition, so here it goes. One shot, no editing returns…
Michel is reflecting on public perceptions of both she and Steve as “heroes” or even “saints.” They both cringe over being defined as “heroes” or “inspirations” and wonder how real people’s perception is of their life situation, or what kind of unrealistic pressure it puts on them to be something they are not. Michel says that one time someone even “congratulated” her on the many benefits derived from her husband’s illness. She said very honestly, “that really fucked with my mind.” What these romanticized perceptions tend to overlook, she added, is the brutality and messiness of their daily existence as a family. “Hero” and “inspiration” may make for good tweets or stirring headlines, but they’re just not always really reality. Pushing enemas in his anus, siphoning phlegm from his throat, sterilizing his feeding tube incision, cleaning feces off of his wheelchair, exhaustion, angry outbursts, despair, a screaming baby. That’s the reality they have to face every day.
Michel says, “I’m never gonna be a saint. I don’t want to be a devil. But I don’t want to be a saint, either. I just want to be a real person.”
A real person. I love that.
We had a priest over our house recently to celebrate Mass, and he referenced this documentary, and very specifically that scene. He quoted Thomas Merton as saying, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He said that sanctity is not simply about the achievement of a lofty, pristine ideal but about the meeting of God and the real in oneself, in others and in the world. That the God of Jesus is a God of the real, of the real cross and the real resurrection. And so Christianity is for real people, for prostitutes and tax collectors and fishermen as well as for zealots and Pharisees and scholars of the law. It’s for naturally magnanimous souls and for naturally pusillanimous souls; for the patient and the hot tempered; for the petty and the selfless; for those in thriving marriages and those in anemic marriages; for those who articulate the faith eloquently and those who produce more spittle than light as they attempt to explain the most basic tenants of faith; for those full of fiery love and those full of icy hate. Christ comes to all, bears toward each man and woman an infinitely passionate, redeeming love that sees beauty alive and beauty awaiting His loud call: “Lazarus, come forth!”
This is why Christianity is hope. For all.
The Incarnation of God means Christ is the God of the real, the God whose love is wholly identical and equally absolute for the lowest and highest, the weakest and the strongest, the most wretched and the most righteous. Christ calls each in their place, where they stand, kneel, sit or lie, and from there says: “Come, follow me.” Real sanctity, which is the will to maximally echo divine love from within the walls of one’s confining reality, is only for those willing to risk becoming their truest God-made self in real-time, real-space, real-life. The God for whom nothing is impossible is also the God of the hopelessly unworthy, confined, imprisoned, hemmed in. There, in that frame, cubicle, machine shop, classroom, prison cell, nursing home room the Spirit paints His masterpiece. Indeed, these “little ones” must be those Jesus refers to when he says, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16). The same ones Dostoyevsky refers to in Crime and Punishment:
Then Christ will say to us, ‘Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!’ And the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why are you welcoming them?’ And he will say, ‘O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.’ And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!
Only these real saints will enter. Matthew 21:31. I want to be in that number.