“There is only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint”
For many years that quote has been my email signature. There it stands, at the bottom of each message I’ve sent – whether to friend, family member, blog-reader, co-worker, boss, friend of the Faith, foe of the Faith, or anyone else – as a perennial reminder to them all, but above all to myself, of what should constitute the entirety of one’s deepest concern: sainthood.
I began writing this piece last year after having just attended the funeral of my cousin’s 4 year old son (and the year before, similar thoughts were on my mind as I will presently express, after I attended the funeral of the one year old son of another cousin of mine, which Steve Skojec wrote about here). I resumed work on it this summer, in the wake of joy turned to sorrow when the expectation of the birth of our own third child turned to the sorrow of God taking this child home to Himself after a brief time in the womb (thanks be to God, we have since been blessed again with the expectation of another child).
What is more sorrowful than the death of a child?
And yet, in the actual reality of what transpired, what is more glorious?
Without the slightest doubt, we know that this child entered into eternal bliss the very moment his soul left his body. And without the slightest doubt, we know that in the twinkling of an eye we shall be reunited with him forever if we too accept the salvation that is offered to us; an offer that is never rescinded so long as there is breath in our lungs.
So often we are assailed by temptations to dwell on regret. An opportunity for more money, recognition, worldly memories, possessions, security, travels, comfort, pleasure, or whatever other vanity, sails on by. Another year passes and so too, we lament, does one more notch in the likelihood of the realization of our dreams. A loved one dies and we lament what seems to be a lost future with him. Forgiven sins come to mind to haunt us and accuse us and tempt us to despair at their mere existence.
But all of that is nothing. Nothing.
Nothing is lost if, despite it all, one strives for sanctity. Then, truly, all is gain.
Therefore consider: What now robs you of the unbroken peace and joy to which you have a right as a Christian who trusts in Jesus and desires that His Will be done?
That there is suffering in your life? You have all eternity — which will scarcely have begun once countless trillions of centuries have passed — to enjoy permanent ecstatic joy and the absolute absence of any and all pain. You have a brief few moments before your death to suffer redemptively in union with Christ, grow from it, merit from it, contribute to the salvation and sanctification of souls with it. Far from a curse to lament over, it is a gift to rejoice at the bestowal of; for as St. Padre Pio said, “suffering is the one thing the angels envy us for.”
That you aren’t working your dream job and pursuing your dream career, like others you envy are, and like the daydreams you entertained previously consisted in? All those who work such jobs will, in the twinkling of an eye, find themselves old and decrepit, with the mere faint memory of their former professions proving radically incapable of giving even one ounce of joy. Go about the job and/or duties that God has called you to here and now with prayer and submission to the Divine Will, and you are achieving infinitely more than one who works the supposedly “perfect and best” job is.
That your marriage is not what you always dreamed it would be? Great and glorious as marriage is, that too is a passing thing, designed by God for the procreation and education of children, and it will no longer exist in eternity; which will be upon us in a flash. Don’t get me wrong: you should spare no expense in working towards making your marriage beautiful, peaceful, joyful, and above all holy. But ultimately the fulfillment of those goals is up to two people; yet when all is said and done, you answer only for yourself; therefore the deepest joy of your soul cannot ever depend upon another earthly creature – not even your spouse.
Or perhaps even that your life lacks the holy things that you wish it had? So long as it is not a slothful indifference to the pursuit of holy things, but rather the Will of God, that has deprived you of them, then even the absence of these things is no harm whatsoever to you. If your life’s circumstances prevent you from going on those great pilgrimages you envy your friends for, being a part of those wonderful Catholic groups and communities that others so seem to enjoy, attending those amazing Catholic events that you now only read of, or whatever else; this is nothing to lament. Heaven will infinitely surpass all of these essentially temporal blessings, and when you are there, not having had these temporal things will seem to you then as it now seems to you when you see a child missing one extra cookie during one day’s dessert. Remember that all treasures in Heaven are built up solely by the Will of God; and this Divine Will can be submitted to and lived in anywhere, by any one, at any instant.
So indeed, none of these thing are tragedies.
The only tragedy is to not become a saint — and to not help others become saints.
How, then, do we direct our lives so as to avoid The Only Tragedy? Thankfully it is easy.
Many things are hard: acquiring advanced degrees, making large sums of money, gaining recognition for ourselves, getting people to like us, securing our legacy, trying to guarantee our safety and security, acquiring and maintaining possessions, looking for promotions and new jobs, striving to order all things to our comfort and pleasure…. and oh how much we pour ourselves out in the pursuit of all of this vain garbage which seems so pressing and direly important now, and yet the next day is barely even a memory.
For on the Day of Judgement you won’t regret missing the extra $100,000 on your salary that you could have had — but you would regret foregoing the daily family Rosary in order to have more time to secure this salary. On the Day of Judgement you won’t regret a few people disliking you or thinking you’re weird — but you would regret keeping your Faith hidden in order to ensure you blend in well with modern society. On the Day of Judgement you won’t regret “missing out” on this or that questionable movie, book, TV show, or other entertainment that is popularly praised by your friends, neighbors, and coworkers — but you would regret the decay of the soul that you risk by exposing yourself to such garbage. On the Day of Judgment you won’t regret “missing out” on this or that college degree, sports tournament, worldly spotlight, honor or recognition that simply requires too much of you — but you would regret having spent a life waking up each morning with your primary motivation for getting out of bed being the pursuit of such utter vanity instead of the pursuit of eternal goals. On the Day of Judgement you won’t regret not having lived in a beautiful remote paradise with hundreds of acres to yourself — but you would regret the thousands of Communions – every single one of which is incomprehensibly powerful – you could have made but didn’t due to your insistence upon living in a utopia on earth. On the Day of Judgement you won’t regret having had health problems — but you would regret having spent your life expending all of your time and energy experimenting with the various health and diet fads that inundate us daily, instead of simply doing what is prudent for the sake of health and then accepting whatever suffering remains as the Will of God for your salvation and sanctification and that of the whole world. On the Day of Judgement you won’t regret not having sent your children to the “best” schools and ensured that they have the “best” opportunities — but you would regret letting the world’s values seep into their minds and hearts. On the Day of Judgement you won’t regret failing to ensure you and your family members can pursue every hobby, vacation, sport, etc., that the world insists you must engage in — but you would regret neglecting significant daily prayer time that you will need to forego to enable these interests.
In short, on the Day of Judgement, you will have precisely zero regret for all of these things you are now tempted to regret. You will only regret the times — and indeed, you will regret all such times — that you were not pursuing sanctity by refusing to strive to live in the Will of God: that same Will of God that is never more than one simple act of your own will — one simple Fiat — away from being the very essence and substance of your own life. And not only that, but helping an enormous amount of other souls avoid what is, truly, the only tragedy is so very easy: show them God’s love and they will be inspired to trust in it and themselves attain salvation; which is sainthood. I assure you it is that simple.
- Show them God’s love by sacrificing the five extra seconds your day would “gain” by being in a hurried bustle at the store and, instead, treat the cashier as an actual human being made in God’s image. Look the person behind the counter at McDonald’s in the eye when you make your order and smile to brighten his day instead of pretending that you need to stare at the menu the entire time and rush out of the way the second you have finished paying.
- Show them God’s love by talking to the beggar who asks you for money instead of lying, quickly saying you have none, and walking off
- Though I had a recent spell of not being able to do my DWMoM walks, I still strive to live the Spirit of one. Just recently, I stumbled upon a beggar after Mass whom I had given a Rosary to the week before. He was proudly wearing this Rosary, thanked me again profusely for it, and told me “I never take it off.”
- Show your family God’s love by daily ensuring that they recognize — by deeds, not words — that your primary concern is not that they fit nicely into your plans, not that they become what you want them to be, not that they merely ensure they aren’t a burden on you, but rather, ensure they recognize that your primary concern is to serve them: to will their well-being, salvation, and sanctification. But remember that in the family especially; what truly is love will not always be seen as true love by its recipients in the short term, but it will in the long term, which is what matters. Nevertheless remember as well that a love that is not tender, merciful, and compassionate, cannot be called love at all.
- Show them God’s love not by pretending that giddiness and chattiness achieves anything — supposing that droning on about worldly topics is some sort of evangelization (it isn’t), or that exhibiting an obnoxious excess of joy will somehow magically attract people to Christ (it will only repel them) — rather, show God’s love by way of a deep and mature peace and joy that comes from the absence of fear, the presence of a constant spirit of prayer, and a certain awareness of the fact that nothing but God’s Will can happen.
- Show them God’s love by refusing to do anything anonymously, semi anonymously, or covertly, that you wouldn’t do while looking the person in the eye — whether online comments, emails, letters, driving maneuvers, gossip, dealing with bureaucrats via phone, online, or behind a desk; or anything of the sort. Instead, show God’s love by, each and every time you hear someone detract or complain about another, being a sower of peace and helping to mend the discord instead of relishing the darkness and appreciating that venom is being directed toward someone else; falsely supposing that this somehow makes you look better.
- Above all, show them God’s love by your life of prayer and sacrifice for their salvation and sanctification. This of course will garner you no praise on this side of the tomb — for it is entirely hidden — but as such, it is the most powerful and the most pleasing in the sight of God. Do this in the Divine Will and this love you show them will acquire the strength of God’s own infinite Love.
Show them God’s love and, in some way, make sure you give Him the credit He deserves for that love, which is entirely His own. Perhaps a visible crucifix worn around the neck; perhaps a Divine mercy image pin; perhaps by handing the person a divine mercy card, perhaps by simply saying “God bless you,” or perhaps simply by nothing more than the deed itself if the one to whom it is done already knows that your love for your brothers proceeds from your love of God, and is for His sake, and is because your brother bears His image. But if you do not in some way try to make sure that God receives the credit for this love (not you), then you risk your act of mercy being nothing other than a nice (but petty) “random act of kindness,” which may succeed in briefly and weakly lightening someone’s day, but will not build up treasures for that person in Heaven.
Do these things — little though they may be — without self-interest, without desire for praise or vain glory, without any carefully devised strategy for earthly gain charting their course — and the chorus of voices that will rise to your vindication on Judgment Day would easily drown out even all of hell shouting against you.
For a few years before this particular quote, my email signature had for a long time been another quote:
…the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations…. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
That is what is at stake.