There is a Catholic church in New York City called St. Francis Xavier, after the 16th-century Jesuit missionary who preached the Gospel from East Africa to India to Japan and who finally died off the coast of China. Up until recently, the church was dark inside. Well, that's not true: it was very dark. 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, made it a gloomy place. You could barely see the ceiling.
No longer. Recently, it was announced that the old church would renew itself. It was a massive undertaking, costing a great deal of money, some of which came from the archdiocese; but most of which came from the parishioners. Since the church is in downtown New York, the parish is a motley mix of longtime residents, wealthy Wall Street types, the poor and unemployed, gays and lesbians, hopeful recent immigrants and the most common Catholic parishioner in New York: the transient -- the person only in the city for a few years.
In any event, the marble was cleaned, the mosaics were washed, the brass polished, the stained glass restored and the pews replaced. The church was renewing itself.
Ever since I heard about the cleaning I was dying to peek in to see what it was like.
For one thing, I hoped that the saints in that church would be easier to see. Like many Catholic churches, Xavier has wonderful statues of the saints. Unfortunately, the saints are perched high above the congregation, and in the terrible gloom you could barely see them. And way in the back of the church, in the apse, so high that you can barely see them, are five saints, much larger than the rest. And I never knew who they were; the saints seemed so far away.
Anyway, a few months ago, I was visiting a Jesuit priest who lives there for dinner. "If you come early," he said, "maybe we could get into the church." Providentially, we ran into the pastor and he pointed us to a side door, which opened into the interior, which was completely empty and completely quiet.
And it was breathtaking. The newly cleaned church glows with glorious colors: whites and creams and yellows and golds. And the first thing I saw, perched above the aisles on both side were the gleaming white statues of the saints. The church had made it easier to see them. "But oh," my friend said, "we have to climb up the scaffolding. I want to show you something."
The whole back half of the church was completely filled with metal scaffolding from floor to ceiling. So we ducked under the intricate framework and stepped onto a staircase, which was the reason they coined the word "rickety." When we took that first step the whole staircase shook. "Uh, I don't think so," I said to my friend. "No, really," he said, "you have to see this." So we started to climb.
Soon we were halfway up the full height of the church and I didn't dare look down or up. "Um, I think this is fine here," I said. "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." And he turned a switch, flooding the space with light. We kept climbing, and soon I saw the underside of a wooden floor above us. We got closer and I poked my head through a little 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 not only so small, but so far away. And we were only a few feet away from the ceiling of the church, glowing in yellows and golds. Now I could see clearly see the statues of the life-sized saints, who stood silently before us: St. Francis Xavier, of course; St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, and St. Joseph. Toward the center was Mary. And in the very center was, of course, Jesus.
It was hard to say why it was so moving to me. Maybe because of the sheer beauty of the craftsmanship, where every white marble fold was visible on the drapery of the robes. Maybe because I was so close to the statues of five people who I love so much. Maybe because I remembered a line from the vows we take as Jesuits, about standing before the "entire heavenly court." Maybe all those things.
The Christian journey is something like this climb. And sometimes the saints and holy persons of our traditions -- no matter what denomination you belong to -- can seem to us like their statues are in many churches: obscure, hard to identify, far off. But when you get to know them, by learning more about their real lives, when you read the lives of your spiritual heroes and heroines, your vision changes: you see them clearly, and you see how close their lives can be to yours, if you're willing to begin that climb.
Something similar happened in the church I worship at, another Jesuit church called St. Ignatius. In the rear of that church is a lovely altar dedicated to three young Jesuit saints. And last year, when the marble was cleaned, that altar just beamed, and it was easier to see the three: Aloysius Gonzaga, Stanislaus Kostka and John Berchmans. Each of these Jesuits, whose stories you may not know well, died early, after leading heroic lives. Aloysius, the scion of a wealthy family who renounced a fabulous fortune, died at age 21, after becoming infected in his work with plague victims. St. Stanislaus, who was beaten by his brother over his desires to enter a religious order, walked 450 miles to enter the novitiate, and died at age 18. St. John Berchmans, a model Christian who did small things with love, died at age 21.
After the church was cleaned, a parishioner said to me, "You know, I didn't even know those saints were there!" And that's true for most of us. We can overlook the stories of the holy persons of our traditions, no matter what denomination we are from, and forget about their astonishing life stories by, quite literally, putting them on a pedestal, which is a sad thing. Because underneath the years of grimy forgetfulness lies a great beauty.
But the climb up that long staircase the other day was like the Christian journey in another way, too.
Lately, I've realized something about Christianity, something you may have figured out long ago: It's hard. I know that sounds obvious but it took me a really long time to figure out. When I entered the Jesuits more than 20 years ago, I figured that if I really 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, it would become easy, something I wouldn't even have to think about, sort of like riding a bike. You just jump on and don't think about it at all.
But that's not true all. It's an effort. It takes work. It's difficult. Forgiving people is hard. Sometimes it seems nearly impossible. Loving is hard. Dorothy Day, the great apostle of social justice, used to like to quote Dostoyevsky, who said that while love in novels is beautiful and sweet, love in real life is a "harsh and dreadful thing." It takes work.
The Christian journey is hard. Like climbing those steps in that church, it can be frightening, too. Working with the poor can be frightening. Caring for someone who is ill can be scary. When my father fell ill 10 years ago with cancer, I was terrified by the idea of having to accompany him in his infirmity. The Christian life, any life, is frightening.
And many times you start to doubt that you'll 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 further." You can climb that ladder, within your church. You can walk toward Jesus.
You can climb that ladder with the help of the holy persons of our Christian traditions, who encourage you from their posts in heaven, as our companions -- as our examples. We look at their lives and say, yes, "I can do this. They may have had it even harder than me; I can do this." You know, I think it's great when churches renew the statues of the saints because the saints do the same thing for the church. One of the Catholic Mass prayers includes 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 -- and I'm using in this in the way St. Paul used the word: the holy among us -- clean the Christian church with their holiness, coming precisely when we need them most. Augustine comes when people need to know that you can be a thinking person and a Christian. Francis of Assisi comes preaching simplicity when people need to a relief from the corruption of the church's wealth. Teresa of Ávila comes when the religious orders need to return from a certain spiritual laziness. Martin Luther comes when people need to know that the church is the church of the people, not just the hierarchy. Ignatius of Loyola comes when people need a new way to find God in all things. Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes when the world needs to hear a word preached against Nazism and genocide. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks come when the world needs to finally confront the sin of racism. Mother Teresa comes when we need to be reminded of the call to care for the poor and forgotten. Nelson Mandela comes when we need to be reminded of the prophetic witness of nonviolent resistance.
And like them, we're all called to be saints. It may feel weird to hear that, especially if you're uncomfortable with that word or come from a tradition that looks askance on that word, but it's just another way of saying you're called to be holy. Not that you need to be precisely like St. Francis of Assisi or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther or Mother Teresa or Dorothy Day. You don't need to do precisely what they've done, because, well, they've already done it. You just need to be yourself, just as they were themselves. You're called to discover sanctity in your own life. When admirers used to visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta and ask to work with her, she would often say, "Find your own Calcutta."
Being a saint means being yourself, being the person whom God means for you to be. "For I am fearfully and wonderfully made," as Psalm 139 says. God made you a holy creation. But it's not easy: sometimes it takes a long time before that person is fully revealed.
It wasn't easy for the saints either. The saints knew best of all that, like that staircase, the path to God is frightening and can tempt us to doubt. But they knew something else too: it's worth it.
Sometimes in our daily life, or in our prayer, or in church, or with friends and family, or when we do Christian service, we walk that path and we feel so 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." And my friend said, "Don't forget to touch one before you leave." So I reached out to the hem of Jesus' robe. Or at least the robe of his statue! And I thought, "Well, I'll think of that the next time I'm in here and look up at them."
Isn't that like our own lives? We may 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. You may have heard a few years ago, when her letters were published, that though she had had a profound spiritual experience, a mystical experience, early in her life, which led her to care for the poor, she then faced silence from God for the rest of her life. God felt absent from her prayer for decades.
I was thinking about all these things at the top of that ladder. And what is that ladder? How do we get closer to Jesus and the saints? How do we travel to God? Well, the most direct ladder may be the Beatitudes, from the Gospel of Matthew (5:1-10). It's from the famous Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus starts off with the ringing declaration, "Blessed are the poor in spirit," and continues on with a series of "blessed" to describe the Christian life. It's often called the "Gospel within the Gospel."
That's the climb the saints made. Each of those beatitudes is a rung on the ladder. The first and most basic is poverty of spirit; the poverty of knowing that we are limited, finite, dependent on God -- in a word, human. But there are other rungs: Mercy. Meekness. Righteousness. Purity of Heart. Peacemaking. The willingness to suffer persecution.
This is the ladder of sanctity.
Each of those steps may seem hard, even dangerous, to step on, and it may seem that we can't do it, but that's the path we're invited to climb. But it's Christ 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 till you see what I have in store."
And 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. Blessedness, sanctity, holiness, is God's goal for us. But there is something else waiting for us, something that the saints and holy ones show us with their lives. And it's something you don't hear much hear about in religious circles: happiness.
For there is alternate meaning to the word normally translated as "blessed" in the Beatitudes. Makarioi is the Greek. And that has another meaning: Happy. So, happy are the peacemakers. Happy are the merciful. Happy are they. Happiness awaits those on the road to sanctity.
As an aside, how different our Christian lives, and our efforts at evangelization would be if we used that word, happiness, instead of blessed!
So why not step onto the ladder of the Beatitudes, with your eyes fixed on God, confident in the prayers and examples of the holy ones who have gone before us, knowing that you can make it, no matter how difficult or how frightening it may seem, and knowing 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.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, culture editor of America, and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and My Life with the Saints.
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