“For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (NRSV, 1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
Some people seem to be gifted with an innate ability in a particular area, and we acknowledge this when we speak of a born teacher or a born artist. There is one thing, however, which no one can ever be and that is a born saint.
We must never be deceived by the widespread and quite wrong idea that the saints were people who led a very sheltered life unruffled by temptation, with plenty of leisure and inclination for prayer and little to distract them. On the contrary, most of the saints began as ordinary people leading ordinary lives. Some were anything from doubtful characters to downright evil livers. In other words, saints are made not born, and they are made by God.
Of course, when we think about the lives of any particular saints and of their heroic sanctity and devotion to God, we tend to forget about their early and sometimes disreputable past, but this is something the saints themselves never did.
Take, for example, St Paul, or Saul as he was first known. He emerges in history as one who enthusiastically aided and abetted a gang of murderers, and the sight of Stephen’s poor torn and broken body had the effect, not of stirring him to pity, but of rousing him to a new height of frenzy. With venom in his heart he at once began to commit atrocities in Jerusalem, dragging from their homes all the Christians, men and women alike, on whom he could lay his now crime-stained hands, and flinging them into prison. St Luke tells us that “…Saul was ravaging the church…” (NRSV, Acts 8:3) and Luke uses the same word as we find in the psalms to describe the actions of a wild animal: “The boar from the forest ravages it…” (NRSV, 80:13).
When the persecution flagged for lack of victims, Saul’s enthusiasm was unabated and “…breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord…” (NRSV, Acts 9:1) he set out for Damascus to continue there his evil work.
This is the man in whose honour the Cathedral Church of London, and many a parish church throughout the world, have been named ‘St Paul’. It was his zeal and his holiness which changed the spirit of the Roman Empire. The cost to himself he has told us – unnumbered perils and privations, humiliation and degradation – but over them all his fervent love for Our Lord triumphed gloriously.
But we notice that he claimed no credit for himself either for his change of heart or for his monumental achievements. He gave the credit where (as he knew better than anyone else ever could) it was due – to the grace of God, to the working within him of God the Holy Spirit.
It was childishly simple to him that the source of all goodness is in God alone, not in human beings. What goodness he himself had, he knew he drew from God, as a plant draws moisture from the ground and as we sing in the hymn:
“And every virtue we possess,
and every conquest won,
and every thought of holiness,
are his alone”. (1)
For St Paul this was not a theory to be discussed, it was an undeniable fact he had experienced. His own life had taught him the truth that to be independent of God is automatically to be independent of goodness. And though God’s generosity gives us more than we desire or deserve, nevertheless there must be a limit to that unless we make it our business to be in a condition to receive what he is ever ready to bestow.
This receptive condition St Paul achieved at an early stage. The first essential was penitence, and therefore, after his three days of utter solitude which elapsed between his vision and his Baptism, he retired to live a hermit’s life in the desert for about two and a half years (see Galatians 1:17). During those long months, as the summers and winters passed, as he reflected on the unplumbed depths of the love of God and of his own hateful rebellion, his grief must have been as bitter and distressing as any human being is capable of. But at the same time his resolution henceforth to live, to suffer, and if need be to die, for Our Lord was equally fierce and determined.
Thus the second essential condition for absorbing the holiness of God and uniting his soul with Our Blessed Lord, was faith. This began as a startling trust in Our Lord which the vision outside Damascus rendered unshakeable. Thereafter he knew that no power on earth or in Hell could separate him from the love and power of God which is in Jesus Christ. And it grew into the complete consecration of his whole self to Christ who became the living centre of his being and existence. His faith was increasingly deepened by much concentrated prayer in which all his tremendous energies of mind and spirit were focused on reaching out to God in love and longing.
Such then are the essentials to achieve that saintliness which God requires from each and every one of us – to lay hold on the living power and grace of God by penitence and faith and prayer. For only in a broken and contrite heart can God fully work: broken, that is by sorrow for sin not once, nor twice but over and over again. If the land is hard and solid, no matter how it may rain, little can grow unless it is broken to a tilth year by year. And, no matter how much grace is showered on us by God, the same is true of my heart and yours. Secondly, just as the land so broken must then be warmed by the rays of the sun, so our hearts must be warmed by being turned and lifted up to God in fervent prayer and self-offering. And that is the only way to God.
Auber, H. (1829) Our blest Redeemer, ere he breathed. Available from: http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/o/o823.html (Accessed 29 December 2010) (Internet).