To be a saint
By Frederick Buechner
To be a saint is to be human because we were created to be human. To be a saint is to live with courage and self-restraint, but it is more than that. To be a saint is to live not with the hands clenched to grasp, to strike, to hold tight to a life that is always slipping away the more tightly we hold it; but it is to live with the hands stretched out both to give and to receive with gladness. To be a saint is to work and weep for the broken and suffering of the world, but it is also to be strangely light of heart in the knowledge that there is something greater than the world that mends and renews.
Maybe more than anything else, to be a saint is to know joy. Not happiness that comes and goes with the moments that occasion it, but joy that is always there like an underground spring no matter how dark and terrible the night. To be a saint is to be a little out of one’s mind, which is a very good thing to be a little out of from time to time. It is to live a life that is always giving itself away and yet is always full…. Beneath all our yearning for whatever glitters brightest in this world lies our yearning for this kind of life.
The question is of course how do we find this life, how do we get to where we can live it and live it not laboriously and self-consciously because there would be no joy in that, but live it naturally and spontaneously the way the grass grows. I wish we were given a blueprint, but we are not. How do we become human beings, saints? How do we find the kingdom of Heaven?
There is the man who is walking through a field somewhere when to his amazement he discovers a great treasure buried there and then “in his joy,” Jesus says, sells all that he has to buy that field. Almost always when Jesus speaks of the kingdom of Heaven, there is this note of joy running through his words and with it this note of surprise: it is so much more wonderful than anyone could have dared hope, so much more within reach than anyone could have dreamed.
It is a strange and unexpected idea that this is our real business in this world, and stranger still is the idea that even if the whole subject of religion leaves us cold, as well it might, even if the very word “saint” makes our gorges rise, it is nonetheless saints that of all things we most want to become. It is joy that we are really after. God knows we settle for less—money, power, a good job, the contentment of living near the top of a small Vermont mountain—but all these things are only pearls, not ever quite the pearl that the heart longs for. It is hard to know how to find it exactly. Maybe it is found best by not looking too hard for it. But this, I think, it is possible to know: that however inanely and blindly we are seeking the kingdom of Heaven, it is also seeking us. Because if it is our secret purpose to become saints, it is God’s unsecret purpose to make us saints. It is the nature of reality itself to enlighten and set free the whole creation down to the last blade of grass. In Christian language, it is the ultimate purpose of God to make us all “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
God’s world is ablaze with miracle, and God only knows how in each of us the seed will be planted. And then, for each of us, there is a lifetime to let it grow, or fight its growing—to grow as humans, as saints, as Christs, or to kill the new life that struggles in us to be born.
A few summers ago I went on that famous March on Washington, and the clearest memory that I have of it is standing near the Lincoln Memorial hearing the song “We Shall Overcome” sung by the quarter of a million or so people who were there. And while I listened, my eye fell on one very old Negro man, with a face like shoe leather and a sleazy suit and an expression that was more befuddled than anything else; and I wondered to myself if, quite apart from the whole civil-rights question, that poor old bird could ever conceivably overcome anything. He was there to become a human being. And so were the rest of us. And so are we all, no less befuddled than he when you come right down to it.
And deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day, as he will, by God’s grace, by helping the seed of the kingdom grow in ourselves and in each other until finally in all of us it becomes a tree where the birds of the air can come and make their nests in our branches. That is all that matters really.
Frederick Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and writer of fiction and non-fiction books. This piece is an excerpt from his book, The Magnificent Defeat.