Sometimes it can seem as though the very idea of a hero or heroine is something that belongs purely to fairy tales, wishful thinkers, and idealists. As we grow older we often find that the men and women we once lionized in our imagination were deeply, disappointingly flawed in one way or another, until finally it’s all too easy to accept the cynical point of view that there just can’t be, and never have been, heroes worth our while. Sure, there are plenty of noble deeds that dot history here and there, but a real hero? Come on. It just isn’t realistic to expect human nature to produce someone as thoroughly heroic as, say, Captain America.
But I beg to differ.
As sometimes happens, while reading today’s propers for St. Jerome Emilian, I fell in love with a saint I had never prayed to or really thought of before. The missal’s simple description of him stated: “St. Jerome, of the noble Venetian family of Emiliani, left everything and became the Father of orphans and of the poor. He founded the Order of Somascha for the education of children. He died a victim of the plague in 1537.” But in the propers of the Mass, I felt as though I met St. Jerome Emilian in a powerful sort of way. I would quote everything here, except it would be kind of ridiculously long, so I’ll just share a bit of the Epistle, from Isaias:
“When thou shalt pour out thy soul to the hungry, and shalt satisfy the afflicted soul, then shall thy light rise up in darkness, and thy darkness shall be as the noonday. And the Lord will give thee rest continually, and will fill thy soul with brightness, and deliver thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a fountain of water whose waters shall not fail.”
This little passage paints the life of a Saint; “When thou shalt pour out thy soul. . .thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a fountain of water whose waters shall not fail.” To me it truly seems that sainthood, although hard, is very simple; when we leave behind ourselves because we love God more than anything, we are given everything; we are given Him. This total, divine, heroic charity is what we are baptized into, this is why we spend our lives for God, learning how to die to self. And we have Martyrs like St. Margaret of Antioch, Confessors like St. Jerome, the Apostles, Doctors, Virgins all to look to as brilliant lights, to run to as fountains of heavenly water, as, like “grains of sand before mountains” we try to follow their example. What a comfort!
When I heard people say that biographers of the saints shouldn’t make them seem so perfect, should show all their faults so people won’t feel discouraged, I can’t help but to disagree. In this fallen, pride-inflated world, the last thing we need is to feel more comfortable about ourselves and to try to belittle the glorious achievements of those great souls who truly have fought the good fight and finished the race, who suffered so much, prayed so faithfully, toiled so vigorously to rid themselves of vice, who were unafraid to sacrifice themselves to the heights of heroic virtue. No, our problem is that we are far too comfortable with the way we are; we are too soft with ourselves, too used to our sins, too prideful in our blindness, that even supposing that someone could (and, hmm, that maybe we should) be as holy on earth as the Saints truly were wounds our pride, challenges our softness, makes us uncomfortable; and we don’t like it.
The luminous examples of the saints should never discourage us, and we shouldn’t forget that they fought the same concupiscence, suffered the same frustrations, and fell into sin as we do. On the contrary, we should behold what they became in all its fullness and glory, and be filled with both great hope and great determination to amend our lives and reform ourselves. It should drive us to look seriously at our soul and recognize what we are in true humility, and, blazing with love, courage, and zeal, to throw ourselves totally into the invisible but immensely real battle to save our souls and the souls of others.
And so, I do believe that there are real heroes and heroines to honor, celebrate, and imitate in the history of our world. Thousands upon thousands of them.
St. Jerome Emilian, St. Margaret of Antioch, and all ye Saints of God,
pray for us!