This week I have been reading a book about St Thérèse of Lisieux, and I have come to the conclusion that I am never going to be a saint. Increasingly, I realise that the lineaments of my character are more or less fixed, as though the wind changed somewhere in my late twenties and I am stuck, less Little Flower, more Little Cactus.
One thing I share with St Thérèse, however, is great desires: I want to be a saint. The realisation that I am unlikely ever to overcome the pricklier parts of my character does not undermine the desire at all. Yes, I am acerbic, prickly, inwardly turbulent, scarcely selfless, and however much I might want to die to self, my terrier-like ego has other ideas. It may be only on my deathbed that the Lord will finally, and with infinite gentleness, manage to take from me all that I have not been able to hand over. But I will not cut my desires down to the size of my abilities. Give me honesty, give me failure, give me grace to change, give me mercy when I fall short, but do not give me a lesser hope. I want to be a saint.
This is why I think that perhaps the worst manifestation of increasing secularism in this country are the miserable little framed quotations you see in home decorating shops, offering folksy motivational advice: ‘Work hard and be nice to people’, ‘Think positive and things will happen’, ‘All good things are wild and free.’ (All these are genuine examples –presumably the last does not include viruses and serial killers.) Hey, we’re postmodern, these signs say. We don’t subscribe to the grand old metanarratives. We just want to be nice, be liked, have fun, do whatever we want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, and avoid too much damage if things don’t go as planned. We want dreams within reach.
This week I took part in a Q&A session with Confirmation candidates, and for an hour and a half three other women and I fielded any question they wanted to ask. The difficult topics, of course, came up: the role of women in the Church, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality, the problem of believing in a world of great suffering. Sometimes, after giving our answers, we straw-polled the room to find out what the candidates themselves thought. What saddened me was the reaction to the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life. It wasn’t angry rejection or critical interaction, just blank incomprehension. Why not have divorce? Why not have abortion? There was just no sense that these were even questions. What I found sad was that these children had not heard –at least not in a way that got through to them– about marriage and family life as a vocation, as an ideal, as a kind of sanctity to be desired, even if you might always fall short of it. They hadn’t heard about grace and mercy as the life and breath of this kind of vocation, the expansive love of God that fills the space between the beautiful, terrifying vocation we have embraced, and our honest and struggling efforts to live it. The Church’s teaching wasn’t perceived as a call to holiness, just as arbitrary and needlessly difficult rules. And saddest thing was that the vision these young people had instead didn’t seem more humane or more realistic – it just seemed smaller. Somehow, somewhere along the line, we have failed to reach these young people, and the beautiful teaching of the Church on marriage and family life has been traded in for the vague motivational slogan version: love, laugh, live, no harm, no foul. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it’s less.
I came away thinking that evangelisation is not just about bringing people to an encounter with God. It’s also about bringing people to an encounter with the depth and beauty of their own human vocation. They deserve no less.