This past Sunday we launched into our fall season at Westside King’s Church. We talked about what it means to be connected in spiritual community, and then we ate BBQ on the lawn. To use a school image, it was sort of like lecture and lab. The link should never be lost on us: we are called to spiritual transformation through the supportive power of friendship. That is what last Sunday’s text, Philippians 1, clearly communicates. When friendship works as it should, we can be drawn on towards goodness, towards spiritual growth.
Thomas Merton is certainly the most famous writing monk of modern times. Before his conversion to Christian faith, he pursued the normal list of selfish pleasures, working on a writing career for the sake of his own egotistical ends. In time he came to embrace Christian faith. But it was after turning to Christ that a moment of startling clarity came to him. It happened so simply.
One day, as Merton walked down a New York street with his friend Lax, his friend commented offhandedly that the only worthwhile ambition was to be a saint. Then he added further that to be a saint only required that one wanted it badly enough. Merton pondered this and told another friend about the conversation. To his surprise the second friend replied, “of course”. Merton was both amazed and somehow “straightened up” by this insight. A saint? Really? Was that actually the goal? And only to want it? He hadn’t thought of this pursuit before that moment, and he certainly hadn’t thought of saintliness as something he wanted. His list was the usual: fame, wealth, pleasure -- but goodness? Something began to stir in him.
Merton’s subsequent story shows how those conversations with his two friends were instrumental to his life’s path. For if his first awakening was to Christ and the church, his second was to take seriously the way of a pilgrim into goodness, the only truly worthwhile goal.
If you have been put off by the word “saint”, think about sainthood as the pursuit of simple human goodness. It is the soul’s realization of a more godlike character. It comes about by the cooperative work of God’s Spirit and our own personal desire to grow towards the humanity that Jesus expressed. It is not plastic or strange, but actually the realization of our own true humanity.
Goodness is not a checklist of behaviors and actions, but of course we do notice saints for what they do and say. But then we realize this goes deeper than behavior: saintliness is a quality of being that one feels in another. I don’t know a better way to say it than you know a saint when you meet one.
Saints are found living and working in a variety of life situations, flavoring the world with their unique and irreplaceable selves. I have known and know a few of them. They are persons who have found their humanity by the liberating way of goodness. Are they people of personal sacrifice? Often, yes. Not just the sacrifice of money and time, but the sacrifice of ego and ambition, the sacrifice of self. But their personal ambitions are not entirely lost to them. For often the way of goodness brings its gracious surprise, a recapturing of the life we give away. Merton did become the writer he wanted to be, but in a way he never expected. For it was only in and through his pursuit of goodness (sainthood) that Merton found the subject and cause of his writing life.
And back to my first point: the surprising influence of friends in what we become. We are being nudged towards goodness or towards sin daily, and it is our relationships that greatly impact our life trajectory. Choose your friends wisely; take notice of how they help or hinder your growth towards goodness. And then consider what you might say to someone, or simply be for someone, that might set them on a new and better path.
While your life’s story is being written by the gracious hand of God, you may become part of some wonderful stories that are not your own.