As I was driving out to the administration office of the company I'm working with, I was reminded of a conversation between St. Thomas Aquinas and an anonymous person. It seems the person, curious about what it took to lead a holy life, went up to St. Thomas and asked him, "What must I do to become a saint?" St. Thomas wisely answered, "You must will it."
This conversation has weighed on my mind since I was very young. "You must will it." If you want to be a saint you must will it. As I was driving it suddenly dawned on me how few of us actually will to become saints, not because we don't earnestly desire sainthood, but because we don't believe we can actually achieve it.
It never ceases to amaze me how God can communicate great spiritual insight to us even when we're not exactly seeking it. This insight came to me through some motivational reading that I've been doing lately. In his book, Think & Grow Rich, author Napoleon Hill is very clear in demonstrating that an act of the will is not merely an act that is limited to the cognitive arena. An act of the will doesn't simply take place in our head. We don't will something by thinking it. An act of the will involves the entire person; their spirit, soul, mind, heart, emotion, and body. An act of the will starts as a desire, and, through faith, moves on to planning in order to accomplish one's goal. After planning a definite decision is made to attain the goal no matter the cost, and then we persist in our efforts to accomplish that goal in spite of any/all opposition.
I know for me personally there is certainly the strong desire to become a saint. But that desire is stopped short in its tracks because I've been told over and over that there are few people who actually become saints! We are not told that it is, indeed, possible for us to become saints. We are told, almost with the hint that we shouldn't bother trying, that there are few people who actually attain sainthood. How sad that we are told this, because after awhile we start telling ourselves that same thing. "Oh, I'll never be a saint. So I'll just do the best I can and hope I make it into heaven." Our will-to-sainthood is stopped short in its tracks. But the saints tell us the complete opposite!
The saints tell us that it is, indeed, possible for us to become saints; so long as we are willing to pay the price for sanctity. We must, first, desire sainthood. Then we must have faith that we can attain sainthood. We must look at our goal and make the necessary plans to achieve that goal. We must then make the definite decision to attain that goal no matter the cost, and we must persist in our efforts even in the face of opposition and ridicule.
Can you think of a single saint who didn't put these steps into action? Every saint I've ever read about was so focused on their goal (i.e. Christ) that nothing else mattered to them but living for Christ. Every saint endured ridicule, opposition, persecution, and many even death to attain that goal. What are you willing to endure? What am I willing to endure.
Now, I don't mean to sound as if we can become saints of our own efforts. This is most certain not true. But the fact of the matter is that God the Trinity has given us all the tools necessary to become saints. It is up to us to use those tools. It is up to us to live our lives consistent with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. It is up to us to frequent the Sacraments (especially Confession and Communion). It is up to us to pray daily. And it is up to us to learn from the host of saints that have gone before us, and from those saints that we encounter around us. God has given us all the tools, do we make use of them?
Another thing that I think we need to start doing is changing our thoughts on the matter. We need to start telling ourselves that we can become saints. We can because God has made it possible through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that to deny our ability to become saints is all but tantamount to denying the saving action of God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is amazing how repeating this positive thought helps one to focus and put in the necessary effort to achieve one's goal. You can do it. Imagine a father stretching out his arms to his baby as that baby takes its first steps, out of the arms of its mother and to the arms of its father. All the while the father repeats, over and over, "You can do it! You can do it! You can do it!" What a fitting image as we strive from the arms of our loving Mother, the Church, and into the arms of our heavenly Father. Our Father doesn't tell us, "You're going to fall. You'll never get this. Why bother trying." No! As we strain to take those first steps in sanctity, all the while our Father is there telling us, "You can do it!" He has, after all, given us everything we need.
This, I believe, is why repetitious prayer, both in our prayer time and at the Liturgy, is so important. The repetition helps to change our pattern of thinking and adopt the way God thinks. In particular, when we pray the Jesus Prayer, our focus is not on our sinfulness, but on God's mercy and our need for that mercy. It is because of that mercy that sanctity has been made possible for us. Repeating the Jesus Prayer over and over drills into our minds the wonders of God's mercy towards us. Where would we be without that mercy? But that mercy also calls us to action; to determined efforts to live our lives according to the mercy and grace that has been bestowed upon us. When we live our lives completely focused on Christ as our ultimate goal, then we truly receive the gift of sanctity. May heaven consume us.