The Light of a Saint

How would you define what it means to be a saint? I suppose there are lots of definitions, as there are many elements of sainthood and certainly a wide variety of saints.

Here’s one of my favorites. It’s from a relatively obscure book, Life and Holiness, by Thomas Merton.

The saint, then, seeks not his own glory but the glory of God. And in order that God may be glorified in all things, the saint wishes himself to be nothing but a pure instrument of the divine will. He wants himself to be simply a window through which God’s mercy shines on the world. And for this he strives to be holy. He strives to practice virtue heroically, not in order to be known as a virtuous and holy man, but in order that the goodness of God may never be obscured by any selfish act of his.

I once knew a special man, Bill Beuby, who was this kind of person. I used Thomas Merton’s definition of a saint to describe Bill when I spoke at his funeral.

A couple of years later, I attended a men’s retreat outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. One afternoon during the retreat, the men were driven up a mountain to spend part of an afternoon in solitude in the wilderness. After being dropped off, we hiked up to a beautiful meadow, and then each of us tried to find our own spot for quiet and reflection.

I found what I thought would be a good location and settled in for some quiet time with our Lord, expecting that some insights would come to me during my time there. Instead, my mind was distracted and overactive, bouncing from one thought to another, with no sense of landing anywhere helpful.

When the retreat leader whistled for us to go back down the mountain for the ride back to the retreat center, I was disappointed and frustrated. But then, as I passed by a grove of huge trees, I had a beautiful surprise.

I saw an intense shaft of sunlight pouring down between a group of trees, brilliantly illuminating the iridescent bright green moss on top of a rock that was perhaps 3 feet in diameter and a foot or two in height. I knew that the scene created by the sunlight on the rock was intended for me.

Recalling Merton’s definition of a saint, I stood on the rock for several minutes, bathing myself in the shaft of light coming from the sun. I really didn’t need to say anything or have a conscious thought. I was physically and mentally quiet and very still, just letting the light of the sun represent God’s light and in my heart wanting it to always pass through me without creating any obstruction on my part.

Since that experience, I can’t say that my living out the concept of being a window through which God’s light passes has been a consistent reality. I’ve had some good moments, but I have let the power of the image of light slip away far more often than I have let it inspire me.

My hope is that Merton’s definition of a saint will strike a chord within you, my reader, and that writing about it will help us strive to live out the definition more frequently.

Grand Canyon

One of my favorite movies of all time is Grand Canyon, which came out in the early 1990’s. I can’t recommend it without qualification, as there are “adult” themes and scenes which make it inappropriate for family viewing.

However, there are also some great spiritual messages mixed in with some not so great material, which is why I like the movie so much.

In the early part of the movie, a successful LA lawyer, Mack, is rescued one night by a tow truck driver, Simon, when the lawyer is threatened by a gang in a dangerous part of the city. Mack and Simon become friends, and their friendship leads to some deep conversations.

In one of their conversations, Mack and Simon talk about whether their lives have any special meaning or purpose. In a line that I have always remembered since seeing the movie 26 years ago, Simon says to Mack, “Sometimes I feel like a fly on the back of a horse when a car is driving by at 70 miles an hour.”

What Simon is saying is that, to the occupants of the car, he doesn’t even exist. His life is virtually invisible to them and of total insignificance to anybody.

But then things start happening. Davis, a friend of Mack’s and his wife and a producer of violent films, has a spiritual awakening. Mack’s wife, Claire, finds a newborn baby in some bushes and sees the discovery as part of a divine plan. Simon’s sister and her son become the victims of violence resulting from the son’s involvement in a gang.

In the final scene of the movie, the main characters are pictured on the rim of the Grand Canyon, just gazing out at the amazing scene, saying nothing.

The message of the final scene is obvious from what has taken place in the movie up to that point. The life of each one of us may seem like a tiny drop of water in the Colorado River. Over time, however, each drop makes a difference. Combined with other drops, each of us contribute to something astoundingly large and beautiful. We have to be content to be just a drop and be the kind of drop intended for us when we were created.

My friend Deacon Kenny Longbrake spoke recently on this theme in a talk he gave at a retreat. He described God’s plan of salvation as a huge mural, and each of us is supposed to paint something on the mural by contributing our life to the service of God’s plan for humanity. Deacon Kenny said that, even if our part of the plan is to paint a single eyelash on the mural, we have to be content with that if that is the role that God created us for.

The key is for each of us to seek God’s will for our lives, discover the meaning and purpose of our life as intended by the Creator, and then live out that meaning and purpose as faithfully as we can.  Who of us can object to being part of such an amazing masterpiece?



Why We Don't Know More About Heaven

My mother, Helen Sullivan, died in August of 1994. She was only 72. About 9 months after she died, I had a most interesting dream.

In the dream, I walked up a flight of stairs to the second level of what seemed like a private club, very traditional looking, with carpeting and paneled walls. As I reached the top of the stairs, I saw many clusters of people and heard the tinkling of glass. The scene was like that of a cocktail party. I walked around a group of people chatting with one another, and all of a sudden there was my mom.

What words cannot describe is the sensation I experienced the moment I saw my mother. I felt the deepest peace, the deepest goodness and a euphoria that were beyond anything we can sense in this life. It was like the tiniest sliver of what heaven must be like. When I woke up, I had the thought that if you could bottle up what I experienced and offer it for sale, you'd be the wealthiest person on the face of the earth.

This experience made me wonder, "Why don't we know more about heaven? Why doesn't God give us more evidence of what heaven is like?" 

I came up with an answer. It's the same answer reached by Dr. Eben Alexander, the author of a book entitled Proof Of Heaven. Dr. Alexander, a skeptic about near death experiences, had a near death experience himself when an infection basically rendered his own brain non-functional. During his experience, he received the explanation as to why we don't know more about heaven.

Dr. Alexander writes: "...[M]aking the right decisions through our free will in the face of the evil and injustice on earth would mean far less if we remembered, while here, the full beauty and brilliance of what awaits us...That evil could occasionally have the upper hand was known and allowed by the Creator as a necessary consequence of giving the gift of free will to beings like us."

God does not give us more information about heaven because He wants us to be truly free to choose between good and evil. If we knew what heaven was really like, that knowledge would be too strong an influence on the exercise of our free will. So God withholds that information from the great majority of us.

I think most of us believe that we'll get to heaven if we don't do anything really bad. I think the test goes beyond that, however. If we drift through life, not really having an active faith, not experiencing at least the taste of the kingdom that is available to us down here, do we really deserve the bliss that awaits those given entry to heaven? I think the contrast between our lukewarm life on earth and the life in heaven would put us into a kind of shock.

I encourage our readers to get a copy of Proof of Heaven and give it a read. I found it very inspiring and I think you will, too. Heaven is beyond our comprehension. There are no words to adequately describe it. At the same time, our faith gives us the opportunity to experience the supernatural in authentic, powerful ways on earth. We need to be taking advantage of those opportunities.