I want to be a saint.
Or better put: I want to want to be a saint.
Last week, I was invited to speak briefly on the spiritual power of habits to The Habitus Community, a group that shares a rule of life. Together, Habitus works to help its members form habits like daily prayer, Scripture reading, Sabbath, silence, community, fasting, hospitality, and the daily examen.
Originally, I’d sent Phil Reinders, pastor and founder of Habitus, an outline for my talk, but on the day of the Zoom session, I added an introduction I hadn’t originally planned. I suppose I got to thinking that I could speak all day about the power of habits, but this would ultimately be fruitless if people didn’t have the appetite for habit formation.
For stoking that hunger, I thought of A Burning in My Bones, the wonderful biography of Eugene Peterson written by Winn Collier. I remembered how often Eugene wrote in his journal over the decades about his desire to be a saint.
After speaking at a conference, Eugene listens to a rousing sermon from a prominent speaker. “Slight uneasiness—is this preaching or religious drama? I guess what I am mostly interested in these days is holiness. I am on the watch for saints” (191).
When Eugene finishes the Message, he takes a teaching position at Regent in Vancouver. “All I want to do is become a saint—but secretly, so no one knows it—a saint without any trappings . . . Every detail of routine and imagination, every letter I write, phone call made, gesture and encounter—gathered and placed on the altar and bound–every day another trek to Moriah.”
In 1992, Peterson begins to grow uneasy with his habit of drinking a nightly bourbon. “Through the night and waking—a distinct, gathering will to cut out the bourbon at night. Not drinking as such, but those mind-dulling doubles that interfere with morning prayers—and perhaps night prayers.”
Just before arriving at Regent, he renews his resolve to stop drinking his nightly bourbon. “And now I must test the necessity/validity of my tentative decision. Alertness at night securing alertness in the mornings. Fish or cut bait then—do I really want to be a saint? . . . I’ll tell Jan this morning in the car. Drive a nail into the vow.”
After many decades of pastoral ministry, Eugene and Jan retire to their “monastery” in Montana, and Eugene journals often about taking delight in this new season for serving Jan and giving himself to the vocation of writing. “If I am ever to be a saint, it is a saint of the basics: love Jan, be faithful in my prayers, write well and abundantly, prepare to die.”
I must confess that I admire Eugene in his desire for sainthood—and am yet double-minded when it comes to my own heart. Sure, I’d love to be a saint if it didn’t require commitments big and small. When I’ve had sufficient sleep and a hot cup of coffee, sainthood seems within reach. But dear God, do not ask me to get serious about generosity and hospitality and justice. Don’t ask me to stop obsessively checking my email and social media. Don’t speak to me about the carelessness with which I treat my body and my neglect of the poor.
Please, God, don’t ask for more than I am prepared to give!
But of course, God is asking for every square inch of our lives. This could feel frightening, if we imagine that God thrills in draining the color from life and feeding his children dry crusts of bread. But it could also grow exhilarating, if we could lay hold of the story Scripture really tells.
Maybe we’d want to be saints if we could understand how much God himself has already given (Romans 8:32).
From Genesis to Revelation, we read that God’s first and last impulse is to bless his people. This is one of the key themes of Deuteronomy and John I tried to highlight in A Habit Called Faith, that God’s invitation is to live, really live! In the Christian faith, living, really living, abundant living is possible because we follow the Christ who died in our place.
I want to be a saint. On my very best days, maybe this is a desire I can speak to God. Most days, though, the real prayer of my heart is something more like, I want to want to be a saint.
For those who want to want to be saints (and make this the prayer of their hearts), they don’t have to wait for the thunderbolt of sudden transformation. They can also lay hold of the power of habit—with God’s help. That’s in essence what I told the members of Habitus.
As James K.A. Smith has written in You Are What You Love, habits are the hinge of desire. “The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire. Learning to love (God) takes practice.”
In short, we don’t think our way into sainthood; we practice (and yes, pray!) our way there.
Rule of Life Workshops in 2024
It’s been a thrill for me to offer (virtual) rule of life workshops for people interested in “living their lives in faithful response to God’s voice.” Here are the early 2024 dates for these virtual intensives, and I’d love to have you join.
Friday, January 5, 2024: 11am-3pm EST
Saturday, January 6, 2024: 9a-1pm EST
Friday, March 1, 2024, 11am – 3pm EST
**If you’re a writer who plans to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in April, Abby and I are working to put together a special rule of life workshop for creatives on Wednesday, April 10, 5-9pm. If you’re interested to put your name on the list, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For subscribers in 2024 . . .
Some of you have seen that I am now offering paid subscriptions to A Habit Called Faith. One of the benefits of subscribing is tuning into conversations like the one I have planned with Uche Anizor in January about his book, Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care. I can’t recommend his book more highly as a fitting read for the turning of the year.
Anizor argues that we are “numb to the meaningful, but often ‘alive’ to the trivial.” His diagnosis seems right to me. Like the prophet Isaiah, we can lament that we are people of indifference, dwelling in a land of indifference. Apathy is the word Anizor uses to speak about acedia, or the deadly sin of sloth, and readers of In Good Time will know that’s a huge theme in the book!
I’m really looking forward to our conversation, and I hope you’ll subscribe to join! If you’re not interested in a yearly subscription, subscribe in January to have access to this special event. There will be more details to come—and more events in future months!