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Saints and Non-Saints: “To Do” Or “To Be,” That Is the Question

by Mark Zwick


This article was first published in Our Sunday Visitor in the 1990’s.

The pastor of a nearby parish really got our attention recently in his Sunday sermon. He said that we emphasize “doing” too

and neglect “being.” “Be!” he stated strongly, not “do.” We felt guilty and resolved to concentrate more on “being.”

Of course, we don’t know what is going to happen when we tell the 887th person who comes for services this month that we can’t help them because we are concentrating on “being” instead of “doing.”

The trouble with our work is that people expect us to be saints whereas in reality we are not saints. We are non saints. In reality we are imperfect people who give our all, but need to eat and sleep and occasionally rest.

To give one’s all is not enough for some critics. A constant effusion of blood, sweat and tears is expected whether it be at midnight or 6 a.m. The plain fact is that one has a limited amount of blood; in truth, we are not stigmatists.

The lives of the saints of the past have led us astray. We thought that to grow as a Christian we needed to always give all without exception. Who in the world ever heard of a saint who suffered burnout? Whoever heard of a saint who said no? The saints of the past seemed to be devoid of human weakness and human emotion.

We have the suspicion that we were raised with an edited version of the lives of the saints. The men and women who were the saints of the past seemed to be perfect in every way. The stories that grew up around them were embellished more after their deaths. They became reality. Their only passion was to love God and their neighbor and this they did perfectly.

The idealism of our youth accepted and loved this perfection and clung to it for some years. We, too, would be saints. But with the passing of years, reality crept in to destroy this illusion, and what we took as a possible way of life was an impossibility. In a sense we felt betrayed. What was a non saint to do?

The saints as we knew them were supermen and super-women and were presented thus for our emulation.

Unfortunately, they were made, not of flesh, but of steel. They were the incredible hulks and bionic women of another age. They were Olympians, whereas we were amateurs.

The temptation of the non saint after a while was to quit while you were ahead.

But who wants imperfect saints? That would be so boring. Who wants saints who become angry when frustrated or exhausted, who complain about how hard they are working, who don’t enjoy failure or thrive on humiliation, who mind being considered a little crazy by their family and the middle class, who object to false accusations about their real motives.

Doesn’t there seem to be a surfeit of mediocrity already?

Isn’t it a sad state of affairs when a bunch of non saints are trying to imitate Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin?

Dorothy Day, in the last year of her life when she was old, sick and tired, was asked by a non saint who considered her a saint how she felt. “I feel awful,” she said. Dorothy was not only an activist but was very much a contemplative who spent many hours in prayer. Dorothy probably said this deliberately to indicate that holiness isn’t “how you feel,” or pious pronouncements. She probably felt that if people called her a saint, it was a way of passing off her life too lightly.

Immediately after Dorothy Day died, a reporter asked the non saints of the Catholic Worker what they were going to do now that the saint (Dorothy) had died. [We have had similar questions here at Casa Juan Diego since our founder, Mark, died. Our answer is the same as the New York Worker’s. – Editors) One Worker responded: “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless. (Matthew, Chapter 25). This can be done by non saints.

People say to us, How do you feel after doing all this great work? You must feel great, Mark and Louise.

The answer is like Dorothy’s: “Mostly, tired.”

But our work is a blessing because it forces us to pray. There are so many tragedies in people’s lives and failures in our abilities to resolve all problems and meet people’s expectations that we are brought to our knees frequently. Sometimes all we have to offer is our emptiness and helplessness.

Prayer is dangerous, of course, because the more you continue to pray daily, the more likelihood you are going to end up somewhere else than a middle class lifestyle. True prayer always includes becoming poor. When we pray, we stand naked and vulnerable in front of the Lord and show our true condition. And somehow God’s grace allows us to live with our non saintliness.

Houston Catholic Worker, April-June 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2.