Many of us have been pilgrims, walking the paths saints have trod before us. How many of us have been saints, treading paths worthy of pilgrims yet to come?
We can fly over land and sea, at great discomfort, and greater expense, to see the places sanctified by Brother Francis’ simple life of poor service. We can walk the streets of Assisi, we can visit the place of his imprisonment, we can pray within the Portiuncula. But how many of us sanctify the halls of our homes by living lives as St. Francis did? Would anyone be moved to pray in the places that we lived, 800 years after our death?
If not, do we cling to pious excuses to justify ourselves? St. Philip Neri, after all, no mean model of holiness, used to declare, “Say not what great things the saints of God do; say rather what great things God accomplishes through his saints.”
How many of us think of this saying not as an indictment of ourselves, but as an excuse for half-heartedness? Have you ever caught yourself saying, “If God wanted me to go the extra mile, He would give me special graces; I can’t do it on my own”? Is it not rather a mark against us that God is not now working wonders in our lives? I do not pretend to know the hidden designs of the Almighty; rather, the Church teaches us that the call to holiness is universal, given to every man, woman, and child on earth who ever was and who ever will be. And what but sanctity is the distinguishing mark of the saint?
God has called us all to be saints, and instead we find ourselves living lives of little zeal, little constancy, and little fruit. How characteristic, then, that we cling to our comforts and, twisting the words of great saints, somehow manage to blame the whole thing on God. How terrible to realize that we can know for certain that God is calling us, aiding us, pushing us constantly to live in imitation of Christ, and yet, in spite of Almighty assistance, to see how often we fall.
For what, after all, is Assisi but the place in which one man, and one woman, allowed God to work fully in their lives? Do we not all live in our own Assisi, right now? And if we can’t see that, why not?
Perhaps, as Francis once did, we still hope to win glory in war, or to make our fortune as merchants.
And yet St. Francis did win glory in war against his sinful pride, and in selling all he owned, profited himself eternal life; he became his city’s most beloved son. He was the best of knights, fighting for the best of Lords, the most successful of merchants, and, far from ruining his family’s hard-earned good name, found brothers and sisters across the world and down the centuries. Why should empty ambition hold you back?
You could make a pilgrimage this Lent, and it would hopefully be fruitful. Or, this Lent, you could make the place you live a place worthy of pilgrimage, following radically the footsteps of St. Francis and of all the saints before and since.