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What Makes a Saint?

September 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Holiness

Dear Father John, why does becoming a saint seem to make us less human? I don't mean “less human” in that we cannot observe beauty, drink wine, listen to DeBussy, cry tears of joy or make love. What I mean is that if you take Mother Teresa as an example or even Pope Francis, it seems that it’s in the denial of their human needs (or in putting the needs of others first) that they are more Christ-like and more aligned with God. So, what I gather from this is that the more I am able to deny myself pleasure and provide it to another, the holier I will become. And that’s the paradox I don’t think I understand. Can you help me out?

Well, there is a short answer to this question, but I don't know if you are going to like it. The reason that saints often seem to deny themselves all kinds of worldly pleasures is simply because they have found a much greater pleasure. They actually discover such an intense spiritual pleasure in fulfilling the mission that God has given them that they, in a certain sense, just stop thinking about the other pleasures. The devil even has to find other ways to tempt them – and he does so by spiritualizing the seven capital sins (gluttony, lust, anger, sloth, pride, envy, greed). But we have already covered that topic here.

The Greatest Pleasure
[Saint] Mother Teresa's great desire in life was to live in greater and greater intimacy with Jesus. When Jesus invited her to become a nun, she said yes because she was so in love with him, so drawn to him. She wanted to do what he wanted so that she could achieve greater spiritual intimacy with him. When he then asked her to start a new religious order to care for the poorest of the poor, she said yes again, because her love for him was so intense that she derived her greatest pleasure from giving him the pleasure of her commitment, her life, her love, her work, her faithfulness to him. Compared to the pleasure of intimacy with God, the other pleasures simply didn't really matter as much.

This happens in the spiritual life. Our desires and our experience of pleasure are kind of transformed as we grow in spiritual maturity. We find more intense satisfaction in simply doing God's will, in fulfilling the mission that he gives us, than we do even in wonderful worldly pleasures like great art and great food and great friendships. I know that it seems like saints are “less human” because of this, but that's not really the case.

New Categories of Delight
Here’s a comparison (from the contemporary Catholic philosopher, Dr. Peter Kreeft) that may help clarify things. If you try to tell a little boy about the pleasures of marital intimacy, it won't really seem that attractive to him. He might ask, “Well, can you eat candy while you’re doing that?” That would make it more exciting to him, because candy is a pleasure that fits his level of maturity. It's no use telling him that he won't even care about candy on his honeymoon, because he just doesn't have any categories in his experience for pleasures greater than candy.

It's certainly an incomplete analogy, but I think it can help. As we grow spiritually, our capacity to know, love, and enjoy God grows and grows. And so, we become less and less attached to God's many wonderful gifts, and more and more desirous of simply living in a constant and constantly deeper union with him. Insofar as created things will help that union, we make use of them, but they become much less important as our soul is given the ability to taste God more directly, more spiritually. This is why the saints often seem so indifferent to things that we consider make life more “human.” It’s not that they don’t value those things, it’s that they value them more properly, more contextually than the rest of us. Our humanity reaches is fullness insofar as we are living in communion with God, and when we are fully immersed in that communion, things that aren’t God take up less bandwidth in our minds and heart – rather, they more and more directly lift our minds and hearts to God and intensify our communion with him.

God’s Good Gifts are Still Good
But I have to reiterate that Catholic spirituality never ever denigrates the wonderful gifts of God in this world. Music, art, food, beauty, nature, friendship, learning, literature, sports – these are values that the Church always encourages and praises and supports and develops. Jesus was not a sourpuss, and neither were the saints. They may seem that way from our perspective at times, but it's just not true. God's ways of reaching out to each soul are unique, because each person is unique. And there are plenty of saints who never took a vow of poverty or chastity. The proper use of God's wonderful gifts here on earth is never an obstacle to intimacy with God, even though as we become more and more intimate with the giver of those gifts, the gifts themselves hold less allure.

The key thing is to seek God in all things, and to seek his will. Enjoy a Broadway play, and use the experience to enrich your understanding of the human condition and to praise God for giving us the capacity to create and enjoy beauty. Enjoy a beautiful sunset in the same way. But when God nudges you to resist a temptation or to make an act of generosity, trust him then too; say yes, and continue to say yes, and let him lead you to the mysterious and dizzying delights of deeper intimacy with him.

God bless you!


Art: Mother Teresa of Calcuta [sic], portrait painting by Robert Pérez Paulou, 1 January 1994, CCA 3.0 Unported; Dr. Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, Catholic apologist, English wikipedia at, Nov 2006 Marax |Permission= from P. Kreeft (see En; Wikimedia Commons); both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • RobinJeanne

    I can look back on my own life’s journey and see that the things 10 yrs ago
    that were important to me, like junk antique shopping, have not the same
    important’s to me. Not because I was asked not to shop but because I was being
    offered something more desirable, God and for Him to dwell within me I had to
    make room and I did so with great delight. I still like the old stuff but I
    don’t “have to have that” anymore. Such exchanges of temporary pleasure for an
    ever expanding, everlasting pleasure of union with the Blessed Lord.

    I loved Mr Kreeft’s example of the 10yr old candy vs honeymoon. I pray I
    always remember that when I need to explain the ways of holiness.
    Thanks for the great article.

  • Yule

    Wow, great write!

    And thanks for reminding me of this one, “The proper use of God’s wonderful gifts here on earth is never an obstacle to intimacy with God.”

    Thank you for sharing.

    The candy analogy is superb!

  • Camila

    What a great post father! So so true. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I’ll have something delicious, say a great cookie, then I’ll be thinking, “well, that was nice, but the pleasure lasted so short, for such a short time. I’d have to keep eating many cookies to keep experiencing those delicious delights” BUT when I’m in prayer and God grants me consolation “His delights last SO much longer, some times even days”….so I keep asking myself “why on earth do I seek these petty delights when they are like miniscule straws that flame up and vaporize almost immediately” whereas God “Oh God” His delights are so sublime.

    Just this weekend I was given a huge spiritual challenge where I discovered something that tore my heart to pieces. In prayer God showed me He desires to purify my past clingings, to detach myself to many illusions of my life that I comforted myself with. At first I was in so much sorrow, but when I was finally able to say “Thy will be done” sincerely say that and truly will it, that God has His way – wow! The peace and freedom and dare I say delight I felt was just beyond the best “cookie” I could have in this life. There is just something so pleasurable in detaching one’s heart and clinging it to God, who will never be taken from Me.

    Father Bartunek, thank you so much for the great post!

  • patricia

    Saints become more of themselves when they grow in deeper union with the inner life of the Holy Trinity. This I learned through Dr. Lilles this reality as well the more we and the saints grow deeper in union with God the increased charity that we and the saints have for our neighbor. This reality seems unreal and non human it is because we are living a supernatural life becoming what God wants us to become. Father this is a great post and your point we must say yes to Gods will his Glory in which like Mary’s fiat she surrender to God and desired nothing more than his holy will so must we which is our true happiness in our lives. Thanks for posting this Father.

  • $1650412

    One of my favorite examples of this ‘real life’- living kind of holiness in the saints is Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. He was a ‘switched-on’ young man, full of vitality, in the world but not of the world- sanctifying the world by bringing his brand of being filled with God’s love to every touch point he had with people in his course of life. I think sometimes we want the rule book, the formula, the code and then we can go through the checklist and we’re in! And there are all those things, but the means to sanctity are not just in cracking the code, ‘striking the pose’ in life. Holiness is life in Christ lived in a wide variety of ways- in our control, outside our control, in the realm of response, among our volition in our choices- through contemplation and communication with the Spirit in the Word and by impressions in our minds and hearts- alignments of our affections, by convergences of components of the human person in the midst of the symphony of the operation of sanctifying grace….it’s complicated, and it’s very simple. The saint is always pursuing Jesus, seeking God- like the deer longing for water….to whom shall we go? You alone, Lord, are the Word, Who is eternal life.
    We aim to be detached from disordered affection, but to be in Christ is to be attached with perfect order to everything rightly loved in God- there is a more acute appreciation for all that God loves, all that is good, noble, true and beautiful, and all that Christ suffered and died for- a deeper love and more profound joy- maybe a more terrifying commitment. Sainthood is not for the fainthearted.

  • Jeanette Steiner Grayhek

    Love this post! It is a great way to explain away the notion that saints are boring and no fun. The things of this earth fall away, as intimacy with God grows, even things like sentimentality and attachments (improper) to children. God is our one and only True Good….but I still give thanks for a wood fire and glass of brandy on a cold evening : )

    • Camila

      Hi Jeanette,

      I was amazed when I had the same thought you shared here, that we are to be detached even from children. After spending some fun loving time with my baby I thought to myself just how even from him, this adorable and cute baby my heart is to be detached from and be totally attached to God. Jesus Himself said this, right in Luke 14: 26 – unless you ‘hate’ mother, father, children…. He’s serious. Not that we are to hate as in the vice hate, but we are to love Him so much, so completely, so totally that we’ll be free from everything that hold our heart and let nothing get in the way.

      How do you keep a check and balance on attachments?

      • Jeanette Steiner Grayhek

        I can only keep these attachments in check with God’s help. I also try to keep improper attachments in check by keeping a consistent prayer life and if that begins to slip or I am not giving God the love and worship He is due, then take a look at what might be getting in the way. I personally don’t think you could be improperly attached to your sweet little baby, because they require so much love and attention, but that changes as children get older. I will give you an example from my own life, when I first realized that God was calling me to detach myself from one of my children.

        My son, homeschooled and raised in the Catholic faith, came to my house to announce that he was going to marry his girlfriend. When I asked if they were going to have a Catholic wedding, he said “no.” Not only did they want to get married outside the Church, but it would be with some minister acquaintance with no mention of God. To add insult to injury, wedding vows were written by them and passages read out of a Dr. Seuss book. I told him that I could not attend this ceremony. Not only did I know this was not a sacramental marriage but I also knew that I would scandalize all six of his younger brothers and sisters by attending. I come from a large Catholic family and there was much disagreement and several people from my family thought I was being selfish, stubborn, vengeful, etc. God gave me the strength to detach myself from my son and accept the fact that he would be angry with me and maybe not ever talk to me again (which didn’t happen).
        As a side note, after I stood firm in this very painful and heart wrenching situation, God sent me spiritual gifts and consolations that sent me soaring higher than I ever could have imagined! God is so good.
        May God bless you and your dear little one!

        • Camila

          Oh Jeanette, Thanks for your witness. What a story! Fr. Dubay talks about how incredibly demanding it is to live truly according to the Gospel. We can’t imagine for a split second that we’ll find it easy peasy. You are a testimony for sure, and what a great gift to feel so close to our Lord amidst your willingly self surrender and great suffering. Detachment is so important to the spiritual maturity. Thanks again for sharing.

  • Turn your eyes upon Jesus
    Look full in his wonderful face,
    and the things of this world will
    grow strangely dim, in the light
    of His glory and grace.
    song: written by Helen Lemmel in 1922

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