The Saints We Touch: The Example of Ordinary Holiness

August 5, 2020

I’ve never been good at initiating hugs. I’m pro-hugging, and very much so, it’s just that I’ve always felt awkward with being the first to spread his arms and move in for the hug.

“Zubair,” Louis Coker, OFS, would say before spreading his arms and moving in on me, “my brother.” He had a knack for it.

Louis was a fellow Secular Franciscan, in Raleigh, and that was how I’d met him a little over a year ago. He had grown up in Charleston, S.C., during the era of segregation, and the experience of it taught him very valuable lessons about dignity.  He was raised Episcopalian, and was received into the Catholic Church while he was in his sixties. He made up for his conversion at an advanced age with activity…a lot of activity. He joined the Knights of Columbus, was a Eucharistic Minister, and an RCIA sponsor. He was a widower, and a living example of acceptance. He was also a die-hard Canes fan (can’t fault anyone for that), and before we had met I never thought I’d hear so many words of enthusiasm for hockey coming from someone with a southern accent. A fair number of local Catholic men, myself included, most all of us being younger than Louis, had looked up to him as an example of how to live one’s faith.

On the afternoon of July 13, on what I had gathered would just be any other Monday, I received a very saddening email: Louis had suddenly passed away.

“Damn,” I thought to myself. A good number of people had a similar reaction. Having a friend like Louis to serve as an example made going to Mass seem more like a privilege, less like a chore.

Who are the saints?

“Who says you can’t be a saint?” – the Bosco Boys

There was once a time, for me, when the word “saint” referred only to those who were canonized, whom the Church honored with the title “Saint.” Historical figures such as St. Francis or St. Maximilian Kolbe came to mind. Those who had been living legends within my own lifetime, such as Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, likewise drew to mind. Canonized saints played a crucial role in the formation of my own faith, having done so much to draw my intellectual interest in the Church before I went on to become Catholic.

Canonized saints are, statistically speaking, are rare. They are one-in-many-millions people. They were men and women who were martyred, who wrote great theological works, who received Visitations from Our Lady, or who went to the other side of the earth to spend day-and-night tending to the sick. And by focusing on such great deeds of faith, narrowly defining sainthood only as canonization, holiness can appear so inaccessible. 

The canonized saints are very much deserving of our admiration. But what’s a lay Catholic, living a relatively normal life, supposed to do? 

“To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints…” – Romans 1:7

Holiness Changes Things

In September 2010 I was an Evangelical Christian, sitting at a pew in the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York, seeking some quiet time with God before going to work. 

I had been seriously mulling, for several months, whether or not to become Catholic. The lives of several of the canonized saints had impressed me very much. Arguments laid forth by the Doctors of the Church had been relayed to me, via Catholic apologetics, and I found them rather convincing. But I was already a Christian, having been baptized three years prior. Was another conversion really necessary? How could I know that I wouldn’t just convert to yet another church a few years after that?

What I had intended to be my quiet time with God had also run into a snag: some woman was pacing at the back of the church, screaming in hysterics. The echoes of her screaming rang throughout the church. It was pretty distracting. “Will someone shut her up?” I had wondered to myself.

A security guard at the church approached the crazed woman. 

“Finally!” I thought to myself. I watched them from the corner of my eye. The security guard walked up and stood right in front of the crazed woman. And then he did what he needed to: he…hugged her. 

The crazed woman went silent. I could finally have that quiet time with God. It was in that moment that my “maybe” became a “yes.” I would become a Catholic. God had given me a definitive answer, not through the works of a canonized saint, but through the example set forth by a guard whose name I never even learned.  

Grandmas and Ordinary Saints

RCIA was a rewarding process. The gradual suspicion that sainthood may be broader than canonization was one of the fruits. St. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t available to instruct me. But Fr. Robert Collins, SJ, did as fine a job as any Doctor of the Church could have. St. Clare of Assisi wasn’t available to sponsor me. A lay Catholic named Winnie Morello was kind enough to give her time to me, and happily so. And I was received into the Church, not by St. Peter (physically speaking, that is), but by Fr. Gilbert Martinez, CSP.

I’ve been very blessed in the years since RCIA to have been surrounded by living examples of what it means to live the Catholic faith. Some had been devout for several decades, “O.G. Catholics,” setting their examples for the brand new Catholic. Some were fellow converts. I’d met many while I was living in New York. I continue to meet them today in Raleigh. Such living examples have served as an encouragement. And through trials of doubt (they do happen) I’ve found that living examples do far more keep me going than any of the canonized saints I’ve read about. 

Deeds which get deemed as normal, such as going to Mass, or confession, or volunteering, or joining a secular order, don’t grab the attention of people across the globe. Since they aren’t deemed “spectacular” it’s easy to dismiss them when we compare any of ourselves to the canonized saints. Perhaps, by being so accessible, it can be easy to forget that which all canonized saints concur on: that the Eucharist before our eyes is a miracle. It’s so easy to dismiss the “normal.” But there is a great power in having someone to look to, and to talk to, that having someone to read about just doesn’t match. How often do we forget that by participating in “normal” activities, we can encourage the person next to us?

“Is there a person who inspired you to remain an active Catholic?” one could ask most practicing cradle-Catholics. I’ve found that the answer is much less likely to be “St. _____” as it is something along the lines of “grandma.” A million grandmas, simply by having practiced their faith, keep millions of pew seats warm. Those little things, which any of us can easily do, very much add up, and the sum of little things done by grandmas may contribute more to the economy of salvation than any of the great deeds of the canonized saints. And it is by having examples that we go on to become examples ourselves.

On the flip side, I was raised Muslim, and the erosion of my faith in Islam had less to do with being able to recall the name Osama bin Laden (although that did go a long way) and more to do with being able to recall the names of several of my old Sunday school teachers. 

Not everyone is called to the priesthood. Anyone can be a Eucharistic Minister, and parish priests always have need of them. A call to lifelong missionary work may be very rare. But there are countless short-term mission trips, and local soup kitchens, which anyone can volunteer for. My buddy Louis, having picked up so much activity at an advanced age, was proof that there’s no such thing as “too late to start.” And the security guard at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle proves that we can do wonders for a stranger by being a living example.  

Could the Gospel truly be called the “good news” for most of us if sainthood were only for the elite champions of our faith? Could it be that sainthood is far more accessible than most of us would realize? If “normal” activities, such as partaking in the Sacraments, weren’t enough for the saving of our souls, wouldn’t Our Lord have instituted whatever else was necessary on top of them? Isn’t the Holy Spirit who worked through the canonized saints also the One who calls us to do those normal activities? And how many of the canonized saints themselves grew in their own faith because they had examples from the laity to look to?

In the end, the Faith is kept warm, not so much by the saints we hear about, as by the saints we touch. 

Zubair Simonson, O.F.S., is a convert who was raised Muslim. He grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and has also lived in New York. He received his B.A. at the University of Michigan, majoring in Political Science. He is a professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order. The story of his conversion was included in the book My Name is Lazarus, published by the American Chesterton Society. He has several books available on Kindle, including The Rose: A Meditation, a narrative guide through the mysteries of the Rosary, and Stars and Stooges: A Christmas Tale, a humorous take on the three wise men. His website is Follow on Twitter at @ZubairSimonson.

Zubair Simonson


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