Thomas Merton’s Two Step Guide To Becoming a Saint

Thomas Merton, in Seven Story Mountain, recounts a conversation with his best friend Robert Lax one evening while they’re kicking around 6th Ave in New York City in which he asked Merton what he wanted to be. Merton, after stumbling on the question, says “I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.” From the book:

“What you should say”— he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”  . . . I said: “How do you expect me to become a saint?” “By wanting to,” said Lax, simply. “I can’t be a saint,” I said.  . . . But Lax said: “No. All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” A long time ago, St. Thomas Aquinas had said the same thing— and it is something that is obvious to everybody who ever understood the Gospels. After Lax was gone, I thought about it, and it became obvious to me.

It takes 2 things: desire and consent.

This notion of everyday sainthood is close to my heart because it was the central theme in the eulogy message I gave a few weeks ago for a father figure, friend and mentor in my life who died recently. I was honored, deeply touched when his family asked me to do this. He was 82 and to me he is a saint. Not was but is.  

The story goes something like this . . . Not long after my dad’s death he invited me over to play music with his family. I was a teenager with nowhere to turn. He and his wife were friends with my parents. Not best friends but friends. He encouraged me to learn to play the banjo and guitar. He played the tenor guitar, or a mouth bow and occasionally a washtub bass he made. His wife and three daughters played other instruments and sang. Playing with a group, this family, it became clear that I really did not understand timing or keys or proper capo usage or any of it. He never ever one single time showed frustration with my incompetence. They made me feel like I was part of their family. This was off and on throughout high school. They made me think that even though I could not sing that I actually could. Do you know what that feels like?

Over the years he taught me how to use a camera, got me into CB-Radios [it was the 70s – what can I say]. This was a very difficult time in my life. I thought God had abandoned me after my dad died. Clearly He did not. He is a saint to me. As Aquinas to Lax to Merton says, he wanted to and consented to being my saint. I don’t know how or why but he did and he did it for decades. Don’t ask me to play the banjo today because all I can play is part of Foggy Mountain Breakdown but it was there when I needed it.

Have you had someone like this in your life? An everyday saint. Someone who wanted to be and consented to it time and time again. I would love to hear about it. I am not talking about a really good friend. Friends can be our heroes at times for certain. I don’t mean Mother Teresa – the actual person – because she’s not what I’d call an “everyday” saint. I mean someone, who more than once, picked you up when you’d almost given up. I don’t mean someone who literally saved your life and pulled you from a burning car. It’s more mundane than that. It’s little and almost unnoticeable until it’s not.