When you think of the word 'saint', what comes to mind? A nun, fervently praying while tucked away in a secluded cloister? A holy monk, hands folded in prayer, the quiet strains of Handel's 'Messiah' playing in the background of the chapel he spends his day in?
In his latest apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis challenges us to change the way we think about the saints. Sainthood isn't far-off and it's certainty not unattainable. "To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest, or religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer," the pope writes in Gaudete et exsultate - Rejoice and be Glad. "I like to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God's people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick, in elderly religious who never lose their smile. In their very daily perseverance I see the holiness of the Church militant."
One of the holiest women who I've ever met was a woman at my Church growing up - Mrs. Becker. She had immigrated to the United States from Germany and put down roots in our little German parish in Kansas. You could count on hearing her voice from the choir loft on Sunday morning. Littles would scramble out of their pews after Mass to dash back to the foyer to say good morning and eat a cookie from the basket she carried with her into Mass. Pope Francis would have been an admirer of Mrs. Becker's quiet holiness - and I loved encountering Christ, holiness, and sainthood through her as I grew up in our parish.
"Very often, holiness is found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God's presence," Pope Francis writes. In our throw-away culture though, meeting the holiness present in our next door neighbors and those in our own five mile radius can be an intimidating task. We're more connected than we've ever been thanks to modern technology, but we've lost the art of encountering others face-to-face.
Just how do we get back to the basics of encountering Christ in our next door neighbors, our co-workers, and those in line at the grocery store? How do we see the Lord and strive towards holiness alongside the people who drive beside us on our morning commute, sit at the table next to us in the cafeteria, and pick up kids with us at the end of the school day? Can we see Christ reflected in the couple who sits in the pew next to us at Mass?
Although I'm not an expert at encountering others, and I have so much room for improvement, here are a few ways you can encounter the person striving towards sainthood who may live right next door to you:
1. Say hello
How often do we go about our day without encountering those we interact with? I know I'm guilty. Although I'm not a fan of small talk (give me some heart-to-hearts!) I have realized, after reading Pope Francis's exhortation, that I'm not that great at interacting with those around me and seeing Christ in them during my daily interactions with others.
Want to start getting to know those striving for holiness around you? Say good morning to the people at the coffee shop you stop in before work. Ask your co-worker how their weekend was before the meeting starts. Stop by and introduce yourself to the other mom at morning Mass who's wrangling little people just like you are. Ask your parish priest how he's doing when you pause to shake his hand on the way out to your car this weekend. Make eye contact with the homeless person on the street and treat them as you would treat Christ. The opportunities are endless - and it just starts with a 'hello'.
2. Get back to some old fashioned porch sitting
Last summer, we spent an evening with young adults and a priest at the parish rectory. We gathered to share a meal with each other, but as the evening progressed, we took advantage of the warm spring night and ended up on the porch. We took our drinks outside with us, some lit an evening pipe, and we chatted about life, Catholicism, and our relationship with God.
It wasn't too long into our porch sitting that a few people passed by the sidewalk and said hello, asking us how our evening was going. It struck me during our brief interaction with them before they headed on their way, that I was missing that interaction in my life. We had lived in a little apartment for months before our neighbor said hello to us, and I couldn't even tell you the name of the tenants who shared a wall with us. It wasn't until I sat out on the rectory porch that I realized I didn't see my neighbors because none of us sat outside and chatted with each other. We went about our daily business, heads down, and didn't encounter each other.
The duplex that we're living in now has a little front porch and a back patio. Twice over the past couple of weeks, Joseph and I have folded up our kitchen chairs, grabbed a drink, and headed out to the porch. We get a chance to enjoy the spring weather, chat about our day, and see our neighbors. It seems like such a simple thing to do, but it's quickly becoming one of my favorite ways to spend the evening.
3. Invest in some face time (not facetime) with friends
"The same distractions that are omnipresent in today's world also make us tend to absolutize our free time, so that we can give ourselves over completely to the devices that provide us with entertainment or ephemeral pleasure," Pope Francis writes. Ouch, Papa. That one hit me where it hurts - how often am I guilty of turning to Facebook in times of boredom, or when I don't want to make a decision about how we should spend our free time that evening. What happens when we chose our phones over those who live in our homes and next door? "We come to resent our mission, our commitment grows slack, and our generous and ready spirit begins to flag." Those are some hefty consequences.
How do we avoid becoming slaves to our phones? How do we keep the little devices we keep in our pocket from controlling our friendships and interactions with others? Create space to encounter others. Do you normally pull out your phone and scroll through Insta at the subway stop? Keep it in you pocket and take the time to meet someone who probably takes the same commute with you every morning. Is your phone in your hand at the grocery line? Keep it in your bag and chat with the grocery store clerk. I find that avocados are always a great conversation starter.
Pope Francis encourages us to not be afraid of holiness. "It will take away none of your energy, vitality, or joy. On the contrary, you will become what the Father had in mind when He created you, and you will be faithful to your deepest self."
Want to read Pope Francis' latest apostolic exhortation on holiness? In Gaudete et exsultate, he covers topics like your mission in Christ, the beatitudes, and going against the flow of today's culture. It's only five chapters long and beautifully accessible - the perfect read before going to bed at night, during your adoration hour, or with a small study group! Pick up a hard copy here!