One of my favorite subjects to read about and investigate is what might aptly be named ‘self-improvement’ or ‘character building’. To be sure, there are several works which aren’t worth the ink spent to print the books. However, there are a few which bases the majority of their influence on the great minds of the past, and these, I have found, come with wisdom, wit and a sense of higher purpose. More than simply ‘thinking positive’ or ‘becoming in touch with the universal force of success’, these books look at the lives of those who lived with purpose and tenacity and became successful in whatever way they might have defined it, biographical texts which unveil the lifestyles and philosophies of those who have made a positive impact on the world. Put this in line with the vast stories of saints and blessed men and women who were indeed successful for the highest purpose, and there seems to be a reoccurring theme.
You see the common misunderstanding of successful people, whether through spiritual triumphs, business ventures or even battlefield resilience, people mistakenly view these individuals as those who have something that they were simply born with. An erroneous thought that the greats of the ancient and modern world were given some great gift or quality that isn’t something we can work for. The problem isn’t that we have recognized a certain charism or quality that they contain, it is that most people will identify such a quality and then make an excuse for not being as driven by thinking ‘well, I could never do something so great’. We often might sit back and give ourselves a justification for living a less heroic life. However, this surely isn’t a biblical or Christian principle. The consistent message of the Church and that of the prophets of old is that we were made for conquering the world through love and mercy and one simply cannot do that unless they are willing to be great. The consistent theme that I have come to distinguish as the foundation of living a heroically great life is that many of the saints and those who the world has come to hold in high regard for virtuous lives failed, and not just once or twice but again and again. The major difference between them and us is that they were totally committed to the mission and thus their failures were not stumbling blocks but rather a constant school from which they learn how not to live in order to realize their dream.
Think about it. The only difference between St. Peter and Judas Iscariot was that Peter was willing to get back up, beg for forgiveness and get right back into the mission. Because of this willingness to recognize his fault Peter lived on to be one of the greatest martyrs of the Church. Success in life, whether spiritual or physical, is not about never failing. We are human beings, failing is part of our life whether we want it to be or not. No, success is an understanding of where failure fits into the bigger picture. I often come across stories of saints who revealed how many times they would go to confession about the exact same sins over and over and felt that they would never be able to defeat this fault that they struggled with. They may have even gone to their death beds still struggling with some small vice which they consistently battled day in and day out. The light within this seeming darkness of fault is found in the fact that they did not recline to such a failing, instead they fought on. They may not have moved toward perfection by way of a smooth sailing trip, but they expressed and increased their heroic virtue by fighting off that major dragon within their lives. And in this, I find courage.
Too often we believe that we deserve comfort. Our natural instinct is to find shelter and build comfortable lives. And indeed there is something innate within us to want to strive for success so that life is a bit more comfortable and that is a good thing. However, comfort can also act as a tangent from our higher calling. We should want to be successful in order to provide for those in our care and for the community at large, but we should never resign ourselves to think that comfort is the ultimate end. Truly successful people are those who stay hungry, those who could easily retire and yet push forward to their next adventure. It is the same in our spiritual lives and is reflected by the great saints of our Faith. St. Isaac Jogues, who through natural human reason could have decided to resign his mission after having his fingers chewed off by the very Huron he was bringing Christ too, instead went back to Europe and begged for a companion to join him so that the Eucharist could continue to be elevated for the people he came to love. We wouldn’t have blamed him for not wanting to go back but instead, he fought on and did not see enduring this incredible suffering as a failure, instead he focused on the mission and pushed forward. He didn’t desire comfort; he desired souls, which means that failure and hardship are simply necessities for success.
So while we might go through times in our lives when we feel like all we do is fail, we sin the same way over and over, we allow our fear to take over when spreading the Gospel message, we lose heart when considering the many dangers which await a true disciple of our Lord, courage can be found in the fact that failure is not the problem, giving up is what leads to the same end as Judas Iscariot. We all have that little voice inside of us begging us not to take the easy route; something within us beckons us to be great. And we all know that greatness is not easy, it requires one failure after another, however, through the grace of Christ and our own human drive, we can become what this world needs: men and women who have failed their way to sanctity.