It was Holy Thursday, nearing midnight—that's when all the best conversations happen. A friend and I were discussing a book we had both read recently, 33 Days to Merciful Love, and how in the time of St. Thérese of Lisieux, the Jansenism heresy was shaking the Church in its teeth.
"But if you look at the Church's history," she said, "it was in the times of greatest heresy and upheaval that God raised up the greatest saints."
These words landed on my heart like a kick to the chest and I suddenly found myself blinking back tears. I fought to regain my composure as I felt Jesus say, "I want you to be that saint."
Then the conversation resumed, as though nothing had happened.
Later that evening, as we were driving home, I wanted to tell my husband about that strange experience... but I stopped myself. How absurd it would sound to the person who gets a front row seat to all my sins and failures, to all my bad habits. It just felt really arrogant to say those words out loud, so I pushed the incident from my mind.
It wasn't until a few days later, in the quiet of my childhood bedroom, that I allowed myself to ponder it again. The sudden force of it dropped me to my knees, and I bent over the bed weeping uncontrollably.
You know, the funny thing about this painting is that when I was taking the reference photo, I tied the rope around my own wrists. I thought about that often over the next few weeks as I formed each brushstroke—that the biggest obstacle to my becoming a saint is myself.
Why is it so embarrassing for me to admit that I am called to be a saint? Maybe even a great saint? After all, my entire life I've heard that "everyone is called to be a saint"... But there's something comfortably generic and impersonal in that. To presume that God is calling me by name, that he wants to make me into a saint who is totally unique, totally new? It seems... well, a little too hopeful, like a child who wants to have magic powers.
But that's the great lie, isn't it? That because of my circumstances or personality or my particular collection of spectacular failures, that I cannot be a saint.
And I actually can't, can I? That's the genius of this lie. I am as capable of becoming a saint as I am of taking a leisurely stroll to the moon. But being a saint isn't about my efforts, my success. It's about mercy.
I am coming to see that the only way that someone as flawed and weak as I am could possibly get to heaven is if Jesus bends down and picks me up in his arms, and lifts me to the heights of holiness himself. He is the one who will untie these ropes of doubt and sin and equip me with the grace to live this ordinary life with extraordinary love. And he will do it one moment at a time, like the heartbeat of a soul.
How many saints have past generations been starved of, not knowing this secret? That sainthood lies not in grand gestures but in surrender? Not in worldwide renown but in humbly accepting the abundance of God's merciful love into the abyss of our brokenness?
Right now the world desperately needs saints to turn the tide of darkness, perhaps even more than in the time of St. Thérese. But like that young, unknown nun who would later be recognized as a Doctor of the Church, I think that the greatest saints will be found in littleness and obscurity... Indeed, I believe that it will be an army of little saints who will transform the world from the inside out.
God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness.
— St. Thérese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul
About This Painting
Knowing that I wanted to write about this experience, I began looking around for images to accompany it. It didn't take long for me to decide upon hands—weak, dirty, bound hands.
The painting process was a contemplative experience. Throughout Lent, by journaling and reading several books including 33 Days to Merciful Love and A Mother's Rule of Life, I have slowly come to acknowledge habits I had allowed to infiltrate my life and take control of me, not least of which was rushing into my day without any significant amount of time in prayer and contemplation. So, for the two weeks that I painted this image, I intentionally took a solid hour every morning to make myself a cup of tea, pray with my Magnificat, and then paint.
It should have rankled my deep-seated North American inclination to produce produce produce, and yet this hour of quiet meditation birthed in me an undeniable peace as I went about the rest of my day.
Not only that, the painting technique itself spoke a word deep into my heart. That sometimes a beautiful story is formed not with bold, broad brushstrokes, but in small daubs applied with care and patience.