“The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” –Leon Bloy (1846-1917)
Suppose someone contended that saints are conformists. Would we not shrink from that assertion, thinking it an insult against all holy men and women?
The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, once wrote that “Whosoever would be a man [let alone a saint], must be a nonconformist.” Today, we would add, “. . . or woman” to Emerson’s advice, while still, in the main, agreeing that everyone, of course, should be left to his or her own devices (ignoring, by the way, the warning found in Psalm 81:11-12).
After all, my body (and mind) are my own to do with as I please, when I please (ignoring, by the way, the Pauline prescription that we belong to God [see 1 Cor 6:19-20 and 7:23]). Except for popular legislation, nothing can tell me what to do or how to act. I am the judge of myself. Therefore, I conform only to my own wishes, my own judgments.
If our minds and hearts have no king, no ruler, except our own selfish appetites and aspirations, then we know why “everyone did whatever he wanted,” as we read in Judges (17:6, 21:25; cf. Psalm 12:4). Without the good, the true, and the beautiful to which to conform, we have, instead, the “Dictatorship of Relativism,” to use Pope Benedict’s term.
Not for nothing does Professor Peter Kreeft say that Frank Sinatra’s My Way is “the theme song of Hell.” After all, as we hear in the song: “For what is a man, what has he got/If not himself then he has naught/To say the things he truly feels/And not the words of one who kneels.” (This ignores, by the way, the holy instruction that “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bend” [Phil 2:10-11]. Why kneel to Christ the King, however, if everything is done “my way”?)
The world of business often praises those who can think “outside the box.”
There is something to be said for non-conformist thinking in managerial judgments. Catholics, however, must learn to think inside the box in their moral judgments. By box here, I mean two things: First is the confessional box, which we need so much to help us reflect upon the course of our lives and to confess our sins, to seek priestly guidance and absolution, to amend our lives, and to make satisfaction. Socrates thought that the unexamined life was not worth living. The confessional box provides both opportunity and incentive for us to examine our lives and better to conform our daily actions to our permanent beliefs.
Second in listing but supreme in significance is the tabernacle box, in which Christ our King waits for us. There is He to whom we must orient our lives; there is He who provides us with meaning and destiny; there is He who loved us to His death on the Cross, offering us the path to salvation (cf. John 1:43—an invitation to Philip and to us). To Him and to His teaching we must conform, not just what we do, but also what and how we think. The Catechism calls this “Eucharistic thinking” (#1327): it is, in a certain sense, thinking inside the box (cf. Phil 4:8-9). The confessional box and the tabernacle box—these offer us the way toward saintly conformity. We learn to do things His Way by conforming to His will. As the Chaplet of Divine Mercy leads us to pray: “Eternal God. . . Increase your mercy in us . . . that we might not despair, . . . but, with great confidence, submit ourselves to your holy will, which is Love and Mercy Itself.” Such is sacred conformity; and a saint, St. Faustina Kowalska taught us that divine prayer, given to her in 1935.
Among the mistakes made by many well-intended Christian apologists is the proposition that if we can cite the “right” Biblical chapter and verse, its persuasive power will convert any reader or listener, for God’s word is—truly—“sharper than any double-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). The problem, though, is that if one doubts the divine validity of the pericope or passage cited, then its value will be thwarted—at least in the mind of the doubter.
So we who seek to convert the doubters are mistaken in merely quoting the Bible. Still, the Bible is constantly corroborated by what has transpired in history—and in our own lives. For example, so often our leaders (and we, in our own lives) think that we have the answers to various enduring problems—only to discover that we were mistaken or gullible (cf. Jer 7:23-24).
There is, in that connection, a passage in 2 Chronicles in which the Israelites pray to God: “We do not know what to do, but we look to you for help” (20:12). That conviction is amplified in and by the New Testament, which teaches that “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all mankind, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all” (Eph 4:5-6). Our ultimate goal is not independence, or autonomy, or “doing it my way”; our ultimate goal is union with Christ, in and through His Church.
Other paths lead—demonstrably—to chaos and corruption. When civil law is not grounded in moral law—when positive law does not emulate, or conform to, natural law—we see that “justice is driven away, and right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square and honesty finds no place there. There is so little honesty that anyone who stops doing evil finds himself the victim of crime” (Isaiah 59:14-15; cf. Jeremiah 7:28).
We can read that passage too quickly. It tells us of a moral “rat race.” In a decadent society, if we quit doing evil, we become victims of crime. So disordered—so morally self-absorbed and so corrupt—is the society that its citizens are “obliged” to participate in vice. “They turned away from God’s law, and their sins have made me [Jerusalem—and, today, America?] a deserted city. They had no respect for His commandments and would not live by them; they refused to let Him guide them in the way of righteousness” (Baruch 4:13).
When we do not conform our lives and our laws to the “centripetal power” of virtue (2 Pt 1:5-8), moving us ever closer to the center of Christ, then we lend ourselves to the “centrifugal power” of the Evil One, driving us ever further from the Truth which sets us free. The saints testify to such sacred conformity: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
Emerson was thus terribly wrong about our having to be nonconformists. Quite the reverse: we must be conformists, as are the saints. “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you, but let your behavior change, modeled by your new mind” (Romans 12:2 JB). The “new mind,” of course, is that of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), to which we must conform, to which we must “configure” ourselves. Such moral conformity, configuring, or modeling is accomplished by and through the grace of God, with which, giving thanks, we cooperate (see CCC #1460, 1505, and 1847).
The logic is this: God exists and has given us His divine Son, who, in turn, has given us the Church as Mother and Teacher. We are fulfilled, then, by conforming our lives to that divine teaching. Dante (1265-1321) captured this by saying that “In His will is our peace.” When we configure ourselves, and our societies, to His will, we have peace. And happiness. And meaning. When we dismiss, distort, or deny that teaching, we have misery—and a culture of death.
The simple way of saying, or teaching, this is to suggest a dichotomy: we are either God’s or gods. That is, we seek to know, love, and serve God by doing His will; or we seek to deify ourselves by exalting our own appetites and urges. When that liar the devil accused God of not telling the truth (Gen 3:4-5), he was appealing to Adam and Eve’s desire to be like God (see CCC #398) in their way and at their convenience.
The saints want to be like God, also, but in His way, by His grace, and through His divine providence. Our Lady’s command to the servants at Cana is her adjuration to us as well: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). The saints among us have conformed themselves to that prescription for holiness. And it is to holiness and sainthood that we are called (1 Peter 1:14-15).
In short, if you want genuine (and, ultimately, eternal) happiness, follow Christ. Conform to His way and to His will, as did the saints, whom we rightly revere and honor.
Is any of this, though, susceptible to empirical testing? That is, can we prove it by factual evidence? I think so. A Pharisee named Gamaliel once said this about the new Christian Apostles: “If what they have planned and done is of human origin, it will disappear, but if it comes from God, you cannot possibly defeat them” (Acts 5:38). Which institution existing today will be here—if the world endures—1,000 years from now? Which institution existing today has taught, is teaching, and will teach an unchanging core of truth addressed to the nature and destiny of all human beings ever to walk the earth?
Despite diabolical lies; despite the lurid sins and miserable failures of Church leaders over the centuries; despite the evil done, or ignored, by all of us claiming to be Catholic, the Church is the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic bride of Christ. Not only will she indefectibly endure, she will, in God’s time, gloriously triumph. She will teach her children to do whatever He tells us, and she will call us back to Him when we stray, urging us to be worthy of our call to sainthood, conforming, by His great grace, to the way and the will and the wisdom of Christ the King.
In Chapter 14 of Hebrews appear three sentences which flesh out the bones of the short argument above. First, we have no permanent city here (v. 14), but we look always for our ultimate destiny, which, please God, lies with Him and the saints in Heaven. Second, Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (v. 8). Jesus is not a truth, or some truth, or temporary truth; Jesus is the full truth (the theological term is pleroma) now and always. Third, “Do not let all kinds of strange teachings lead you from the right way” (v. 9). The world is always—but, or so it seems, especially today—filled with sin and error. Conform to God’s Plan. As we read in Psalm 37: “Give yourself to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will help you; He will make your righteousness shine like the noonday sun.” The saints shine “like the nonday sun” precisely because they gave themselves to the Lord (cf. Daniel 12:3).
The chief “strange teaching” of the secular city is that we should conform to nothing and to no one—except to our own prideful selves (cf. Isaiah 14:14). That way lies moral disaster, not moral destiny.
We humans want to follow the right path and the true leader. That path and that leader shine in (and above) the pages of history and, if we have the eyes to see, in the events of our own lives. It is to Him that we should always and steadfastly conform. As Pope St. John Paul said: “Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church” (Veritatis Splendor, #119).
All the saints share at least one conviction and one passion: they are conformists in binding themselves to Our Lord’s command: “Follow Me.” Thus can and should we similarly conform to St. Paul’s exhortation: “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). Amen!
Photo: Plaza San Pedro, Piazza San Pietro, Ciudad del Vaticano via Cathopic.
 I do not want to be misunderstood here. I do not mean to suggest that, even in an evil society, we ought to sin. A saint admonished us about that: “Why not say, then, ‘Let us do evil so that good may come’?” (Romans 3:8). The Catechism clearly teaches that both our end or intention and the means we choose must be worthy if our action is to be morally righteous (#1789, #1756).
Deacon James H. Toner (M.A., William & Mary; Ph.D., Notre Dame) is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous books, articles, reviews, and monographs. He has taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has contributed many columns to The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, One Peter Five, and the Wanderer, as well as myriad academic and military periodicals. He and his wife Rebecca have three sons and eleven grandchildren.