A Year with the Saints: Daily Meditations with the Holy Ones of God is a handsome daily devotional edited by Paul Thigpen (and it’s available for Kindle, too), published by the Catholic St. Benedict’s Press. It’s got Church fathers and doctors of the Church, and it covers household names like St. Augustine, as well as the lesser-known St. John Eudes and St. John Chrysostom. Teresa of Ávila, Catherine of Siena, and St. Clare get equal time, too. Thigpen, who dedicates the book to his grandchildren — “three little saints in the making” — talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about spending a year with the saints.
LOPEZ: How does one become a “holy one of God”?
THIGPEN: One surefire way to holiness is to imitate the saints and to take their wisdom to heart. In fact, the New Testament word for “saint” means literally “holy one.” Pope St. Clement once said, “Those who follow the saints will themselves become saints.” That’s the purpose of this book: to help people become saints through getting to know the saints.
LOPEZ: Do you worship the saints? There is some confusion out there.
THIGPEN: Since ancient times, the Catholic Church has recognized the difference between veneration and adoration (or what today we would call worship). Adoration (worship) is the act of giving ourselves to God as the One to whom we owe everything, an act of absolute submission to Him. He alone, then, is to be adored, to be worshiped, in this sense.
Veneration, on the other hand, is a much lesser thing: the paying of appropriate honor to a creature of God who deserves such honor. When we venerate the saints, then, we’re not adoring them as if they were the source of our existence, or worshiping them in the modern sense of the word. We’re simply honoring them.
Showing honor is a natural human response to the goodness, even the greatness, of another human being. We honor the founders and other leaders of our country from throughout our history. We name cities after them, write books about them, erect statues of them in public places. We paint pictures of them to display in schools and government buildings. We speak reverently and gratefully of them on patriotic holidays.
We do similar things for great scientists, great leaders of social movements, great artists and musicians. Why? Because it’s a matter of justice to recognize their gifts and contributions to us. Justice means giving to each his due, and we recognize that we owe much to these great human beings, and we want to say so in different ways.
In all these ways, we are venerating these great men and women — we are giving them honor. And so we shouldn’t be surprised that the Catholic Church venerates the great heroes of the faith, who over the centuries have embodied in an extraordinary manner the way of life to which we’re called as Christians. Now that these men and women have been perfected by God and are saints standing face to face with Him in heaven, we have even more reason to venerate them.
Some may object that if we venerate the saints, God will be jealous, because we should give honor to Him alone. But He’s a God of justice, so it’s His will that honor be given where honor is due. Scripture tells us: “Pay . . . honor to whom honor is due” The saints are His perfected handiwork, His masterpieces. When we praise the craftsmanship, all the accolades go to the craftsman.
LOPEZ: You converted to Catholicism. Did the saints play a role?
THIGPEN: An essential role. While working on my Ph.D. in historical theology, I read numerous texts by Catholic saints and blesseds from throughout Church history. Many of them became my teachers and mentors. In particular, the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Ávila, and Blessed John Henry Newman transformed my understanding of Jesus Christ, the Christian faith, and God’s will for the Church. I found myself talking with them as I read their words — even though my particular Christian tradition at the time would have insisted that such conversations were impossible.
I still recall the afternoon when I was reading St. Augustine’s essay against the Donatists, a group of his Christian contemporaries who had separated themselves from the Catholic Church because they thought the Church wasn’t “pure” enough. Reading point after point that he made in refutation of their position, I would say aloud, “That’s right! You tell ’em, Augustine!”
But eventually the reality hit me. Every point the saint made could also be argued against the Christians of my own tradition who had separated from the Catholic Church long ago because they thought it had lost its purity. I remember setting the book down on my desk, shaking my head, and saying (again aloud), “Oh, my goodness! I am a Donatist!”
It was just one of many insights from the saints that brought me into the full light of the Catholic faith.
LOPEZ: How did you go about collecting the daily meditations?
THIGPEN: The challenge was not finding them; my bookshelves are filled with writings of the saints. The great challenge — given that I was compiling a single book rather than a library — was in deciding which wonderful quotes and anecdotes of the saints I had to leave out for lack of space.
Perhaps the greatest initial challenge in selecting the meditations lay in deciding on a way to organize them. The books in this particular series each provide a year’s worth of meditations — 365 daily readings — but they aren’t tied to specific days or seasons in the Church calendar. I finally decided to organize them roughly according to the progression of topics in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. First, then, are meditations about the various aspects of the profession of faith, then the celebration of the Christian mystery, then life in Christ, and finally Christian prayer.
LOPEZ: What’s so special about the sacraments and Mass? You include a lot of meditations about them.
THIGPEN: The sacraments, and the Eucharist in particular, are so familiar and so commonly available to most Catholics that it’s easy to take them for granted. As a convert, however, I can never take them for granted, because I know what’s it’s like to be without them. (I had been baptized as a child, but I had no idea what that sacrament had actually done for me.)
Once I was convinced that the Eucharist in the Catholic Church was the true Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, I knew that sooner or later, I had to enter the Church so that I could receive that unspeakable gift. Now that I’m home in the Church, I treasure all her sacraments as magnificent channels of grace into my life. I can’t imagine living without their unparalleled power and consolation.
LOPEZ: Were there meditations that were new to you in your research? Were there saints who were?
THIGPEN: Looking back over the list, I think the only saint represented in the book that I didn’t know about before I began my research was St. Lawrence Justinian. But there were a number of saints included that I had known little about, and it was a pleasure to delve into their lives and writings: in particular, saints Theophane, John Eudes, John Ruysbroeck, Katharine Drexel, Maximus of Turin, Andrew of Crete, Bernardine of Siena, and Peter of Alcántara.
LOPEZ: What’s the “Year With” series and why is it important? What can it do for a reader? Have any of them benefited you? Have you seen them at work?
THIGPEN: So far there are four titles in this wonderful series. In addition to this book, Saint Benedict Press has published A Year with the Bible by Pat Madrid, plus A Year with the Church Fathers and A Year with the Angels, both by Mike Aquilina.
As a Church historian, I’m often grieved by how little our Christian contemporaries know about their spiritual heritage. The books in this series — in fact, many of the books published by Saint Benedict Press, especially those with the TAN Books imprint — do their part to remedy this problem. Through these carefully selected meditations, along with brief commentary, we’re making available to readers today all the riches of earlier generations.
In addition, one of the most important things this series can do for readers is to get them into the habit of daily spiritual reading. St. Athanasius once said, “You will not see anyone who is truly striving after his spiritual advancement who is not given to spiritual reading.” If we can make such reading a virtue (a virtue, after all, is simply a good habit), then it can change our lives — and help to make us saints.
I should also note that the books in this series are crafted from beautiful, durable materials. That makes them especially suitable for gifts, so you can help your friends and family become saints, too!
So far, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, and benefited from, the meditations in A Year with the Church Fathers. I love spending a few moments each day with St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Basil, and all the rest. There’s a good reason why we call the outstanding teachers of the ancient Church our “fathers.” Their wisdom and personal witness to the Gospel built on the foundation of Christ and the Apostles a spiritual “home” for us all — a firm and enduring faith that has stood the test of time.
LOPEZ: Why is it important to know “the sublime humility of God”?
THIGPEN: Our word humility comes ultimately from the Latin word humus, which means “earth.” To humble oneself is literally to lower oneself, to “come down to earth.”
The ancient pagan Greeks and Romans celebrated the moral virtues of wisdom, justice, self-control, and fortitude. Christians later affirmed those virtues, but unlike their pagan predecessors, they also emphasized the virtue of humility as the ground for all the rest. So how did the Christian view of the world come to include an attitude, a character trait, that many non-Christian views of the world have ignored or even despised?
I would insist that we learned the virtue of humility from the loving, redemptive action of God Himself. The Lord of the universe, the Creator of all things, the One who reigns “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21), has graciously stooped down from on high to save us. He laid aside His glory, came down from heaven to earth, walked and worked and wept amidst the dust of our humus, so that He could raise us up again with Himself to heaven.
That is the sublime humility of God. And as St. Paul reminds us, we too will be humble if we “have this mind . . . which was in Christ Jesus, who . . . did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself . . . humbled himself.”
LOPEZ: With the help of St. Catherine of Siena and St. Cyprian of Carthage, you name the Devil, as the pope often does. Why?
THIGPEN: Our Catholic faith affirms what the experience of many, myself included, confirms: No matter who we are — whether or not we know it — we have a mortal enemy who wants to destroy us, not just in this life, but in the next. No matter where we live on this planet — whether or not we can see it — we live on a hotly contested battlefield, and we cannot escape the conflict.
Our adversary is the Devil, with his army of demons. Our battle with him rages not only all around us, but also within us, a fierce conflict for control of our minds, our hearts, and our ultimate destiny.
The world may scoff and tell us there is no Devil and no battle. But the world has been blinded to these realities by the enemy himself. Its skepticism is part of his stealth strategy: Those who deny his existence are an easy prey.
The first rule of warfare is to know your enemy. So we must talk about the Devil in order to resist his assault.
LOPEZ: You cover gossip and the “danger of words,” which is a continuing theme of Pope Francis. Why is this crucial to bear in mind?
THIGPEN: The Epistle of St. James tells us that “the tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.” Sadly, universal human experience bears out this warning. Who among us has never regretted something we’ve said that hurt others and even ourselves? And who among us was ever able to call back those words once we set them loose into the world?
One of my favorite analogies in these meditations has to do with gossips and backbiters. St. Bernadine of Siena compared them to dung beetles! They spend all their time, he observed, looking for whatever stinks and then occupying themselves with it.
LOPEZ: Is Christmas about the call to sainthood? Does our celebration of it have anything to do with growing in holiness?
THIGPEN: To answer that question, we need to ask ourselves: Why do we have a Christmas in the first place? Why did the Son of God take on our human nature in the Virgin’s womb? Why did she bear Him and lay Him in a manger? And why do we still celebrate the event 2,000 years later?
The answer is found in the announcement of the angels that night: “Unto you is born a Savior.” He came to save us; and salvation is not merely some kind of eternal fire insurance that keeps us out of hell.
Salvation, in its fullness, is being reconciled to God so that He can transform us into the image of His dear Son — that is, so we can be holy just as He is holy. We must become perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. Only then will we be able to stand before Him in heaven for eternity and “see Him as He is,” because “we shall be like Him.”
That process of being made holy is the process of becoming a saint. So we can say, then, that the first Christmas — and the first Good Friday and the first Easter as well — all took place precisely so we could become saints. If we have no interest in becoming saints, then we’ve missed the whole point of Christmas.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.