Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
There’s a paradox in the Catholic life that we all need to be reminded of from time to time — the dual notions that sainthood requires courage faith, but also, it requires a tremendous amount of simplicity.
Saints like Thomas Aquinas are popular for their breadth and depth of intellectuality, but their efforts are built upon a foundation of straightforward devotion to perfection. Thomas’s most famous work, the Summa Theologiae is still the standard literary apparatus for Christian theology, but he only meant to communicate a “summary” of the faith. He accomplished much but it was built upon a principle of simplicity: he only ever wanted to be a good Dominican friar, but his magnitude of service to the Church meant he gave everything his best effort, did everything that was requested of him, and left the rest to God.
Pope saints like Pius V are famous for their long list of accomplishments, but their entire priesthood was built on a basic principle of service. He founded the modern seminary, codified the Mass (that’s still in use today), revised the Divine Office of Prayers, standardized the Rosary, united several European countries to defeat the belligerent Turks at Lepanto, and published a new catechism for a post-Trent Church. He did all of this with just six years as the Bishop of Rome. Again, he accomplished much but it was built upon a principle of simplicity: he only ever wanted to be a small parish priest, but his magnitude of service to the Church meant he gave everything his best effort, did everything that was requested of him, and left the rest to God.
Considering such simplicity in the life of these extraordinary saints was unknown to me until I read and studied the life of St. Jane Frances de Chantal. I knew nearly nothing of the details of her life before my study besides that she suddenly lost her husband in a hunting accident, corresponded with St. Frances de Sales, helped him found the Order of the Visitation, and otherwise... I didn’t know much about her.
What’s amusing to me is that after reading several of her earliest and most detailed biographies, if I were to quickly name the events of her life, I wouldn’t venture too far outside of the list I just provided. What stuck with me, though, was this previously-difficult-to-describe concept of simplicity that she often explains so well. Here’s one thing she said that stuck with me: “Hold your eyes on God and leave the doing to him. That is all the doing you need to worry about.”
For years, I’ve heard the adage some Christians repeat: “Let go, and let God.” There’s a delicious bit of truth in these five simple words and it all has much to do with the concept of worry. Let me put it this way for you: worrying is the work of the enemy. Only he worries, and only those who think like him worry.
Jesus put it this way:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
His words are so thorough and straightforward: Stop worrying! Let God do the work!
Revisiting one of my favorite saints in my study, I noted the details of her life in much more reverence and esteem after I gained appreciation for her “simple” nature, her tranquil disposition. She had four young children, almost no family of her own living within proximity, and suddenly her husband died. She was already managing much of the estate because her husband, a baron, was not a terribly good administrator, but she did this as a partner in their marriage. Suddenly, she was left with the entire estate — the name, the full responsibility of all the work, decisions, the tenants, the laborers, and the raising of a large group of young children — all by herself.
When her best advice is to “keep it simple,” she really means it. In a popular collection of 30 selected letters from Chantal, she uses the word more than 25 times. It’s no coincidence: her advice is centered around this, well, simple word:
You must take care not to fall into this fault, but be simple; don t think much about yourself and just do the best you can.
She should certainly use every endeavor to hide what you tell me of, and should never abandon herself to it; but if there is humility and simple obedience we need have no anxiety.
I beg of her to gain the mastery over that heart of hers so that she may train herself to gentle ness and simple observance.
I know all about your little difficulties with good Sister Assistant. You were like two children, but I see by your last letter you are now simple and frank as children ought to be with one another.
He submitted himself to the truths thus unveiled to him by a simple yielding up of his will.
Suffering is the crucible in which our Lord wishes entirely to purify you. Your interior correspondence ought wholly to consist in a simple handing over of yourself, in a complete self-surrender.
But it is His doing, not mine, and if it please Him I will so continue as He gives me many opportunities for the practice of them. For my part it seems to me that I am in a simple state of waiting on the good pleasure of God to do whatever He wills with me. I have no desires, no plans.
Yes, indeed, my dearest daughter, God should be all in all to you. The one cherished good of the soul is to be alone with her God. Remain in this state of simple detachment, loving and obeying our Lord in the person of your Superior and following blindly her guidance and her commands.
That’s only scratching the depth of her wisdom on simplicity and she urges us in convincing fashion.
One thing I sometimes worry about is sin. Eliminating certain sins is pertinent in my spiritual journey and occasionally, after a sincere confession, I worry about sin. How long will it be before I give into temptation? I think I’m not alone on this one. This sort of thing is not productive. It only abets the enemy. It plants doubt. It flowers anxiety. It prepares a map for future sins. It keeps me thinking of already-forgiven sins. It destroys hope. It breeds despair.
I cannot possibly hope to become a saint if I worry, if I’m anxious, if I remember my already-dead sins. Learning these lessons from St. Jane really changed the way I advise others, and the way I listen to advice. The austere spirituality that some crave might be a hill of beans compared to the fruit possible in simple spiritual exercises. The overcharged praise others want might not be as encouraging as a simple complement.
In this way, becoming a saint is more simple than we might realize. Even if we wish to accomplish many things in our life and in our work for the Church, we will only get there by embracing the basics: do your best, let God do the rest. This is what courageous faith really looks like.
For more on St. Jane de Chantal and other saints who will help you deepen your faith and practice daily conversion, check out my new book Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, available now at Catholic Answers Press.