Though they are far more admirable and far more lovable than the ephemeral celebrities who occupy the front pages, the gossip columns, and sports pages of today's papers, the most beautiful men and women living on our planet rarely make headlines.
Many millions of people, the majority perhaps, in our modern societies have an acute sensitivity to bodily beauty. They pursue it with relentless expenditures of time and money—to the tune of several billion dollars per year. Yet very few have a clue about beauty of soul, and fewer still seem to pursue it.
Yet Sacred Scripture repeatedly presents the summit of holiness—heroic virtue and the profound contemplative prayer that brings it about—as the normal goal for all of us. Not only are we to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, but we are to have “the strength, based on his own glorious power, never to give in, but to bear anything joyfully, thanking the Father …” (Col 1, 11). And bearing anything joyfully is a superhuman accomplishment arising only from divine power.
This remarkable verse invites us to ask what heroic virtue is. The answer to this query is a description of complete human beauty—not simply excellence in music or scholarship or art or sport or bodily attractiveness, but excellence in being a man or a woman.
Heroic virtue is gospel goodness—love, patience, humility, chastity, temperance, for example—lived to a degree that is not humanly possible in our weakness. Classical theology follows Benedict XlV's explanation of the traits that characterize this lofty loveliness so rare in our human family. The Church still follows his norms in investigating whether a candidate for beatification possessed such virtues to this highest degree.
The first condition is that the virtue must have been practiced not only in easy circumstances but also in difficult, highly trying situations. Closely allied with this initial quality is the second: virtue is practiced in an habitual manner, not merely on occasion or by way of exception. For example, one is gentle in the midst of annoyance not only when observers are present but whenever circumstances call for gentleness. Another example: one is habitually gracious even with obnoxious people.
Thirdly, one does what is right in a loving and joyful manner. Christ-like virtues are never stoic, stony, impassive, or robot-like. This is why we read of martyrs undergoing excruciating tortures, who yet are full of love and compassion for their tormentors, full of forgiveness and joy. For example, after being whipped for preaching the gospel, the apostles went away with joy for having had the honor of suffering for Jesus. (Acts 5:41)
Fourthly, their temperance or selfless love is practiced with promptness and ease, for such persons are closely and intimately moved by the Holy Spirit himself. When a saint forgives, the pardon is given immediately. St. Paul expects this perfection of the Colossians: “Forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins” (Col 3:13). There is no delay whatsoever. The same promptness applies to the practice of justice, affability, magnanimity, and the other virtues.
Heroically holy men and women are always the same. They consistently live on the heights even in the lowliest nitty-gritty of daily duties. No deliberate sin occurs, and they do not fail to choose the more perfect course of action called for by their circumstances.
Finally, for virtues to be perfect they must be inwardly connected with one another. Justice without mercy, affability, and gentleness is not perfect justice. Chastity without warmth and humility is not perfect chastity. Love without chastity is not love, let alone perfect love.
Everyone of us is a weak reed. Before their transformation by grace and their cooperation with the Lord, the saints are also weak reeds. As the preface for the Mass of martyrs puts it, God “chooses the weak of this world and makes them strong.” Hence it follows that heroic holiness is a moral miracle. It cannot happen by natural causes or human will alone. Divine intervention alone explains it.
If we reflect for a few moments on these traits of heroic holiness we readily see that the saints are by far the most admirable people on earth. It is endlessly better to be at the pinnacle of human beauty than to rule a huge nation or win several Olympic gold medals. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, those who win athletic glory wear a wreath that fades and crumbles, whereas those who attain holiness win eternal ecstasy. Even more, they do immeasurable good for others while still in this life.
A saint is like a stream of fresh, cool air breaking into a humid, smoky, fetid room. To meet burning goodness even for a few moments is a privileged joy. To know a holy person intimately is an abiding delight. We who unfortunately live in a world replete with dishonesty and avarice and lust—not to mention other capital sins—enter into a whole new universe when we deal with men and women of heroic virtue. They are indeed, to use St. Paul's happy expression, “God's work of art, created in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:10)
Marist Father Thomas Dubay is a popular author and lecturer.