What Would Jesus’ Friends Do?

The saints can be models for holiness in the most concrete and practical of contexts.

The ceiling of the Church of All Saints in Minsk, Belarus, features frescoes of various saints
The ceiling of the Church of All Saints in Minsk, Belarus, features frescoes of various saints (photo: Shutterstock)

Anyone who lived through the 1990s and had a passing acquaintance with Christian pop culture knows the phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” Like many millennials, I encountered it at a summer church camp where some of the kids wore neon WWJD bracelets. I remember being disturbed by the bad kerning on the bracelet (also, neon?), but approving of the idea.

But I found the concept behind the slogan surprisingly hard to work into daily life. There were obvious applications: If I struggled to share a game with some younger child, I ought to be patient like Jesus; if my parents asked me to perform an extra chore, I should be obedient like Jesus. But even as a child I found that what was intended as an easy gut check could be anything but. Would Jesus read Harry Potter? What would that question even mean in first-century Galilee, before the invention of the novel, let alone the fantasy genre? What about video games? Same problem! Would Jesus have cut the grass on the sabbath? (Lawns were invented in the 18th century, and the first lawnmower dates back only to 1830.)

As an adult, the complications increased. Would Jesus have boycotted high-deductible health care as a young, fit carpenter? What about graduate school? Would he own a car? Live with his parents or with roommates? Chastise his friend Lazarus for using a Catholic dating website? Attend concerts? What about classical organ concerts, or what if it were a Christian band? Would Jesus let his disciples spank their children? Bake cookies?

To be clear, it is possible to give a Christian answer to these questions. The answers may differ depending on the situation of the person asking, but they are always there, tethered to the teachings of Jesus and to the natural law. But they are not intuitive.

That being said, if you’re standing in the kitchen wondering whether to make cookies for your children, and WWJD leaves you dry, you can probably take comfort in the fact that Hildegard of Bingen had a special cookie recipe recommended as an antidote to melancholy. Albert the Great loved science so much that he was accused of neglecting theology and being a “sorcerer” because of his experiments. Edith Stein not only went to graduate school but actually finished her dissertation. Gianna Molla famously became a pediatrician. John Paul II wrote fiction. Carlo Acutis played video games.

In other words, we know far more of the lives, interests, hobbies, foibles and struggles even of most medieval saints than we know of Our Lord. And for modern saints there is a wealth of available information: we have photographs and correspondence of people like Thérèse of Lisieux, Katharine Drexel, Charles de Foucauld and Stanley Rother. Here is the chance to become closely acquainted on the imaginative level with a saint, to inhabit his shoes as we might those of a beloved character from a work of fiction, with this difference: the heroism of the saints was real. So too were their warts—and thank goodness for them! Those warts — the very faults and human shortsightedness of the saints — are crucial to our ability to form a fully-rounded idea of the saints as real, concrete people. It is this combination of their concreteness, their fallen humanity, and their quest for holiness that makes the saints so important as reference points during our own paths to sanctity.

It is said that the desk of St. Francis de Sales has grooves on its underside, supposedly scored by the impatient fingernails (or perhaps the quill pen?) of the bishop who was externally polite and kind even to the most tedious visitor. There you have it, in the historical evidence of the mauled desk and the contradictory record of the bishop’s mild demeanor: the concreteness, the fallenness and the thirst for holiness. It’s hard to imagine Jesus sitting in an open-space office and dealing with Dwight Schrute’s interruptions — but Francis de Sales? Knowing the story about his desk, it’s a little easier to put yourself in St. Francis’ shoes — and to come up with a charitable response for your personal Dwight.

Sometimes, to be sure, we start to canonize a saint’s shortcomings: to see Padre Pio’s distaste for women’s pants as an indication of innate truths about modesty, or St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s occasional sentimentality as proof that piety must always be sweet. But viewed through the lens of the Church’s commendations — which are couched in terms of love of God and neighbor — it is possible to take another approach to the saints: to take their peculiarities as what make them like us, and their charity as what makes them like the One whom we ought to be like, but who remains even in his human nature indefinable.

Hopefully for all of us, one day we will be able to see sufficiently clearly through the eyes of charity even in the most mundane and modern matters. Then even on earth, though we may not have any better knowledge of the externals of the life of Christ, we will know him intimately as the way, the truth and the life — letting us speed onward with our eyes on the finish line, without looking downward at every crack and pebble in the ground, without the training wheels needed to keep us from toppling over during our snail’s pace toward sanctity. But until then, it’s nice to know that St. Francis de Sales could have used a stress ball and St. Hildegard baked “nerve cookies.”