One of my favorite authors, the late monk, Thomas Merton, had a great answer to the person who asked him what he wanted to be? Merton responded, “I want to be a saint.” The first time I read that line, I sat back with the exclamation, “Whoa!” That is an audacious aspiration. I can’t imagine telling someone I want to be a saint. Perhaps, the real reason I would never tell someone that I want to be a saint is the fact that I really don’t want to be a saint!
It is probably true that Merton and I don’t really mean the same thing when we say, “saint.” Since I did not grow up Roman Catholic, I never had anything to do with saints. Occasionally, the authors of the New Testament were called saints. Reference would be made to St. John or St. Paul. Since these guys wrote what we now call “Scripture,” there was no way I would have aspirations equal to them.
I think the only other saint I would have recognized was St Valentine. He was a great saint, as far as I was concerned. Of course, I knew nothing about St. Valentine, except somehow he was associated with love. As an elementary school lad, St. Valentine’s Day was a day when there was a party. Every student brought little cards for everyone else in the classroom. There was candy and other things to make it a very special day. That much I knew.
That prompted my thinking. I might not want to be a saint, but I certainly would want to be special. I presume most people would like to be special. Being special is not a given; you surely have to work to become special. In my early thinking I am sure I would have thought that being special was some kind of an achievement or accomplishment.
This is true, especially in a culture like ours, which in many ways is quite competitive. Sports teams and spelling bees are all competing to be Number 1. Many people think human beings are wired to compete. Even Darwin suggested that losers don’t have much of a future! Being special is certainly preferable to being second-rate.
However, that either/or (special or second-rate) may not be the only way to understand how we become special. When I ponder what makes something or someone special, two or three things come to mind. Something special is a particular thing or person, as opposed to things in general or a crowd. I am special because no one can be me. They can imitate me, but no one can be me.
Another characteristic that makes a person or a thing special is a quality. For example, we might point to a particular person and say, “She is special because she always has a smile.” I become reflective when I ponder whether I have any qualities that make me special?
A third feature making something or someone special is the purpose to which the person or thing is given. A person or thing is special if it dedicates to a particular purpose. In this sense a priest, for example, is special because that person is dedicated to the ministry of God. That person is special in distinction from the rest of the general crowd of people.
I may not have aspirations to be a saint. But can I aspire to be special? I would very much like to be special in good ways. How do I proceed? With these three characteristics, I have a kind of roadmap. The first concerns being or doing something particular. This does not have to be heroic. If you are a parent, you are a parent to particular kids. Figure out how to be particularly special to your kids. There are many simple ways available to all of us to become special.
The second characteristic focuses on quality. What kind of good qualities do I have that can make me special? (Remember special does not mean unique; many people may have the same special qualities). I know myself well enough to know that I have special qualities. I am a good listener. I know I have some other qualities that are sufficient to make me special. I don’t have to be the best in the world. I don’t even have to be perfect in order to be special.
Finally, I am very clear about my purpose. In effect, my purpose is to be in ministry---to be a servant in this world. We do not have to be ordained to make this possible. We don’t need to be commissioned to love. We can love, serve and be of service. What a wonderful legacy when our days are done.
When I think about it, I am something special. And thinking about it further, to be special is to be on the way to becoming a saint. I will never be sanctified by the church. But that is ok; ultimately God makes saints. I am on the way because I am special. You are, too!