ASK FATHER: I’ve been such a sinner. Is striving for holiness a waste of time?

st-zosimas-st-mary-egyptFrom a reader…


d’ve lived a pretty sinful life and reverted back to the faith. Since
then I have been striving to become a saint, but I’m starting to get the impression I’m wasting my time.

I’m a member of a Latin Mass Community, and our priest preaches on sin and Hell quite frequently. Unfortunately, I’m getting the impression that, having been such a horrible sinner, I’m wasting my time with aiming for sainthood because I’ve have so many disorders in my soul, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, that my aim should be to die in the state of grace rather than to aim for avoiding Purgatory and perfection.

I’ve tried bringing up my concerns with our priest, but I’m left with more discouragement. When I point out the numerous saints who lived exceptionally sinful lives, or the writings of St. John on the Cross, I’m told that such is the exception, not the norm, and requires extraordinary grace from God, and that most people can’t expect to reach perfection in this life

I don’t understand. I just want to be a saint, but maybe I’m being too presumptuous and aiming for something I shouldn’t be.

I feel like I’m wasting my time and making a fool out of myself for even talking about wanting to become a saint.

What do you think?

When I get this question I am sometimes reminded of a phrase used by the famous pitcher Orel Hirshiser in George Will’s great book Men At Work.  He explains that he approaches pitching with the idea that the past is past, but the future is perfect.  At the beginning of the game, he is pitching a perfect game.  If someone get’s a hit, that’s in the past and now he is pitching a 1 hitter, etc.

Oscar Wilde is often quoted as having said, “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

St. Mary of Egypt is one of the more popular saints in the Orthodox Churches. She’s one of ours, too, though she’s not as popular in the West, unfortunately. St. Mary, at the age of twelve, ran away from her family to Alexandria, where she began to live a life of great dissolution. She became a prostitute, but it is said that she often refused money for her sexual acts because she enjoyed her sin so thoroughly. After nearly twenty years of this life, she accompanied a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but not out of any pious motive. No, she went in the hopes of drumming up some business for herself among the pilgrims, hoping in her heart to entice some of holiest and most devout pilgrims away from their piety and into her sinful way of life. When the pilgrimage got to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the pilgrims entered, she found herself blocked from entry by an unseen force. Her depravity and impurity made it impossible for her to enter. Her eyes fell upon an icon of the Blessed Virgin, and she began to weep profusely, recognizing how greatly she had sinned and how foolishly she had wasted most of her life. When she asked for forgiveness, the Blessed Virgin nodded, and she was then able to enter the church, where she venerated the True Cross which was then kept there. She returned to give thanks to the icon and the Blessed Virgin told her to cross the Jordan, and “there you will find glorious rest.” She went across the Jordan to a monastery, confessed her sins, received absolution and Holy Communion – her first non-sacrilegious Holy Communion since childhood. She spent the remainder of her life as a hermit in the desert. She received Holy Communion one additional time, many years later, from the hands of a priest, St. Zosima, travelling through the desert. When he returned to her a year later, he found her dead, with an inscription in the sand near her head saying, “bury the body of Mary, the sinner.”

Many other saints were once great sinners: St. Augustine, of course is probably the most well-known, but there are literally hundreds of other. St. Hubert was a wealthy man with a cavalier attitude towards religion until his conversion, as was St. Francis Borgia, St. Thomas a Becket, and others. Bl. Bartolo Longo was a Satanic priest!

Also, remember that there is no sin that we little mortals can commit that is so bad that God can’t and won’t forgive it, provided that we are truly penitent.  Angels rejoice at our conversions, every single one of our conversions!  We stand in awe of angels, who are so vastly above us in the order of created beings.  But I think they must stand in awe of us, who have to contend with the world, the flesh and the devil, and whose humanity now sits at God’s right in the Person of the Incarnate Word.

Don’t give up hope. Don’t strive for mediocrity.   Striving for mediocrity is a subtle way of telling God that you don’t believe in His gifts of grace or in his plan for you.  Whatever your past may have been, you were created for holiness. You were made by God to become a saint. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. Strive for the holiness to which you were called at the moment of your baptism. It takes effort. It’s not easy.

Holiness is, sadly, the exception, but strive to be exceptional.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. jfk03 says:

    Eastern Catholics and Orthodox are devoted to St Mary of Egypt, whom they commemorate during Great Lent. But the Egyptian Mary is not unknown in the West. I have a life of Mary of Egypt printed in Spain in 1685. At the end it has the great canon of St. Andrew of Crete.

    With God all things are possible. God has the power to change a great sinner into a great saint instantaneously. Witness St. Mary of Egypt, and also the Good Thief. I recommend reading a short book called The Little Book of Confidence. One has to have confidence in God’s mercy and His ability to work our individual conversions.

  2. the little brother says:

    I was remembering this morning, in an early conversation with Abba, my Father, how dark & filthy were my past sins, & how He, still seeing some small, forgotten goodness still remaining in my heart, showed me that I had one foot in hell already. & having done that, granted me the immediate Grace of full conversion. O most Grave, & Holy Moment!!

    A Priest @ the Monastery once said; ‘when you fully understand that you are nothing without Christ Jesus, then you are a Saint.’

  3. Baritone says:

    Thank you for the encouraging advice and examples, Fr. Z.

    One thing that I think about when these kinds of discouragements come to mind is that Jesus is true to His word. He said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” (Not might, but shall). Consequently, I try to foster a devotion to the poor souls, if only to obtain mercy myself. In this way, when I pray for the faithful departed, I see myself as a beneficiary of my own prayers. Be encouraged and confident. Jesus is true to His word.

  4. Aquinas Gal says:

    From the Diary of St Faustina, where Jesus told her:

    “Write of My Mercy. Tell all souls that in the court of the mercy is where they should look for consolation; there the greatest miracles take place constantly and they are repeated incessantly. In order to obtain this miracle it is not necessary to make a pilgrimage to a distant place nor to celebrate some other rites, all you need is to approach with faith My representative and to confess to him with faith its misery and the miracle of the Mercy of God will become evident. Even if a soul was like a corpse in such a way that from the human viewpoint everything was lost and nothing could be done. It is not thus for God. The miracle of the Divine Mercy restores that soul in all its fullness. Oh unfortunate souls that do not enjoy this miracle of the Divine Mercy; they will request it in vain when it is too late “.

  5. Michael says:

    “And the tragedy is that he might have been Saint Judas.” – Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, “The Priest Is Not His Own”

  6. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Dear Father, thank you for this wonderful and concise reply, which we all need to hear again and again. In this Year of Mercy this message of God’s grace can never become stale. Blessings on your mission. You too are an example to us all, often attacked, but you never lose heart, and start each day afresh in Christ’s service. I pray, under Mary’s protection, that you too may one day become a saint. Oremus pro invicem.

  7. rtjl says:

    It is not a waste of time. You do not have to win the battle – at least not right away. You just have to stay in the game. And the way you stay in the game is the sacrament of confession. Remember – if you honestly confess your sins with genuine repentance and a real intention to avoid sin, even if you know in your current state of weakness it is likely you will fall again, when you are absolved the guilt of your sins is gone. Period.

    I can’t predict how long you will have to struggle against particular sins or how intense that struggle will be. I can tell you that there will almost certainly be days when God himself will *suddenly* give you victory over particular longstanding habits of sin. You will be surprised and delighted on those days. But you have to stay in the game long enough to see those days and long enough to see that final day of your life when God will give you complete victory over all your sins. Repent, go to confession as often as necessary, do penance, receive Eucharist and trust the rest to God. He will save you if you place yourself in his hands.

  8. Adaquano says:

    I have always leaned on the intercession of St. Jerome to assist in my own struggle with anger. Do I often fail? Yes. Do I often get discouraged when I do? Yes. However, as you have noted Father, it is through the strength of the saints that I remind myself to trust the Lord.

  9. Priam1184 says:

    I like the previous comment about devotion to the poor souls. They can be a great help in this situation. By our standards none of this will happen overnight, but it will happen. Pray and keep watch because it will happen. For this reason I have a devotion to another Saint Mary, Saint Mary Magdalene, and I might suggest meditating on this line from the Gospel of Saint Mark concerning our Lord’s Resurrection and his love for repentant sinners: “But He rising early the first day of the week, appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven devils (Mark 16: 9).”

    God loves a repentant sinner, and don’t let the devil trick you into thinking He doesn’t.

  10. Christine says:

    We are all called to be saints. I will pray for the person who asked that question. S/he has their priorities straight!! May God bless them abundantly.

  11. MarylandBill says:

    I am surprised that a priest would try to discourage one of his flock from pursuing a life of holiness. I don’t believe perfection is not for this life, even for the greatest of saints (Mary the mother of God excepted). I believe that Saint John Paul II attended confession on a weekly basis. Lets think about that for a moment… that meant he, through God’s grace still saw room for improvement in this life. But, that doesn’t mean he didn’t strive for holiness or perfection. Now, he may not have been perfect but he was holy and is a saint.

    Anyway, here is my thought and hope on the matter. God will not ignore our sincere efforts to live lives of holiness even if we fail. Further, even if we can’t avoid purgatory, I suspect that the punishment will be less for those who spent the latter of their lives trying to make amends for their past than for those who figure they are going to have to spend time in purgatory anyway, so there is no point in trying to do better.

  12. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    I think it’s not really any different from so many things in life: aim high, and don’t let falling short be too discouraging.

  13. mysticalrose says:

    I would recommend reading Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s writings on spiritual theology, particularly Three Ages of the Interior Life. He was very insistent that all Christians are called to be saints.

  14. wannabetraditional says:

    My new confessor asked me to read Fr. Michael Gaitley’s “Consoling the Heart of Jesus”. I consider myself traditional and at first glance it is not a book I would have chosen to read on my own. But it is absolutely wonderful. He distills the spirituality of Sts Faustina, Therese, de Montfort, and Ignatius in such a way as to make growing in holiness accessible to those of us weighed down by our sinful past and constant falls. I highly recommend this book. It has given me a fresh hope that I too my someday become a saint. I’ll pray for you. Don’t give up!

  15. Augustine says:

    I am guilty as charged (thus the nickname)! What perhaps lies deep within is my vain disappointment at my failure (the gall!), as if sainthood were my pitching. Nay, as St. John of the Cross pointed out, God pitches even knowing that there’s a chance that we will miss the batting.

    At first, He may run behind the bicycle holding us by the saddle as we merrily pedal away thinking that we lost the training wheels. But later, after some time without training wheels, He’ll let us take a fall in order to know the limits imposed by nature on our desires. Mind you, He’s the first one to raise us up and tend to our wounds, if only we let Him.

    Rejoice; take heart.

  16. jameeka says:

    Great answer, Fr Z. While I am often relievedly grateful to my Guardian Angel, I really like the idea that our Guardian Angels are sometimes in awe of their human charges. Maybe that is the rare (“non-me”) voice I sometimes hear in my head when I first wake up in the morning, cheering me onward after long bouts of self-recrimination.

  17. Gaz says:

    Be the good thief!

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    One of the problems I find when counseling people about holiness, sanctity, etc., is a confusion about terminology. First, of all, at the moment of your baptism, you become a saint. Proof: little baptized babies go to Heaven. Little babies, however, acquire little merit, which is one reason that most of us live longer and must contend with the defects and weaknesses of Original Sin. What merit can a soldier claim who has never tasted battle? Now, with testing comes the possibility of failure, but even baptized babies do not love with any sort of depth, so, while they can’t fail, they, also, can’t express love with that reason and that will that marks a deep relationship between peoples and God.

    Holiness – no one, in himself, is holy, except God. We are holy to the extent that we particate in God’s holiness. Holiness is an otherness or separation from what is common (and sin is common for Fallen man). How do we participate in the holiness of God? We participate by being that unique being God made us to be. Holiness, for man, is nothing more that being who you are. The problem is that people are contaminated with other false versions of themselves, which hear other loves than God calling to them. To be holy means to find the illusions we all hold and destroy them in favor of what is real, which, is, of course, nothing more than God’s will. The question is not can you be holy – you WILL be holy or you won’t be in Heaven. The question is in what place you choose your holiness to manifest itself – here, or in Purgatory.

    It is only hard to be perfect in inverse proportion to our desire to be other than who we are. Knowing ourselves, self- knowledge, is the best theology, according to St. John of the Cross.

    I have a bus to catch. More, later.

    The Chicken

  19. benedetta says:

    So, then, Father, what you are essentially saying is, with respect to this saint, St. Mary of Egypt (ora pro me), that she converted, and repented, BEFORE she approached to receive our Lord in communion, and not afterwards, you know, after receiving first in sacrilege? And, further, that this saint continued to convert, ever after? In other words, that she did not approach the commuion queue first whilst declaring to all that she MUST have it, or else, and so much more the better, no matter what and threaten to leave if she did not get it? Mind, blown!

  20. From The Chicken: “The problem is that people are contaminated with other false versions of themselves, which hear other loves than God calling to them. To be holy means to find the illusions we all hold and destroy them in favor of what is real, which, is, of course, nothing more than God’s will. The question is not can you be holy – you WILL be holy or you won’t be in Heaven.”

    Yes! Thank you.

    How can anyone be wasting their time striving to be a Saint? You’re wasting your time if you don’t! Maybe the better question is, what IS a saint and why do you want to be one?

    I cannot add much more to Father Z’s and the other commenters well thought out and kind answers except to never stop striving to never stop striving to be a saint. God wants you to be a saint. This is what you were created for, to know, love and serve Him in this life and the next. Don’t waste time worrying whether this or that priest gives you the impression that you are meant to be a saint. It’s either that or go to hell and this is not what God wants. Better to have a priest who thinks you’re nothing special than one who pats you on the back all the way to hell! Does the priest give sound advice? Does he use the right formula for absolution? If so, great! Pray for him that he become a saint as well. Even better, that he become a greater one than you. God bless and keep up the good fight.

  21. NoraLee9 says:

    Dear Fellow Sinner and Would-be Saint:

    We all must be saints when we get to heaven, so you can either clean up here or in Purgatory. From all reports, the clean up here is easier.
    I was born at the end of 1959, and when I arrived in NYC in 1977, the Punk Rock movement was in full blast. I was a bad, bad girl. G-d decided to spare my life. I consider two of those times miraculous. If you’re in the tri-state area, reach out to me. I can tell you a few stories about G-d’s mercy.
    Now that I am mercifully retired, I am a postulant to the Third Order Traditional Carmelites. This order of life has been extremely helpful in my spiritual growth. Remember, we don’t just leave our sinful ways: We need something to put in their place. I have always felt that the beauty of Catholicism is its appeal to everyone along the human spectrum. You don’t have to be a scholar to achieve holiness, but if you are, you’ll never be bored.
    I’m sorry your priest isn’t is as enthusiastic as you are. I remember a few years ago, when I was still attending Mass at the SSPX chapel, that the priest exhorted us ALL to become saints. NOW. And it wasn’t just one priest. The Father who succeeded him said the same thing.
    Start with St. Therese’s Little Way. Again, I highly recommend Carmelite Spirituality, but if there is another order’s path who appeals more to you, jump on it. You could certainly correspond with our community in NJ.
    Don’t give up, no matter what. This is the most important thing you’ll ever do. The psalmist complains “Save me Lord, for now there is no saint….” It has always been important that Saints be among us. Imagine the graces you could attract, if you were even a little saintly?
    Holiness is like an onion. We peel away the layers of our sinful selves to find that spark of the divine within us. I’ll be praying for you.

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