October 29, 2021

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

Don’t just admire the saints, follow them

Sean GallagherIn filmmaker Terrence Malik’s 2019 movie A Hidden Life, there’s a scene where an artist touches up some paintings in a parish church in Austria. As he works, he speaks with the church’s sacristan, Franz Jagersetter, who assists him.

The unnamed artist tells Franz, “I help people look up from those pews and dream. They look up and they imagine that, if they lived back in Christ’s time, they would not have done what the others did. … I paint all this suffering and I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it.

“What we do is just create sympathy. We create admirers. We don’t create followers. … I paint a comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday, I might have the courage to venture, but not yet. Someday, I’ll paint a true Christ.”

These words have rung in my memory during the past nearly two years since I saw A Hidden Life with my wife Cindy. They seem to ring more loudly around All Saints Day.

In the past, it’s been a feast that I’ve especially enjoyed because of my interest in the history of the Church. Through the years, I’ve learned about a lot of saints and the times in which they lived. So, I’ve enjoyed celebrating all of these holy men and women on one day.

The words of the artist, though, are for me an examination of conscience. Am I looking up at the saints who are portrayed in our churches and just admiring them but not following them?

The lives of the saints in all their reality are true paintings of Christ. Do I have the courage to venture to follow them in all the many small and sometimes large crosses that come to me in daily life?

As a husband and father, I can find an easy way out and say that the crosses I face day in and day out are small in comparison with those endured by so many saints, let alone Christ.

Objectively that may be true, although Cindy and I have faced some significant crosses in our 20 years of marriage—just like so many other families.

In any case, the crosses that God allows in our life together with our sons and those of all families are those that he wants us to bear and gives us the grace to carry. It’s no good for us to admire Christ and his saints and not take steps to follow them.

That’s especially true knowing that all those saints are praying for us and countless husbands, wives and their children. They’re praying that, empowered by Christ’s sufferings, we might venture to embrace suffering here and now in giving of ourselves in loving service to each other, especially when we would rather follow our own will and inclinations.

The real Franz Jagerstetter, the husband and father of three girls portrayed in the movie as listening to the artist’s reflections, was not just an admirer of Christ. Like so many other saints before him, he was a follower. Convinced by his faith that he could not serve in the Nazi army, he was imprisoned, tortured and eventually executed. The Church beatified him as a martyr in 2007.

God has called all families who will come together to worship on All Saints Day this year to be true followers of Christ like the saints the Church celebrates on that day. And not only that, God has given each of our families all the grace they need to become saints.

So, as you look up at the images of Christ and his saints in our churches on All Saints Day, go forth from them convinced in your heart and actions to become a true painting of Christ.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter and columnist for The Criterion.)

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