When I was 9 YEARS OLD, I spied an advertisement in a magazine for a plastic statue of St. Jude. I can’t imagine which magazine this could have been, since my parents weren’t in the habit of leaving Catholic publications lying around the house, but apparently the photo of the statue was sufficiently appealing to convince me to drop $3.50 in an envelope. At the time, my greatest pleasure was ordering things through the mail. The cereal boxes that lined our kitchen shelves all boasted small squares on the back to be clipped out, filled in with my address and sent away, along with a dollar bill. A few weeks later a brown-paper package addressed to me would arrive in our mailbox. Few things filled me with more excitement.
While the most attractive offers were featured in comic books, these photos rarely represented what the postman eventually delivered. The Terrifying Flying Ghost on the back cover of a Spider-Man comic book turned out to be a plastic ball, a rubber band and a piece of white tissue paper. The Fake Vomit looked nothing like the real stuff and the Monster Tarantula was rather small. Worse, my six-week wait for Sea Monkeys, whose colorful advertisement showed smiling aquatic figures (the largest one wearing a crown) cavorting in a sort of sea city, was rewarded by a packet of shrimp eggs. Though the Sea Monkeys did hatch in a fishbowl on a chair in my bedroom, they were so small as to be nearly invisible, and none, as far as I could tell, wore a crown. (Sea Monkey City was nearly annihilated when I accidentally sneezed on it during my annual winter cold.)
Other purchases were more successful. My Swimming Tony the Tiger toy, whose purchase required eating my way through several boxes of Sugar Frosted Flakes to earn sufficient box tops, amazed even my parents with his swimming skills. The orange-and-black plastic tiger had arms that rotated and legs that kicked maniacally, and he was able to churn his way through the choppy waters of the stopped-up kitchen sink. One day Tony, fresh from a dip, slipped out of my fingers and dropped on the linoleum floor. Both of his arms fell off, marking the end of his short swimming career. I put the armless tiger in the fishbowl with the Sea Monkeys, who seemed not to mind the company.
Even with my predilection for all these mail-order purchases, I can’t imagine what led me to focus my childish desires on St. Jude and spend in excess of three weeks’ allowance on a plastic statue instead of, say, another Archie comic book. My only other obsession at that time was a green pup tent I had seen in the Sears catalogue, but this too was thrown over in favor of St. Jude.
It wasn’t any interest on the part of my family, or any knowledge about St. Jude that drew me to him. I certainly knew nothing about him, other than what the magazine ad said: he was the patron saint of hopeless causes. But even if I had been interested in reading about him, there would have been little to read. For all his current-day popularity, Jude remains a mysterious figure. Though he is named as one of the Twelve Apostles, there are only three brief mentions of Jude in all of the New Testament. Two lists of the apostles, in fact, in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, fail to name him at all. They instead mention a certain Thaddeus, giving rise to the name St. Jude Thaddeus. To confuse matters more, there is also a Jude listed as the brother of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. And though some ancient legends mention his work in Mesopotamia and Persia, the Encyclopedia of Catholicism says candidly, We have no reliable information about this obscure figure.
But Jude’s story didn’t concern me. What appealed most was that he was patron of hopeless causes. Who knew what help someone like that could give me? A tiger that could swim in the kitchen sink was one thing, but a saint who could get me what I wanted was quite another. It was worth at least $3.50.
In a few weeks, I received in the mail a little package containing a nine-inch beige plastic statue, along with a booklet of prayers to be used for praying to my new patron. St. Jude the Beige, who held a staff and carried a sort of plate emblazoned with the image of a face (which I supposed was Jesus, though this was difficult to discern) was immediately given pride of place on top of the dresser in my bedroom.
At the time, I prayed to God only intermittently, and then mainly to ask for things. Please let me get an A on my next test. Please let me do well in Little League this year. I used to envision God as the Great Problem Solver, the one who would fix everything if I just prayed hard enough, used the correct prayers and prayed in precisely the right way. But when God couldn’t fix things (which seemed to be the case more frequently than I would have liked) I would turn to St. Jude. I figured that if it was beyond the capacity of God to do something, then surely it must be a lost cause, and it was time to call on Jude.
Fortunately, the booklet that accompanied the St. Jude statue included plenty of good prayers, and even featured one in Latin that began Tantum ergo sacramentum.... I reserved the Latin prayer for only the most important impossible causes, like final exams. When I really wanted something I would say the Tantum ergo prayer, uncomprehendingly, three times on my knees.
St. Jude stood patiently atop my dresser until high school. My high school friends, when visiting our house, often used to hang out in my bedroom. And though I was by now fond of St. Jude, I was afraid of what my pals would think if they spotted a weird plastic statue standing on my dresser. So Jude was relegated to inside my sock drawer and brought out only on special occasions.
My faith was another thing, you could say, that was relegated to the sock drawer for the next several years. During high school, I made it to Mass more or less weekly; but later, in college, I became only an occasional churchgoer (though I still prayed to the Great Problem Solver). As my faith grew thinner and thinner, my affinity for St. Jude began to seem childish: silly, superstitious and faintly embarrassing.
That changed for me around age 26. Dissatisfied with life in the business world, I began giving thought to doing something else with my life, though at the time I had little idea of what that something else would be. All I knew was that after a few years in corporate America, I wanted out. From that banal sentiment, however, God was able to act. The Great Problem Solver was at work on a problem that I comprehended only dimly. In time, God would give me an answer to a question that I hadn’t even asked.
One evening, I came home and flipped on the television set. The local PBS station was airing a documentary about a Catholic priest named Thomas Merton. Though I had never heard of Merton, a parade of talking heads appeared onscreen to testify to his influence on their lives. In just a few minutes, I got the idea that Merton was bright, funny, holy and altogether unique. The documentary was sufficiently interesting to prompt me to track down, purchase and read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. It captivated me as few books ever have.
Over the next two years, whenever I thought seriously about the future, the only thing that seemed to make sense was entering a religious order. There were, of course, some doubts, some false starts, some hesitations and some worries about embarrassing myself, but eventually I decided to quit my job and, at age 28, enter the Society of Jesus.
Upon entering the novitiate, I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow novices had strong devotions to one or another saint. They spoke with clear affection for their favorite saints, almost as if they knew them personally. One novice was fond of Dorothy Day, quoting her liberally during our weekly community meetings. Another talked a great deal about St. Thérèse of Lisieux. But though my brother novices were sincere in their devotions and patiently related the lives of their heroes and heroines to me, I now found the idea of praying to the saints wholly superstitious. I wondered, what’s the point? If God hears your prayers, why do you need the saints?
That question was answered when I discovered the collection of saints’ lives that filled the creaky wooden bookcases in the novitiate library.
The first selection I pulled from the shelves resulted from some serious prompting from one novice: You’ve got to read The Story of a Soul, he kept telling me. Then you’ll understand why I like Thérèse so much.
At this point, I knew little about The Little Flower, and imagined Thérèse as a sort of shrinking violet: timid, skittish and dull. So I was astonished when her autobiography revealed instead a lively, intelligent and strong-willed woman, someone I might like to have known. Reading her story led me to track down other biographies, some well known, some obscure, in our library: St. Stanislaus Kostka, a young Jesuit saint, who despite vigorous protests from his family, walked 450 miles to enter the Jesuit novitiate. St. Teresa of Avila, who decided, to the surprise of everyone and the dismay of many, to overhaul her Carmelite order. And Pope John XXIII who, I was happy to discover, was not only compassionate and innovative, but also witty.
Gradually, I found myself growing fonder of these saints and feeling a growing tenderness toward them. I began to see them as models of holiness relevant to my own life. And I began to appreciate the marvelous particularity of their lives. Each saint was holy in his or her own unique way, and revealed God’s way of celebrating individuality. As C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity: How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints!
This gave me, and gives me, enormous consolation. For I eventually realized that none of us are meant to be Thérèse of Lisieux or Stanislaus Kostka or Pope John XXIII. For me to be a saint means to be myself, wrote Thomas Merton. Each saint lived his or her call to sanctity in different ways, and we are called to imitate them in their diversity. There is no need for anyone to do precisely what Mother Teresa or St. Francis of Assisi did. Instead, we are called to lead holy lives in our own places and own times and own ways. And that meant that my own quest for holiness was, ultimately, a quest to be myself.
In his beautiful Journal of a Soul, the autobiographical work that runs from his young adulthood almost to his death, Pope John XXIII meditated on this truth in an entry recorded in 1907. Reflecting on the lives of the saints, Angelo Roncalli notes that he is not meant to be a dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, no matter how perfect. He is meant rather to find sanctity in his own life, according to his own capacities and circumstances. If Saint Aloysius had been as I am, he concluded, he would have been holy in a different way.
In reading about the saints, I also discovered that I could easily recognize myself, or at least parts of myself, in their stories. This was still another aspect of their lives I appreciated: knowing that they had struggled with the same human frailties that everyone does. This, in turn, encouraged me to pray to them for help during particular times and for particular needs. I knew that Merton had struggled mightily with pride and egotism, so when combating the same I would pray for his intercession. When sick I would pray to Thérèse: she understood what it was to battle with self-pity and even depression during an illness. For compassion, to Aloysius. For a better sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurdities of life, to John XXIII.
Quite by surprise, then, I went from someone suspicious of affection for the saints to someone who counted it as one of the joys of my life.
Now I find myself introducing others to favorite saints and, likewise, still being introduced to new ones. And the way you discover a new saint is often similar to the way in which you meet a new friend. Maybe you’ll hear an admiring comment about someone and think, I’d like to get to know that person. When I started reading about English Catholic history, I knew that I wanted to meet St. Edmund Campion. Or perhaps you’re introduced by someone else who knows you’ll enjoy that person’s company. Like the novice who introduced me to Thérèse. Or you run across someone, totally by accident, during your day-to-day life. It wasn’t until my philosophy studies as a Jesuit that I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and fell in love with his writings and his way of speaking of God. These days I wonder which new saint I will encounter next.
Now I have a confession to make. At the beginning of this essay I said that I wasn’t sure what had led me to my affinity to St. Jude. But when I think about it, that’s not entirely true: I now know it was God who did so. God works in some very weird ways, and certainly moving a boy to begin a life of devotion to the saints through a magazine advertisement is one of the stranger ones. But grace is grace, and when I look back over my life I give thanks that I’ve met so many wonderful saints who pray for me, offer me comfort, give me examples of discipleship and help me along the way.
All of this, I like to think, is thanks to St. Jude, who, for all those years stuck inside the sock drawer, prayed for a boy who didn’t even know he was being prayed for.