To visit the great National Parks of America is an unforgettable experience. But to explore one of them is better still. There you will find carefully laid out trails for hikers and walkers. On those trails you will find lots of markers. In difficult uphill or downhill parts you will find steps cut out in the rocks. In marshy places you will find stepping-stones laid out. And in dangerous parts you will see warning signs posted.
Thanks to these well-made and well-worn trails, even amateurs can make their way safely through deep forest and rugged mountain terrain. As you travel these trails you marvel at the hard work that went into the making of them. And one thing becomes abundantly clear: without those trails the ordinary hiker would be completely lost.
The saints have done something similar for us. They have laid out paths for us. They have put down markers on those paths. They have travelled the way ahead of us, a great host of them. They have shown us what ordinary human beings like us can achieve when they avail of the grace of God. They have set us an example of determination, dedication, and sacrifice.
Christians have always turned to the example of the saints. Some saints went straight to the goal. Others fell, stumbled, blundered, before finally getting it right. But all have expanded the possibilities of human love and courage.
Such examples are not confined to the roll of official saints. All around us, even in our own times, there are men and women whose stories guide us on our journey – people in whom the two great commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, have been joined to an extraordinary degree.
We draw encouragement and inspiration from these men and women who have gone before us and blazed a trail for us. Each one has made the path that bit easier for the rest of us. And when we experience weariness and a sense of failure and futility, it’s as if they are saying to us, “We are with you. Don’t give up.”
However, there is a tendency to put the saints on such an exalted pedestal that we feel justified in excusing ourselves from imitating them. In this case devotion to the saints becomes more of a hindrance than a help.
The saints serve as models for us precisely because they were sinners like us. They are reminders to us of what life is about. They inspire us, guide us, encourage us and give us hope. And, of course, they also intercede for us.
But they can’t do it in our place. Nor will they provide us with shortcuts and ways of evading the hard slog and the narrow road. We must not expect others to do for us what we cannot discipline ourselves to do. We ourselves have to walk the path. We have to make the journey. The saints help us to dare that journey.