The Difference between Saints and Celebrities

When I was younger, I never felt that I was particularly gifted. I liked to draw and did well enough in sports, but it always seemed to me that I was a dimly glowing ember outshone by radiant stars. As a college freshman in particular, I recall attending various student events and feeling that I was the only one without a crowd-pleasing talent—a beautiful voice, the gift of dance, the ability to work a room. It felt like I was always in the shadows of the audience, never in the spotlight.

As is true of any culture, our own celebrates certain talents more than others. Athletic prowess is undoubtedly one of the talent sets that receives the most acclaim. Take, for example, what transpired in Cleveland this past Thursday. It was the first game of the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers and, more significantly, the first since LeBron James returned to play for his home team. The lead-up to the game was momentous—a dramatic black-and-white commercial by Nike, performances by Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons, the hanging of a massive banner with James’s likeness opposite the arena, and thousands upon thousands of people pouring into downtown Cleveland…all for one man playing a game.

This sort of fixation upon certain talent sets affects the way we value ourselves and others. My own childhood experience illustrates this point, as does something that happened during a committee meeting I attended this past week. Towards the end of the meeting, one of the senior members of the committee praised another for his versatility on the job, likening him to Giants pitcher Yusmeiro Petit, who helped his team to a World Series title last week. It’s great to see people receiving recognition for the work they do, but the comment made me wonder about the talents that go unrecognized because they do not align with certain societal values. What about the humble office manager who day after day completes the same mundane tasks that keep the organization running? Do her contributions go unnoticed because her gifts lack easy analogues in the world of sports?

In my own case, as time has gone on, I’ve come to realize that my talents are simply gifts of a different sort. I will never hold an audience spellbound with my beautiful voice or amaze a packed arena by throwing down a tomahawk slam dunk. However, I do have a gift for organizing, finding solutions to complex problems, and writing. These are not talents that draw a crowd, but they are the sort of gifts that can quietly make the world a better place.

Looking back through salvation history, we see that God often chose to work with people of modest gifts rather than the shining stars. God chose David, a simple shepherd, to be king rather than any of his strong, handsome older brothers. God also chose Jeremiah, who thought himself too young to speak God’s word to the people, and Moses, who stuttered. God chose Abraham and Sarah, who had reached an age by which many in our country find themselves stuck in a nursing home. And when the definitive moment in history arrived, God chose a poor teenage girl from a backwater town to be the bearer of God’s salvation.

Reading through the Scriptures, one comes to the conclusion that this is just God’s MO. As it says in the letter of James, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6). We see this pattern repeated not only in the Bible but also in the lives of the saints. One could offer no better example than Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Her talents were not extraordinary. She simply sought to do God’s will day in and day out, no matter how difficult it was. (And her published letters have revealed that it was difficult indeed.) As a result, she inspired people the world over. “Not all of us can do great things,” she is said to have uttered. “But we can do small things with great love.”

Mother Teresa’s words and her life as a whole bring into focus an important spiritual truth: not all of us are bestowed with talents or will perform feats that the world recognizes as great, but that does not matter in the end. What matters is that we use the gifts God has given us for the purposes God intends. In truth, it is precisely through the little ones and their simple gifts that God has always worked the greatest wonders.

In the wake of the spectacles of the World Series and LeBron James’ glorious return, I find myself wondering how we will all view the events of human history through the lens of the beatific vision. I expect they will look quite different from how we view them from this side of heaven. I imagine the greatest feats of athletic prowess and musical genius appearing as brief flashes that quickly fade from view amidst the brilliant glow of a network of simple acts of love—a man stopping to chat with a homeless person on his walk to work, a daughter patiently caring for her ailing parents, a retiree spending his golden years in a food pantry rather than on the golf course.

At the University of Notre Dame, there is wonderful summer program that challenges high school students to ponder this question: “The saints’ gifts changed the world. How will yours?” It is a worthy question at any time, but especially as we remember all the saints who have gone before us and especially in moments like this one when all eyes seem to be focused on a few conspicuously talented individuals. These people will always occupy the spotlight in this world, but when the lights finally come down at the end of time it will be the steady glow of the simple, loving hearts that shine forth the light into eternity.