Working as retreat master I’m constantly reminded of our common journey through life, especially its conflicts and struggles. One experience common to those who seek holiness is a heightened awareness of their failures and shortcomings.
I have watched this spiritual dynamic at work in a man from New York, who has been coming annually to our retreat house for thirty years. I will call him “Ray,” and I met him in 1990. He has always carried a heavy load of troubles, and still does. In addition to being bi-polar, Ray has serious sexual issues that would have destroyed him if he had succumbed to their demands.
Over the years I have grown to respect and love him. From the beginning, Ray was very open with me about his struggles. He has always been unassuming, transparent, humble, and open to the promptings of grace — to a degree I have not been able to approach.
Over the years I have seen him work through deep layers of anger, rage, and hatred, stemming from a lengthy period of sexual abuse as a young boy. Ray remains a lonely man, but continues on his path through life, seeking God, and experiencing the gradual healing of grace. His humility is grounded in his self-knowledge.
When Ray calls me on the phone, he usually talks about the same things, something we all do in our own way. And when he talks about himself he listens closely to what I say — Ray allows others in. He prays everyday and does not allow his moods, frustrations, and depression to stop him on his journey. He’s a warrior but does not know it.
Ray is courageous, though he would not see himself as such. Over the years, in spite of great pain, he has not sought the kinds of momentary relief that would only make his life more painful and chaotic. Sin is what we do when we seek to escape. Escape only creates more problems, making the journey more painful and possibly ending it entirely. The inner voices of despair can take over with self-destructive results.
Ray’s journey is not unlike the human pilgrimage we all share. I believe he is a true saint because of his childlike faith, his transparency, and remarkable humility. Ray does not look like the one-dimensional saints we sometimes read about in books or see in movies. Ray, like all of us, contains many overlapping strands of identity, like a series of knots we seek to unravel as we move towards a deeper love of ourselves, of others, and of God.