In his book, “The Truth of Catholicism,” author George Weigel refers to the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s two categories of saints. Some were “God’s prime numbers,” so unique in their form of holiness that they exploded the more prevalent paradigm of Christian discipleship in their generation (such as St. Francis of Assisi, who founded a mendicant vocation amid a materialistic medieval world). The other group of saints, more populous by nature, is comprised of men and women who live more customary roles in an exemplary and holy manner.
Weigel asserts that the Church in every age needs both kinds of saints. The “prime numbers” challenge us beyond complacency and remind us that the beauty of holiness has new facets waiting to be discovered, where the organic saints remind us that every person in every place and station is capable, by God’s grace, of experiencing heaven’s eternal beatitude.
For those of us embroiled in the day to day blessing, challenge, and. yes, grind of parenting, we would do well to keep these two categories of sainthood in mind. After all, any baptized persons under our parental care have been adopted by God, endowed with the grace of divine life, and entrusted to our love and catechesis for the purpose of making them saints.
But let’s be honest here. There are many days of parenting when sainthood is the last thing on our minds; we’re just aiming for survival. Oh sure, there may be one or two of our children, pleasingly compliant and self-directed, for which sainthood seems more possible, but there may be others we’re more concerned about, children whose strong will seems to test us at every turn.
Parenthood is an exercise in faith unlike just about any other venture because it feels so unpredictable. Whereas the faith of the farmer gets rewarded quite predictably as long as weather conditions comply, the sowing and tilling of parenthood can sometimes yield fruit that, from our limited and short-range perspective, makes no logical sense.
But here’s where Balthasar’s saint categories can ease our distress. As Weigel points out, the saints who are “God’s prime numbers” show us new facets of holiness that are beyond our previous paradigms. Remembering this truth can temper our tendency toward frustration when our children don’t seem to fit our pre-conceived categories of parental success: i.e. the pious, well-mannered, motivated academe, athlete, or artist whose success validates our parental self-worth (after all, it is about us, right?).
If you’re anything like me, you have to fight the tendency to assume the worst about a child who seems to press you at every opportunity, and to instead ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the distinctive seeds of holiness that are less apparent to the eye but may germinate with more patient tending. A quick perusal of Catholic history will tell you that there were many saints who were viewed by their contemporaries, even their own families, as downright batty.
Don’t misunderstand—I’m no Pollyanna; sometimes a brat is just a brat. But perhaps we should pray for more attentive discernment to the creative plan God may have for a particular child that doesn’t shoehorn into our preconceived notions of Christian discipleship. This requires a faith that is inaccessible without God’s grace; the parental maturity to surrender our children more fully to the providence of the God who loves them more than we ever could.
Balthasar’s second category is also helpful, because just as we can fall into cynicism regarding the difficult child, we can also falsely presume sanctity for the compliant child. We need to avoid the natural tendency toward “squeaky wheel” parenting, and be aware that the more conventional child needs our attention as well, both in affirming the quiet beauty of their faithfulness, and to help them recognize God’s gifts in their frustrating sibling and prevent their own fall into self-satisfaction (ala the prodigal son’s older brother).
And for our own selves, lest we forget, toiling in the day-to-day drudgery of parental chores, car-pools, and other craziness—God uses that for our holiness too, if we’ll only let him.