“Little Lessons from the Saints: 52 Simple and Surprising Ways to See the Saint in You
.” By Bob Burnham. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2017. 216 pages. Paperback: $9.95; Kindle: $7.96; Nook: $8.49.
Over the years I have seen, read and studied many books on the saints. What piqued my interest about this one, however, was the subtitle: “52 Simple and Surprising Ways to See the Saint in You.” It’s a subtle thing, really, having to do with verb tense. I wasn’t being invited to “become” a saint at some future time (if I just worked hard enough). Rather, I was being asked to recognize my own saintliness, here and now, in the present moment.
“We are called to imitate the saints because we are called to be saints,” author Bob Burnham explains. “But here’s the secret: we are already saints, albeit imperfect ones, for Christ lives in us, and we live in Christ. The saints teach us how to see that truth more clearly.” What this book does, therefore, is invite us to become more fully who we already are.
The number “52” in the title is not arbitrary either; it is designed to match the number of weeks in a calendar year. Although Burnham assures us that the book can be used “any way you want,” he also provides a blueprint for how to get the most out of the stories and meditations it contains. In essence, each week the reader spends time with one saint, meditating on his or her life and how their charism is present in our own lives. For those new to meditation, the author gives some useful advice on how to proceed, step by step, and what to expect along the way.
“Experience has shown me that meditation is never free from distractions,” he says. “It is rarely a peaceful repose or an escape from reality. Rather, meditation is an exacting discipline.”
Perhaps because Burnham is himself a catechist, he then includes a brief section entitled “Little Lessons for Teachers,” outlining how the book can be used with students in the classroom, whether that is in a Catholic school or a CCD setting. He notes that the saints are presented in a specific order by theme – surrender, freedom, pilgrimage, hospitality and loving knowledge -- echoing the specific lesson we can draw from each of them as our own spiritual journey unfolds.
The lessons, as promised, are “little” in as much as they are short, occupying only two or three pages at the most, thus making them perfect for those who may not have unlimited time to sit with a book of meditations. That does not mean, however, that they lack substance. He often relates to even the most familiar saints in a way that startles the reader into thinking something new about them. When talking about the martyr St. Charles Lwanga, for instance, he notes that for most of us, it’s the everyday martyrdoms that we need to embrace. “It’s not…persevering in faith in the face of persecution, even if it means death... as if the only way you can show your love for and dedication to Christ is if you are being persecuted…The lesson I have learned from the lives of martyrs is simpler: I should not complain.”
Saints, Burnham concludes, “are not superheroes with magic powers. They are not idealized versions of what people should be. They were real people who chose to take the gospel seriously.” Whenever we do the same, we are following in their footsteps. “Any time I show love and compassion, I am a saint,” he says. “Whenever I show patience and understanding, I am a saint. … My goal is not to be canonized someday— my goal is to live the Gospel today. If I do that, I can look in the mirror and see a saint every day!”
By his own admission, Bob Burnham is “not a scholar or a theologian, nor am I ordained. I am just a guy named ‘Bob’ who takes seriously the counsel of the Blessed Virgin Mary when she said to the servers at the wedding in Cana, ‘Do whatever He tells you’ (Jn 2:5).” A Secular Franciscan and a spiritual director, he works as a freelance editor and writes about the spirituality of commuting on his blog, mtransit.org. He lives with his wife, Cathy, in Bartlett, Ill.