Reflections on What I Believe Makes a Saint

“Saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everyone else.” – Thomas Merton

With John Coltrane’s birthday on September 23 and the Feast Day of St. Francis on Oct. 4th, I thought I would share some reflections on what I think makes a Saint.

About St. Francis of Assisi - Patron Saint Article
Saint Francis of Assisi

Saints are models for everyone and offer something we can aspire to. Though mortal like all of us, they live in their Divinity. They show us that Christ’s (as the Universal Christ) people follow a way that is different from mass consciousness.

Saints “can be innocent and genuine . . . and can shine like stars among a deceitful and underhanded brood,” (Philippians 2:15). To people who asked, “Why should we believe there’s a new or better life possible?” the apostle Paul says, “Look at these people. They’re different. This is a new social order.”

Positive Vision and Direction

Sainthood goes beyond “God is your life.” It is an experience of feeling the fullness of God present in yourself without erasing your sense of self. Sainthood arises from love and faith, offering positive vision and direction, and ultimately serving as an example for all of us.

A saint is one who has learned to stay with the pain of life, to live without answers, without conclusions, and on some days, even without meaning (or at least it may seem that way from an outsider’s perspective). This is the place where we ask the great question, “What is it all for?” It is there, within the emptiness, that Love fills and enlivens us.[1]

The Inspiration of St. Francis of Assisi

I have been greatly inspired and humbled by the example of St. Francis of Assisi. He lived in poverty, service and prayer, seeking always to be humbler and Christ-like. Francis saw all of nature as one with God, and with each of us. Many people thought he was crazy because he took Christ’s teachings so literally. But he believed that is exactly what a Christian was called to do. Francis never told anyone how to live, and he always stated that each of us must find our own way.

St. Francis said, “preach to all nations and only use words if you have too.” As any of us announce justice, equality, and peace, with our mouth, we need to be it and live it in our hearts. “Let no one be provoked to anger or scandal through you, but may everyone be drawn to peace, kindness, and harmony through your gentleness.”[2]

The Concept of Intimacy with the Divine

In Judaism the word d’veikus (“clinging” or “cleaving”) is found in the Torah. The verb davak signifies an extraordinary intimacy with the Divine: “To love YHVH your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:20).

To achieve d’veikus is to realize that God is your life. While later Hasidic masters spoke of d’veikus as a union with God requiring the dissolution of the self, this was not the original understanding. God is your life, but your life is still yours. The Torah speaks of d’veikus as an experience of feeling the fullness of God present in yourself without actually erasing your sense of self. . . .[3]

A saint is often one that has been brought to his or her knees and then is transformed. For example, the story of the prophet Johan who ran from God, and was used by God, almost in spite of himself. Jonah was swallowed by a whale and taken where he would rather not go.[4] This was Jesus’ metaphor for death and rebirth—a rebirth that knows love is everything, and that we must do all we can to bring that love to others,  no matter what.

Rather than look for impressive miracles, we must go inside the whale’s belly for a while. Then, and only then, will we be spit out on a new shore and understand our call, our place, our purpose, and our oneness.

Living Within the Universal Christ

The saint is one that lives within the Universal Christ, which sees that “there are no more distinctions between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).  The saint is one that lives in faith and is trusting in the intrinsic union that exists between us and God.

Often a saint is a person that was lost, and then has an awakening. They become aware of God’s presence within. The truth is that God is always knocking, but we simply don’t open the door all the way and trust.

Seeing God in Everything

The saint involves God in everything and is first a process of grace.  That is what we must be open to. This is the Holy Spirit and is God within us. God also speaks to us through Nature. The more we learn about Nature, the more we learn about God.  This is what St. Francis discovered and is what gave him such joy.

“For the earth which drinks in the rain that comes often upon it and brings forth plants fit for them by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God,” Hebrews 6:7.

Saint Francis invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness. Pope Francis

We need the Franciscan vision of all creation singing praises to the Creator if we are to flourish in the years and centuries to come. Like Francis and Clare, we need to become earth-loving saints, committed to our planet and its peoples—in our time and our children’s and grandchildren’s time.  The saint knows we, as the image of God, are to bring earth to heaven. 

We are not meant to do this alone.  As Jesus put it, “cut off from the vine, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The “vine and the branches” is one of the greatest Christian mystical images of the nonduality between God and the soul. In and with God, we can love and forgive everything and everyone—even our enemies. Alone and by ourselves, we will seldom be able to love in difficult situations over time through our own willpower and intellect.[5]

Recognizing a Saint

Recently, I had a conversation with my friend and renowned singer songwriter, Gino Vannelli. We were reflecting on what makes a saint. He said, “The saint is never self-proclaimed. It is a designation of total respect and honor bestowed upon him/her by others. A conductor once lionized Bach so much that he considered all humanity to be below J.S. Bach. I replied that although Bach was the bigger genius, it takes us smaller geniuses to have recognized his bigger genius. And so, it is with saints. There is a little bit of the saint in every one of us. That’s why we recognize the great saint among us. If it was completely foreign to us, there would be no such thing as a saint, at least in our vocabulary.

Also, what we consider the ‘self’ is nothing more than a circumscribed idea or notion of ourselves. Always limited and incomplete. Therefore, there is never any dissolution of the self, but simply the recognition that what you once considered the self, is not so. The whole drama we experience is giving up this idea or notion of the self. We consider it dissolution only because to change habitual thoughts and behavioral patterns feels like climbing a difficult mountain, and it feels like dying. All God is doing is opening up our minds and hearts. But we kick and scream until we go. . .Ahh..”

Inspirations on the Path of Sainthood

St. Thérèse of Lisieux said this with regards to her pursuit toward sainthood:

“I had to pass through many trials before reaching the haven of peace, before tasting the delicious fruits of perfect love and of complete abandonment to God’s will.”

“My vocation is Love.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux 

Another inspiration for me is John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 – July 17, 1967), the brilliant and deeply spiritual jazz saxophonist. Pastor Wanika Stephens, the daughter of Archbishop Wayne King and Mother Marina King — founders of the Church of Saint John Will-I-Am Coltrane — said, “John Coltrane is a universal saint…he is that one that reached the point of enlightenment and instead of going past into the next realm and leaving us and going on, he turned around and he showed his light so that the rest of us could see a clear path and follow it to the enlightenment.”

A Byzantine-style icon of John Coltrane at the church. The inscription to the left and right of Coltrane's body reads, in Greek, "St. John." Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR
A Byzantine-style icon of John Coltrane at the church. The inscription to the left and right of Coltrane’s body reads, in Greek, “St. John.” Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR

A Byzantine-style icon of John Coltrane at the church. The inscription to the left and right of Coltrane’s body reads, in Greek, “St. John.” Anastasia Tsioulcas/NPR

Rev. Stephens, says, “We look at Jesus’ life and how he lived it as an uncompromising revolutionary, speaking truth to power and giving his life ultimately for the freedom of humanity. John Coltrane, in so many ways, was an expression of that same spirit and evolutionary transcendent expression of the spirit that we see in Jesus Christ.”

Archbishop Franzo King and his wife Marina recall one night in 1965 seeing and listening to Coltrane in San Francisco “I think we were both slain in the spirit,”. “It was like getting caught up in a rainstorm. And we didn’t know if it was going to bring a flood or flowers.” King went on to say. “We don’t worship him, and we don’t exalt him. We recognize him.”[6]

Perhaps the first step to becoming a saint is the desire. While on a 1966 tour of Japan, Coltrane was asked what he wanted to be in 10 years. “I would like to be a saint,” he said. That Coltrane aspired to be a saint is a testament to his devotion to his faith. A Love Supreme, the album released in 1965 and considered to be his magnum opus, is his ode to God, and is the result of his profound spiritual awakening.

I pray we all cultivate the desire to serve and love in our own unique way. It is through listening that we learn, and it is through constant desire and commitment that we make the pilgrimage towards sainthood.


[1] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 44–46

[2] The Legend of the Three Companions, chap. 14, in Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, The Founder (New York: New City Press, 2000), 102.

[3] Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, 2015), xxvii, xxviii, xxix, xxxii, xxxiv. 

[4] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999, 2003), 44–46.

[5] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Essential Teachings on Loveselected by Joelle Chase and Judy Traeger (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), 206, 213–214.


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