“Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” -St. Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena’s famous quote is enjoying quite a heyday in Catholic art and media. It’s everywhere, from cute wall hangings on Etsy to your favorite Catholic Pinboard and the opening line of every other new blog post about self-confidence or finding personal fulfillment in one’s faith. The quotation, also rendered as “Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire,” encourages Catholics to honor the Lord by being no more and no less than our unique and individual selves, responding fully to God’s plan for our lives and changing the world in the process. It’s a beautiful, inspiring vision: a holy revolution of Christians who are assured of themselves and their God, marching forth to bring sweeping change to the societies around them.
But what if you’re not sure who God meant you to be? What if you struggle with God’s personal plan for you? What if the way you were created, so fearfully and wonderfully made, is obscured behind a mask of depression, anxiety, exhaustion, illness or grief? What if you actually kind of dislike the way you are or wish that you were more like someone else, someone healthy and happy?
Don’t wait to set the world on fire. Don’t wait for happiness or inner peace, for energy, healing, or health.
Change the world now.
“Easy for you to say,” I can hear you snarking. “I can’t even get out of bed in the morning, let alone ‘set the world on fire!’ I have none of the holy work ethic of a St. Catherine of Siena, none of the bubbling Christian joy of a Pope Francis, and absolutely zero of the heroic suffering of the early Christian martyrs. I’m grumpy and tired. I worry about everything. I’m depressed, I hurt, and I can’t even get my kids to change their clothes. Changing the world is for other people—not someone as broken as me.”
If St. Catherine’s “set the world on fire” doesn’t strike a chord, consider it another way.
In journalist Clare Boothe Luce’s 1952 anthology Saints For Now, the author Evelyn Waugh (himself a grouchy, snarky Catholic who struggled with mental illness) wrote this strikingly similar sentiment:
“We can invoke the help of the saints and study the workings of God in them, but if we delude ourselves that we are walking in their shoes, seeing through their eyes and thinking with their minds, we lose sight of the one certain course of our salvation. There is only one saint that ‘Bridget Hogan’ can actually become, St. Bridget Hogan, and that saint she must become, either here or in the fires of purgatory, if she is to enter heaven. She cannot slip through in fancy dress, made up as Joan of Arc.”
So be the saint of anxiety, of clinical depression, of bipolar disorder. Be the saint who has a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. The one whose house is dirty, whose arms and legs and heart ache, who needs extra naps and drinks pots of coffee and takes meds. Be that saint by asking God to sanctify your unique and individual struggle. You may not have the get-up-and-go of St. Catherine, but your sanctity might be found in completing a simple household chore for the good of your family or whispering out a prayer from that bed you can’t get out of. You might not be a ray of Christian sunshine, but you may change the world by bringing the Gospel to others stuck in the dark. You may never have all the peace, or energy, or health you want in this life, but your personal sainthood might be achieved in the truly heroic witness it takes to live for Christ day by day from the cross of mental illness.
Don’t wait. Don’t wait on any earthly thing. If God in his mystery allowed your life to be chaotic, set the world on holy fire with your own hot mess.
Be who God meant you to be, with all the strengths and weaknesses he bestowed on you and all the brokenness Christ died to make beautiful. You, St. Hot Mess, are the only saint you’ll ever have a shot at being. So don’t wait to be someone else. Change the world now.