Post 38

Bucket Lists: Reflections on Why Saints Don’t Have Them

Well of course I’ve got a long version!

It just takes longer, that’s all.  (I was hurrying!)

But at least you knew what I was thinking about.  And for a little while, you were thinking about it too.  I was here, and you were there, but we were both thinking about the same thing.  That was fun.  Internet technology really is amazing, isn’t it?

But then you were done.  You moved on; you started thinking about other things.  I know you did.  You had to.

Meanwhile, I was still, well, I was still over here, thinking about it and writing about it and thinking about how to write about it.  I’ve been sitting here like a newspaper journalist writing earnestly and eagerly – about last week’s top news-story.

But today I will say, “I’m done!  I’m done!  Hey everybody, I came up with something!  It’s ready!  Hello?  Anybody there?”


So anyway, it would be neat to see what you came up with, because maybe we all came up the same kind of thing.

Okay, go ahead, you first.  What do you think?

No really, I insist – this doesn’t always have to be about me and my thoughts, you know.

Go ahead.


[This is where I should type “Beat,” which I found out, means a moment of dead silence in a screenplay.]








Alright, since you’re still not here and I’m still not there and this isn’t a forum and there’s no place for comments, it looks like I’ve basically got everything all set up for another one of these one-way conversations, which, come to think of it, isn’t a conversation at all, but rather something more like a blog post.

(But did you notice? I now have a shiny new CONTACT page.  This means that if you ever, you know, wanted to write – just hypothetically speaking, of course – it would now be possible, in theory.  And I have to tell you, EfficientOne designed it so that you don’t have to decipher and retype one of those little codes to ‘prove you’re not a robot.’  Instead he told me that he created an extra field on the form, which is not visible to humans, but visible to robots.  When the robots fill in that field, something magical happens which destroys the message before it can go to my Inbox.  Isn’t that clever?  I thought it was, and that’s why I’m telling you, and I think it’s okay because the robots can’t hear us.)

So to get down to work, a ‘bucket-list’ is a list of things you would like to do before you ‘kick the bucket’ – before you die.  It has become somewhat fashionable to talk about one’s bucket-list.

“What’s on your bucket-list?” is how you ask it.  Then the person who answers says things like, “to climb Mount Everest, to write a screenplay and to own a pet giraffe.”  Something like that.

The idea is that everyone has a different bucket-list, and the goal here would be to come up with a cool list – be creative, be funny; that will show you’re original, unique, culturally relevant, and that you have zest for life.

The phrase has annoyed me since I first figured out what it meant, and recently I brought it up in conversation because I wanted help in putting my finger on why exactly it bothered me.  I turned to LoyalOne and said, “So what’s on your bucket-list?”  She said, “I want to be quoted on your blog!”

(So now I feel like a fairy Godmother – here’s my wand: “And you, my dear, shall also be at the ball! – I mean, the blog!  The blog!  You, my dear, shall be on the blog!”)

So if Q is: Why don’t saints have bucket-lists?

then my A is:

Saints don’t have bucket-lists because saints have better vision than the rest of us.  Their close-up vision is clearer, enabling them to see, better than we can, the excitement and beauty of the every day, and their distance vision is better, enabling them to see, better than we can, the goal and purpose of life.

To elaborate, saints don’t have bucket-lists because their focus isn’t on that one-time, almost-unrepeatable thrill.  Most bucket-lists are comprised of events that are beyond the every day, and beyond the average North American (let alone the average human being from another century or another part of the world) and that’s a huge problem with the entire bucket-list idea.

The phrase reinforces the not-so-subtle modern message that ordinary human life is boring – so in order to really define yourself and make your life special, you need to direct your life towards (or at least supplement it with) something EXCITING.  The phrase glorifies these fringe and superfluous activities, with the idea that they’re far more interesting to talk about and think about than the rest of your life, which must be dull because it’s repetitive and monotonous.

Some people enjoy writing Christmas newsletters (I do, and you’re not surprised to hear they’re getting longer every year and I compensate by shrinking font and margins), but in my opinion, a lot of people (not you, of course) approach them all wrong.  They sit down to write, and their thought-process is something like this: “Hmm, well, basically I went to work to earn enough to pay the bills, and then I paid them.  Yup.  Obviously I can’t write that because that’s really boring.  Hmm.  In November I got some dental work done, but that’s not really anything, even though it was as expensive as a small vacation.  Yeah, too bad I didn’t travel somewhere this year; then at least I’d have something EXCITING to write about.”

They underestimate the drama of their own daily life.  It is interesting.  Your daily life and your views are interesting because they’re so similar to mine!  And your daily life and your views are interesting because they’re so different from mine!  We’re exactly the same and we’re completely different – that’s enough entertainment right there, isn’t it?

The bucket-list notion proclaims that the ‘best’ parts of life are the non-repeatable, out-of-the ordinary events.  But the bucket-list idea is arguably more questionable than the newsletter full of travel destinations, because it’s not even a list of things that you’ve done or earned; it’s a list of things you’d like to do.  You get the gratification of talking about them, as if they ‘belong’ to you, without actually having to go through the trouble of doing them, not to mention the discovery that these thrills are usually not nearly as exciting as they were promoted as being.

In contrast, a saint focuses on the every day.  Does that sound boring?  It might, but this marvellous and strangely unpredictable terrain called ‘daily life’ is where all the real battles are fought, and won, and lost.  A saint faces the challenges of life head-on, and tries to improve, day by day, in all the virtues.  A new day is a new opportunity to live the way we’re supposed to live, to treat each other the way we’re supposed to treat each other, to do our duties the way we’re supposed to do them, to appreciate the gifts the way we should appreciate them, and so on.

WiseOne says that most good activities and behaviours are things that you must repeat, and they should continue through your whole life.  You never check them off your list.  “Patience, yup, done that, once.  Generosity?  Yup, did that too.”

Take self-control for example: will today be the day we wake up on time, avoid the second chocolate-chip cookie and smile nicely at the irritating co-worker?   Chesterton says it’s the little battles that we keep losing.  He says that man “seems to be capable of great virtues but not small virtues; capable of defying his torturer but not of keeping his temper.” (Autobiography, Ch. XI)  The saints face each day with fresh hope, and try to get better at becoming the person they were meant to be.  As WiseOne says, life’s focus is more properly put on behaviours and habits, not events. Living each day to the fullest, experiencing God’s sudden and startling moments of grace, and trying to do your best – well, that is quite the challenge.  Not dull.

The daily repetition provides new chances to get it right, like the movie Groundhog Day.  We are really so dense and so stubborn that we need all these chances to get it right.  The saying is, ‘only the good die young’ and I’m sure there’s truth in that  – some people cooperate with Goodness so well so early in life that God takes them to the ‘next level’ a lot sooner than he takes the rest of us.

My point is that the saints have a better perspective.  Their hopes are not about escaping to a different world, where the normal challenges are absent.  That’s a modern mindset.  The modern mindset says, ‘Jump on a plane, go to a place where you don’t have to cook your own meals or go to work.  Escape the alarm clock and the co-workers!  That’s the life!’  The modern mind-set suggests that what is ordinary is dull and worth avoiding.  Therefore, early retirement is equated with heaven.  But the saintly outlook is entirely different.  This was one of the main points of Chesterton’s story The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. Trying to be good is a righteous adventure in and of itself.  As he said in a different story, “Being good is an adventure far more violent and daring than sailing round the world.”  (The Club of Queer Trades, Chapter II).  He was fighting the myth that ‘good people’ live some sort of bubble-life, where everything is easy and really dull, while everybody else, and especially those who ‘break free’ from rules of morality, gets to have adventures, thrills and excitement.  The myth is that such liberated people understand the full reality of life – its sufferings and its delights – far better than the ‘cloistered’ saints do.

But the truth is that there was no saint who was not pushed to his very limits in his battle against self and in coping with hardship.  Every saint’s life is chock-full of drama (as represented by the adventures in the Man Who Was Thursday); some of it is obvious and everybody knows about it – such as being put in jail or being publicly ridiculed – but some of it is hidden and can barely be discussed – the tears splash down when nobody is looking.

Yet a saint does prefer, in general, not to draw attention to himself:

We might even say that the one thing which separates a saint from ordinary men is his readiness to be one with ordinary men . . . A saint is long past any desire for distinction; he is the only superior man who has never been a superior person.

— G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ch. V

In contrast, many of the things on a bucket-list are about being at the head of the pack, and being extraordinary or superior in a worldly sense.

Turning to the idea of repetition or monotony in itself, Chesterton said that repetition is the joyful pattern of nature.  Uninterrupted rhythm (such a tricky word to spell!) is a sign of vitality and life; it’s broken rhythm which is a sign of dysfunction and death:

[T]he repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition . . . the grass seemed signalling to me with all its fingers at once; the crowded stars seemed bent upon being understood.  The sun would made me see him if he rose a thousand times.  The recurrence of the universe rose to the maddening rhythm of an incantation, and I began to see an idea.

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption.  It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork . . .

The sun rises every morning . . it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising.  His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.  The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy . . . Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon . . . He has the eternal appetite of infancy.”

— Orthodoxy, Chapter IV

The saints can exult in what seems to be, at first glance, a boring monotony because saints are almost never bored.  They don’t look for (or to be more accurate, they don’t expect) amusement all the time and everywhere like a spoiled child or a bored millionaire, because they already have it.  They find happiness in the many blessings of each day.  When people talk about meeting a saint, they notice that these people are so incredibly and unusually attentive; saints know how to fully receive other people.  They know how to fully welcome and appreciate each moment of life.  St. Pope John Paul II liked to wake up early so that he could see the sun rise.

This quotation of Chesterton (which incidentally happens to be the very quotation that I was looking for in preparation for Post 36) says that if you want to say ‘everyone has a right to be happy’ then you absolutely must differentiate between the people who are happy with life’s “normal conditions” and the people who feel entitled to experience every experience under the sun:

A man has a right to a reasonable chance of happiness, if he can get happiness out of normal conditions – out of human companionship and daylight and decently regular meals . . . But it is a very different business if the pursuit of happiness is to be understood as anything that will make a bored person happy.  It is very different if it means . . . unlimited liberty in thrills.   By that conception we are bound to grant to him not merely what he ought to have, but practically anything that he has not got.  We are bound to yield, not even to his discontent, but merely to his curiosity.  If he cannot enjoy his daily bread, he must be indulged in every kind of cookery up to the point of cannibalism . . . It is hard to see on what authority rests this divine right of experiment.

— Illustrated London News, September 20, 1924

Chesterton is identifying an attitude of entitlement here.  And I think it’s precisely that kind of attitude which animates the discussion about bucket-lists.   Doesn’t it remind you of that other list that we used to make?  We used to make a list of all the Christmas presents we wanted.  Have we grown out of that?  Probably not.  We probably still want A, B and C.  We don’t realize how many things we want, because now that we’re grown-ups, we do our own shopping, and we don’t even have to leave the house to do it.  Almost instant gratification.  Our desires are satisfied all year round and we don’t have to wait for our birthday or Christmas.   But the bucket-list is not much more mature: instead of collecting objects, we’ve decided we want to collect experiences.   But it’s just as shallow, and generally, just as selfish.  It’s not just a bucket-list, it’s YOUR bucket-list, and YOU’RE going to put in what YOU want.  And since it’s set into the terminology of what you want to do before you die, it sounds like a pretty important list.  You’ve got one life, and you’re going to make sure that this life contains those 12.5 minutes of pleasure, doing whatever.

In contrast, a saint isn’t focused on collecting experiences, checking off a list, or emptying a bucket or filling a bucket.  (And that’s another thing: it’s a phrase with two highly visual elements, a bucket and a list, but these images just don’t mesh.  It sounds like a metaphor that is pre-mixed, i.e., Frankenstein  from the beginning, and I must say, this aspect contributed significantly to my brain-static.)

No, a saint is not someone pushing his grocery cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store of life: “Hmm, I think I’ll take a couple of those, and hey, that experience looks intriguing, maybe one of those.  Ooh, now that one looks appetizing.”  No, a saint is more like a person out on a moonlit night, holding hands with the one he loves.  A saint is in a relationship, and is focused on what he can do for his beloved.  His beloved is Christ, and the saint wants to give, not collect.

And if the saint happens to receive, then he accepts such consolations and gifts with delight and gratitude.  He doesn’t check these items off his list, because he wasn’t keeping a list in the first place.  Does a man who gets married enter the relationship with a list?  Three years into the marriage, he says, “You know sweetheart, on my bucket-list for this marriage was one and a half children, a clean house and good cooking.  You’re letting me down on item number two.”  She says, “Well, on my bucket-list for this marriage, there was a trip to Paris and becoming a bowling champion before I turned 28, and you’re getting in my way.”  Can you imagine?  Whose list would get priority?

So a saint doesn’t have a bucket-list, because relationships aren’t about bucket-lists.  He’s thinking about the will of God, not his own will.  The saint trusts that God’s plan is going to be better than his own plan, or, as LoyalOne put it, “God’s bucket-list for you is going to be better than yours.”  It’s not that saints don’t make plans – they should – and it’s not that saints don’t have hopes and dreams – they almost always do – but it’s that they have matured enough to have a broader vision; they are ready to put their own plans in second place, after whatever is ultimately chosen by God.   Christ didn’t say, “Frankly speaking, Papa, being tortured to death tonight isn’t on my bucket-list, so if you don’t mind, perhaps we can revisit this later?”  He put his own desires in second place.  Earthly desires, if they are wholesome, are legitimate, but they can’t become the ultimate aim of our lives; they have to take their position in the proper scheme of things.  We shouldn’t be crushed if every desire isn’t satisfied, and things don’t turn out exactly the way our agenda had outlined.

The bucket-list idea presumes that we’ve got a certain level of control over the circumstances of our lives that we simply do not have.  We don’t have that level of control, nor should we.  We’re not gods.  We’re creatures.  We don’t run the universe and decide how everything is going to go.  So sure, have wishes (and if your life’s goal is to be on my here-today-gone-tomorrow blog, then I’ll whip out my trusty magic wand), but please, don’t have bucket-lists.

Nevertheless, if you were to insist that everyone does have a bucket-list, in the sense that everyone has something that they want, then I’d have to concede the point.  Of course a saint wants.   He wants so badly that he’s identified by what he wants.  You’re right, as usual.  Saints are experts at wanting; the intensity with which they want can be compared only with a man who is madly in love with a person or an idea: ready to give his life.

So in that sense, a saint does have a bucket, but there’s no list anywhere near it.  Instead, it’s more like that bucket or basket in the story of St. Paul’s escape, which had a person in it.  But in this case, the person is Christ himself.  The saints want someone, not something.  The saints want Christ; they want Christ in their bucket and they look forward to heaven because that’s when they will have him most fully.  About St. Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton wrote, “He knew better than most of us that there is but one purpose in this life, and it is one that is beyond this life.”  (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ch. IV)

There’s a powerful passage in Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.  He describes the famous, strange and mystical moment when the saint heard the voice of Christ coming from the crucifix in the church of St. Dominic in Naples.  Christ was offering this faithful servant his choice of life’s gifts.  The bucket of life, so to speak, was presented to St. Thomas so that he could choose.  Chesterton says that the arms of Christ, stretched out on the cross were like a symbol of bounty, of the largeness of the gift:

[W]hen the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and the west, to the ends of the earth and to the very extremes of existence.  They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures.

— Saint Thomas Aquinas, Ch. V

Chesterton reminds us that St. Thomas “was a man who could want things, as he wanted the lost manuscript of St. Chrysostom” and he points out that there were things that St. Thomas might have wanted.  “He might have asked for the solution of an old difficulty, or the secret of a new science; or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels; or any one of the thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe.”

But you know how the story goes.  The saint, “lifted at last his head and spoke with, and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with the humility of his religion; ‘I will have Thyself.’ ”

In other words, Christianity is humble and shockingly bold at the same time, enabling mere mortals to demand from God that he give them Himself.

And of course, since it is always the case that Christ already wants and loves all of us infinitely more intensely than we can love and want him (limited creatures that we are), this means that the moment we begin to reciprocate, we’re headed for a match made in heaven.  In other words, he was waiting for us to want him, like the humble Beast in the story of Beauty and the Beast.  He showers us with gifts and he provides reminders and hints of his hidden and silent presence, all in a gentlemanly effort to capture our attention without forcing our attention.

In other words, Christ is hoping to be included on that bucket-list of ours, somewhere between the giraffe we’re going to own and that screenplay we’re going to write.