When I was nine, my greatest pleasure was ordering things through the mail. The cereal boxes that filled our kitchen shelves all boasted small order forms on the back, which I would clip out, fill in with my address and send away, along with a dollar bill or two. A few weeks later a brown paper package addressed to me would arrive in our mailbox. Nothing filled me with more excitement.

Statue of St. Jude. Courtesy of Pacific Heritage
Trading Co.
But even with my predilection for mail-order purchases, I would be hard-pressed to explain what led me to focus my childish desires on a plastic statue of St. Jude that I had spied in a magazine. I can’t imagine what magazine this might have been, since my parents weren’t in the habit of leaving Catholic publications lying around the house, but apparently the photo of the statue was sufficiently appealing to convince me to drop $3.50 into an envelope.

I knew nothing about St. Jude, other than what the magazine ad told me: he was the patron saint of hopeless causes. Even if I had been interested in reading about him, there would have been little to read; for all his current popularity, Jude remains a mysterious figure. Though he is named as one of the twelve apostles of Jesus, there are only three brief mentions of Jude in the entire New Testament. And though some ancient legends mention his work in Mesopotamia, the Encyclopedia of Catholicism says candidly, "We have no reliable information about this obscure figure."

In a few weeks, I received a little package containing a nine-inch beige plastic statue, along with a booklet of prayers to be used for praying to my new patron. St. Jude the Beige, who held a staff and carried a sort of plate emblazoned with the image of a face (which I supposed was Jesus, though this was difficult to discern), was immediately given pride of place on top of the dresser in my bedroom.

At the time, I prayed to God only intermittently, and then mainly to ask for things, such as: "Please let me get an A on my next test." "Please let me do well in Little League this year." "Please let my skin clear up for the school picture." I used to envision God as the Great Problem Solver, the one who would fix everything if I just prayed hard enough, used the correct prayers, and prayed in precisely the right way. But when God couldn’t fix things (which seemed more frequent than I would have liked), I would turn to St. Jude. I figured that if it was beyond the capacity of God to do something, then surely it must be a lost cause, and it was time to call on St. Jude.

St. Jude stood patiently atop my dresser until high school. My high school friends, when visiting my house, often asked to see my bedroom (we were all inordinately curious about what each other’s bedroom looked like). And though I was by now fond of St. Jude, I was afraid of what my friends would think if they spotted the strange plastic statue standing on my dresser. So St. Jude was relegated to inside my sock drawer and brought out only on special occasions.

My faith was another thing, you could say, that was relegated to the sock drawer for the next several years. During high school, I made it to Mass more or less weekly; but later, in college, I became just an occasional churchgoer (though I still prayed to the Great Problem Solver). And as my faith grew thinner and thinner, my affinity for St. Jude began to seem a little childish: silly, superstitious, and faintly embarrassing.

That changed for me at age twenty-six. Dissatisfied with my life in the business world, I began to consider doing something else, though at the time I had little idea of what that something else would be. All I knew was that after five years in corporate America, I was miserable and wanted out. From that rather banal sentiment, however, God was able to work. The Great Problem Solver was at work on a problem that I only dimly comprehended. In time, God would give me an answer to a question that I hadn’t even asked.

Over the next two years, whenever I thought seriously about the future, the only thing that seemed to make any sense was entering a religious order. There were, of course, some doubts, some false starts, some hesitations, and some worries about embarrassing myself, but eventually I decided to quit my job and, at age twenty-eight, enter the Society of Jesus, the religious order more commonly known as the Jesuits.

Upon entering the Jesuit novitiate, I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow novices had strong "devotions," as they called them, to one or another saint. But though my brother novices were sincere in their devotions, and they patiently related the lives of their heroes and heroines to me, I now found the idea of praying to the saints wholly superstitious. What was the point? If God hears your prayers, why do you need the saints?

These questions were answered when I discovered the collection of saints’ biographies that filled the creaky wooden bookcases in the novitiate library. I pulled my first selection from the shelves as a result of some serious prompting from one novice: "You’ve got to read The Story of a Soul," he kept telling me (badgering me was more like it). "Then you’ll understand why I like Thérèse so much."

At this point, I knew little about the "Little Flower," as she is known, and imagined St. Thérèse of Lisieux as a sort of shrinking violet: timid, skittish, and dull. So I was astonished when her autobiography revealed instead a lively, intelligent, and strong-willed woman, someone I might like to have known. Reading her story led me to track down biographies of other saints--some well known, some obscure--in our library: St. Stanislaus Kostka, who, despite vigorous protests from his family, walked 450 miles to enter the Jesuit novitiate. St. Thomas More, whose fine intellect and love of country did not blind him to the centrality of God in his life. St. Teresa of Ávila, who decided, to the surprise of most and the dismay of many, to overhaul her Carmelite Order. And Pope John XXIII, who, I was happy to discover, was not only compassionate and innovative but also witty.

Moreover, I found companions among the saints--friends to turn to when I needed a helping hand. Of course some might argue (and some do argue) that all you need is Jesus. And that’s true: Jesus is everything, and the saints understood this more than anyone. But God in his wisdom has also given us these companions of Jesus to accompany us along the way, so why not accept the gift of their friendship and encouragement?

At the beginning of this essay, I said that I wasn’t sure what led me to my affinity to St. Jude. But as I think about it, I know it was God who did so. God works in some very weird ways, and moving a boy to begin a life of devotion to the saints through a magazine advertisement is just one of them. Yet grace is grace, and when I look back over my life, I give thanks that I’ve met so many wonderful saints who pray for me, offer me comfort, give me examples of discipleship, and help me along the way.

All of this, I like to think, is thanks to St. Jude. For all those years stuck inside the sock drawer, he prayed for a boy who didn’t even know that he was being prayed for.

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