“Dream big.” How many times have we seen this phrase blazoned across an inspirational poster or repeated ad nauseam by a coach or teacher? Yet how many of us have really taken the time to stop and think about what this means? Depending on the context, it can seem like a trite and meaningless phrase. What exactly are we supposed to be dreaming big about, and why? Unfortunately, modern culture tends to encourage only the dreams that involve being powerful, famous, and successful in the eyes of the world. Too often, “dream big” is code for “be as self-centered and grasping as possible.”
As a result, many well-meaning people are pushing back against the “dream big” mentality. In certain Christian circles, I have found that people shy away from “dreaming big,” thinking that it is inherently prideful, or at least a major risk for pride. In my experience, this is especially true for women. I don’t think women are inherently more prone to this attitude; however, I do think that Christian women are more likely to be criticized for aiming high than their male counterparts are, and so they end up feeling more pressure to conform. I’d like to argue that this rejection of “big dreams” is not only unnecessary, but dangerous. At its heart, Catholicism is all about dreaming big; if you take that away, there is very little left. Before you stop reading and accuse me of heresy, let me explain what I mean.
At the center of Christianity is the message that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The Christian message is one of REDEMPTION. As Christians, we literally have one job to do here on earth: believe in Christ, so that we might become saints. If that’s not dreaming big, I don’t know what is. WE ARE CALLED TO BE SAINTS. What is more, we should be confident that God will make us into saints. This is not presumptuous; rather, we owe it to God to trust that He will make us into saints.
This is one of the many pearls of wisdom offered by St. Therese of Lisieux. Therese not only believed that she would be saved from the fires of hell; she believed that God would allow her to bypass purgatory, making her into a great saint. In fact, she taught that, by merely aiming to get into purgatory, we are actually offending Jesus. That Little Flower could sure dream big! This never came at the expense of humility, though. Rather, her trust in God grew out of her humility and reinforced it. “God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized; so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.” For her, littleness and big dreams went hand in hand. (My knowledge of St. Therese and her teaching comes largely from Fr. Michael Gaitley’s book “30 Days to Merciful Love.”)
It is vital that Christians hear this message and live it out. However, all too often Christians are satisfied with a half-hearted desire for greatness, perhaps thinking that anything stronger would be selfish. Apparently this tendency was already at work in 1942, because C.S. Lewis felt compelled to address it in his essay titled “The Weight of Glory”:
“Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…”
Not only are Christians called to dream big; the dream of the Christian is bigger and stronger than any other dream, because it has eternal life with God as its object. If we want to be saints, we need to get comfortable with the idea that we are destined for greatness. Last year, I had the privilege of being present at the Commencement address given by Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the Superior General of the Sisters of Life, at Thomas Aquinas College. The theme of her speech was “dare to dream,” and it was the most inspiring exhortation I have heard on the topic. (Read the full address here.) Her words continue to resound in my ears to this day:
“Dare to dream, dreams full of truth and beauty and goodness. For the world needs your dreams…dare to dream of living the high calling for which you were created as the central focus of your life…dare to dream of living always within the bonds of communion founded within the Eucharistic Lord…dare to dream of being truly free men and women…The fulfillment today of one of life’s goals gives way to larger, and greater, dreams: dream of fulfilling God’s plans and purposes for your life.”
One thing I love about Mother Agnes’ approach is the way she seamlessly melds two kinds of dreams: dreams for this life, and dreams for the next life. Of course, as Christians, we must ultimately “dare to dream” of eternal life with God. This dream can’t exist in a vacuum, though. We cannot dream of becoming saints without dreaming of all that leads up to that point. And this sometimes includes seemingly worldly things. “Dream of fulfilling God’s plans and purposes for your life.” She does not say “dream of your sacramental vocation and then stop,” or “dream of overcoming that nagging vice and then stop.” These are important dreams, but they cannot be isolated from the entirety of God’s “plans and purposes for your life.” God has our lives planned out, right down to the last detail, and each little detail is part of His master-plan for making us saints. We cannot afford to ignore the call to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, run for political office, or compete in high level sports, just because it seems too “big” or smacks too much of worldly success for our taste. Furthermore, “daring to dream” doesn’t have to involve such stereotypically “big” dreams. Daring to dream is daring to hope and believe that God will help us to do whatever He is calling us to with the utmost excellence. For many, this may mean being a great parent or teacher. What matters is that, no matter what, we dare to trust in the Lord without limiting Him with our own ideas of the “safe” path to holiness. I will leave you with one of my all-time favorite quotes from one of my all-time favorite saints, a woman who truly dared to dream: