Called to HolinessJune 22, 2009
I know the notion of becoming a Saint or achieving Holiness is one that may provoke disbelief or wry smiles to even those who may consider themselves “the faithful,” not to mention the hoots of derision from the pagans in our midst. But it was the singular thing I learned after my conversion that I never knew or expected on the way to my becoming Catholic. And it didn’t come by way of RCIA classes or even at the Masters in Ministry classes I am taking at St. John’s Seminary. It was totally gratuitous in a way, something I came across in my readings: first in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and then in Fr. Robert Barron’s And Now I See.
I subscribe to an Amazon Discussion Forum called “What Makes Us Catholic?” and unfortunately I have to say this is NOT the answer to that question. But this is what fully confirmed me in my faith: It is what made ME a Catholic, although oddly enough it happened after I had already taken the step. I see it almost as if God came along cleaning up after my messy first attempts, saying, “No, no, this is why you are here.” And lest anyone misunderstand here, having achieved this is NOT what I’m talking about; realizing it is perhaps the first step.
I’m going to dedicate this post to Sr. Kathleen at St. Luke’s in Belmont MA who gave me just what I needed when I needed it.
So I ask you to consider an anecdote that Thomas Merton relates in The Seven Story Mountain when he first encounters the thought of becoming a Saint from his friend Robert Lax:
Therefore, another one of those times that turned out to be historical, as far as my own soul is concerned, was when Lax and I were walking down Sixth Avenue, one night in the spring. The Street was all torn up and trenched and banked high with dirt and marked out. with red lanterns where they were digging the subway, and we picked our way along the fronts of the dark little stores, going downtown to Greenwich Village. I forget what we were arguing about, but in the end Lax suddenly turned around and asked me the question:
“What do you want to be, anyway?”
I could not say, “I want to be Thomas Merton the well-known writer of all those book reviews in the back pages of the Times Book Review,” or “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of Freshman English at the New Life Social Institute for Progress and Culture,” so I put the thing on the spiritual plane, where I knew it belonged and said:
“I don’t know; I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean, you want to be a good Catholic?”
The explanation I gave was lame enough, and ex pressed my confusion, and betrayed how little I had really thought about it at all.
Lax did not accept it.
“What you should say”—he told me—”what you should say is that you want to be a saint.”
A saint! The thought struck me as a little weird. I said:
“How do you expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to,” said Lax, simply.
“I can’t be a saint,” I said, “I can’t be a saint.” And my mind darkened with a confusion of realities and unrealities: the knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say that they cannot do the things that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach: the cowardice that says: “I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin,” but which means, by those words: “I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments.”
The Seven Storey Mountain pp 236-7
Fr. Robert Barron reflects on this moment in his book And Now I See:
“Merton said that this strange answer (Becoming a Saint by wanting to) changed his life: from that moment on, he knew that Christianity was not primarily a matter of getting his ideas straight but rather getting his life straight. Hans Urs von Balthasar said that the only true theologians are the saints — those who have practiced the life of Jesus.
Christianity — like baseball, painting, and philosophy — is a world, a form of life. And like those other worlds, it is first approached because it is perceived as beautiful. A youngster walks onto the baseball diamond because he finds the game splendid, and a young artist begins to draw because he finds the artistic universe enchanting. Once the beauty of Christianity has seized a devotee, he will long to submit himself to it, entering into its rhythms, its institutions, its history, its drama, its visions and activities.
And then, having practiced it, having worked it into his soul and flesh, he will know it. The movement, in short, is from the beautiful (It is splendid!) to the good (I must play it!) to the true (It is right!). One of the mistakes that both liberals and conservatives make is to get this process precisely backward, arguing first about right and wrong. No kid will be drawn into the universe of baseball by hearing arguments over the infield-fly rule or disputes about the quality of umpiring in the National League. And none of us will be enchanted by the world of Christianity if all we hear are disputes about Humanae vitae and the infallibility of the pope.
Christianity is a captivating and intellectually satisfying game, but the point is to play it. It is a beautiful and truthful way, but the point is to walk it.”
Ralph Martin in his book Called to Holiness elaborates more on this theme:
JESUS SUMMED UP His teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Perfect in purity of heart, perfect in compassion and love, perfect in obedience, perfect in conformity to the will of the Father, perfect in holiness – when we hear these words we can be understandably tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible. And indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is — just as impossible as it is for rich people to enter heaven, or for a man and a woman to remain faithful their whole lives in marriage. But with God, all things are possible, even our transformation.
John Paul II — and he himself may be among those recognized as a Doctor one day — in his prophetic interpretation of the events of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first Novo Millennio Ineunte, points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church’s consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He points out that the Jubilee of the year 2000 was simply the last phase of a period of preparation and renewal that had been going on for forty years, in order to equip the Church for the challenges of the new millennium.
Pope John Paul II speaks of three rediscoveries to which the Holy Spirit has led the Church beginning with the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. One of these rediscoveries is the ‘‘rediscovery of the universal call to holiness.”
All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.
John Paul further emphasizes that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.
To ask catechumens: “Do you wish to receive Baptism?” means at the same time to ask them: “Do you wish to become holy?” It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)… the time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.
Before we go much further in our examination of the spiritual journey, let’s take an initial look at what “holiness” really means. In the Book of Ephesians we read, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:4). To be holy is not primarily a matter of how many Rosaries we say or how much Christian activity we’re engaged in; it’s a matter of having our heart transformed into a heart of love. It is a matter of fulfilling the great commandments which sum up the whole law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor, wholeheartedly. Or as Teresa of Avila puts it, holiness is a matter of bringing our wills into union with God’s will.
Thérèse of Lisieux expresses it very similarly:
Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be…who resists His grace in nothing.” As she said towards the very end of her life: “I do not desire to die more than to live; it is what He does that I love.”
John Paul II goes on to call the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where “training in holiness” is given.
“Our Christian communities must become genuine schools of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love.” . . . It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.”
John Paul cites several reasons why this turn to holiness of life and depth in prayer is important. Besides the fact that it is quite simply part and parcel of the Gospel message, he points out that the supportive culture of “Christendom” has virtually disappeared and that Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this world-wide secularization process there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality, which is sometimes met by turning to non-Christian religions. It is especially important now for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and “show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead” (NMI 33, 40).
Recognizing how challenging this call is, John Paul makes clear that it will be difficult to respond adequately without availing ourselves of the wisdom of the mystical tradition of the Church — that body of writings and witness of life that focuses on the process of prayer and stages of growth in the spiritual life. He tells us why the mystical tradition is important and what we can expect it to provide for us.
This great mystical tradition…shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart.
How is this extraordinary depth of union with the Trinity possible? It. is indeed the answer to this question that the Catholic mystical tradition gives us. John Paul makes clear that this depth of union isn’t just for a few unusual people (“mystics”) but is a call that every Christian receives from Christ Himself “This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: ‘He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him’ (John 14:2 1).”
“It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union.” How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?
John Paul identifies four principles that are basic to a proper understanding of the spiritual journey
- Union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts; it is a gift that only God can give; we are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life. Yet we know also that God is eager to give this grace and bring us to deep union. Without Him, we can do nothing, but with Him all things are possible (cf. John 14:4-5, Luke 18:27, Philemon 4:13). Without God, successfully completing the journey is impossible, but with Him, in a sense, we are already there, He is truly both the Way and the destination; and our lives are right now, hidden with Christ, in God (Colossians 3:3)
- At the same time our effort is indispensable. Our effort is not sufficient to bring about such union, but it is necessary. The saints speak of disposing ourselves for union. The efforts we make help dispose us to receive the gifts of God. If we really value something we must be willing to focus on doing those things that will help us reach the goal. And yet without God’s grace we cannot even know what’s possible, or desire it, or have the strength to make any efforts towards it. It’s God’s grace that enables us to live the necessary “intense spiritual commitment “You will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29)
- As the Gospel tells us, it’s important to assess what’s required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower, or entering into a battle in war) if we want to successfully complete it. Much has to change in us in order to make us capable of deep union with God. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep and need to be healed and transformed in a process that has its necessarily painful moments. The pain of purification is called by John of the Cross the “dark night.” It is important not to be surprised by the painful moments of our transformation but to know that they’re a necessary and blessed part of the whole process. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).
- And finally, we need to know that all the effort and. pain is worth it! Infinitely worth it. The pain of the journey will appear in retrospect to have been light, compared to the weight of glory that we were being prepared for (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).Deep union (the “nuptial union” or “spiritual marriage” or “transforming union”) is possible even in this life. Teresa of Avila tells us that there’s no reason that someone who reaches a basic stability in living a Catholic life (“mansion” three in her classification system) can’t proceed all the way to “spiritual marriage” in this life (mansion seven).
We all probably know in some way that we’re called to holiness but perhaps struggle to respond. Feeling the challenge of the call and yet seeing the obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted and immediate response. Everyone seems to pass the buck on this: lay people pass to those priests and nuns, priests and nuns who feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and have such a busy pace of life might suppose that it’s the cloistered orders who are truly in a good position to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness.
What really holds us back is not really the external circumstances of our lives, but the interior sluggishness of our hearts. We need to be clear that there will never be a better time or a better set of circumstances than now to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness. Who knows how much longer we’ll be alive on this earth? We don’t know how long we’ll live or what the future holds. Now is the acceptable time. The very things we think are obstacles are the very means God is giving us to draw us to depend more deeply on Him.
The source of all our unhappiness and misery is sin and its effects, and the sooner the purification of sin and its effects can take place in our life, the happier we will be and the better able to truly love others. Only then will we be able to enter into the purpose God has for our life. Truly, in this case, better sooner than later.
Finally, it’s important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations, and if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the sight of God. Holiness isn’t an “option.” There are only saints in heaven; total transformation is not an “option” for those interested in that sort of thing, but is essential for those who want to spend eternity with God.
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is so that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for union; we were created for union; we were redeemed for eternal union. The sooner we’re transformed the happier and the more “fulfilled” we’ll be. The only way to the fulfillment of all desire is to undertake and complete the journey to God.
I know when our little RCIA group finished up at St Lukes, we all wanted to continue in some way and I realize now we were asking for our parish to become a school of prayer so our “training in holiness” could continue. I moved on to another parish and entered another program, neither which really answered this need. Perhaps the closest I have come to it is this self-argument I have mounted here on this blog.