The pious old, Rosary-rattling woman who never misses daily Mass, the busy priest who never has two seconds to himself, the cloistered nun who spends her entire day everyday in prayer. When we think about holiness, these are often the images that come to mind. And, although holiness is a nice ideal, one look at our own sin-filled souls and we think, I'm just not cut out for that. Reading the lives of the saints can serve to drive this home even further. I remember, for my own part, reading about St Therese of Lisieux and St. Francis of Assisi, and walking away feeling discouraged rather than inspired. Spending every waking moment in prayer, flogging yourself daily, thanking God for immense suffering. Sure, add flying and mindreading, and you’ll have a well-rounded list of things I’ll never be able to do. From this point of view, holiness is unattainable, and the path towards it, an exercise in futility. But God does not ask the impossible. Here are a few things I’ve learned about holiness along my own, forgive the expression, “faith journey:”
1. Human Holiness We have a God who meets us where we are, not where we’d like to be. The saints were not born saints; it was the work of a lifetime. If even the just man sins seven times a day, we can fully expect to falter and fall at frequent intervals. And, believe it or not, our sins are not always the stumbling blocks to holiness that we imagine them to be. I heard a good priest say once: our level of holiness corresponds directly to our level of comfort with God knowing everything about us. It is true, God sees everything we do, and worse still, He knows all our thoughts and motivations. But there is an important and profound difference between God seeing us, and letting ourselves be seen by God. Holiness is found in the latter. When we fall into sin and run straight to God, rather than run and hide, we have already taken the first steps toward holiness.
2. Quality, not Quantity Our spiritual life must not become a checklist of things to do. I’ve often rushed through entire Rosaries without ever once reflecting on the different mysteries, or gone to daily Mass and spent the entire time thinking about what I’d eat for breakfast when I got home. And maybe my “prayers” were half-hearted, but I’d pat myself on the back for at least getting ‘em done. Like handing in a paper that you wrote at 4 am, not your best work, but at least you did it. Well, we don’t pray to appease an angry God, we pray to build up a relationship with a loving Father, our loving Father. One well-prayed Hail Mary is worth 50 rushed through Rosaries, because the point is not just to talk, but to talk to God. And, too often, we are like dogs barking; we make noise, but say nothing. Memorized, vocal prayer is good, and indeed essential, but so is “free-styling”, the prayers that we say using our own words, or sometimes, no words at all, the prayers that just spring forth from the heart like a geyser in the ground, like the sigh that comes from seeing a beautiful sunset.
3. First Things First Love comes before action. When we understand this, a great many other things begin to make sense. How can we comprehend the constant self-giving of parents, or the total-self renunciation of religious, save in terms of love? The spiritual life is not a list of things to do combined with a list of things you can’t do. The spiritual life is a romance, and, not just any romance, but the greatest romance of all. The spiritual life is the life of falling in love, and staying in love, with God. Ask two people in love how they could spend twenty-four hours a day just talking to each other, and they’ll tell you: we’re in love. That’s how the saints could spend hours in prayer, that’s how they could perform the most difficult tasks with a smile. They were in love. They fell in love first, and then the actions that sprang forth from that love became easy. So before all else, we must fall in love.
4. A Love Like That Finally, you and I, we aren’t St. Therese of Lisieux, we aren’t St. Francis of Assisi. And although we may gain inspiration from the love they had for Christ, although we may aspire to reach the heights of the spiritual life, we should not try to make their lives our own. From all eternity you were a thought in God’s head, and now your existence is a reality in this world. God has waited for your love. He has waited to be loved only the way you can love Him. And that won’t look exactly like the way I love Him, or the way the saints loved Him, but it will be love, and it will be the love He wants. Your personality, your characteristics, your temperament, those things make your love unique, and special, and new. Those things make your love different. If God wanted everyone to love him the way St. John, the beloved disciple, did, He would have created a world of St. Johns, but He didn’t, because that’s not what He wants. So, love God with your whole heart, not someone else’s.
We're surely going to hit many bumps along the road to holiness, but it is not all drudgery and pain. Where there is love, there is always joy, even if that joy sometime meets with a little sadness. Furthermore, the call to holiness is universal, so let’s get on it!!