HOLINESS: IT’S NOT ABOUT SPIRITUAL GYMNASTICS

200871521203851177801I think it’s safe to say that most of the readers of this blog greatly admire the saints.  We look to them as our role models for living the fullness of the Christian life.  “They inspire us by their heroic lives.”[1] “Their glory fills us with joy, and their communion with us…gives us inspiration and strength…” [2]

We know some of their stories.  Some spent hours in deep prayer every day (Teresa of Avila), with little sleep to boot (John Vianney); others spent their days in selfless service to the poor and homeless (Mother Teresa); still others worked tirelessly in hospitals ministering to the sick (Elizabeth of Hungary), or built orphanages (John Bosco), or schools (Elizabeth Ann Seton).  And then we look at our own lives and think, I just don’t have what it takes to be like that; I don’t have what it takes to be a saint.

“A MISTAKEN NOTION OF HOLINESS”

It seems to me, however, that many of us have a skewed understanding of what it means to be holy.  In 2002, Cardinal Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict—addressed this precise issue on the occasion of the canonization of St. Josemaría Escrivá (the founder of Opus Dei).  Acknowledging that the canonization process includes an investigation into heroic virtue, then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated that this idea of heroic virtue could lead us to have a “mistaken notion of holiness.”  ‘It is not for me,’ we are led to think, ‘because I do not feel capable of attaining heroic virtue. It is too high a goal.’ Holiness then becomes a thing reserved for some  ‘greats’ whose images we see on the altars, and who are completely different from us ordinary sinners. But this is a mistaken notion of holiness, a wrong perception which has been corrected…precisely by Josemaría Escrivá.’”

In other words, when we look at the statues or portraits of saints, or when we hear their stories, we admire them; but if we’re honest with ourselves, in our heart of hearts, we perceive this vast chasm between them and us.  We fail to think, That is my calling.  I, too, am called to be holy; my ultimate calling is to be a saint.

IS IT REALLY FOR ME?

This is why we must ask some questions: What does it mean to be a saint?  What does it mean to be holy?  Are you meant to be a saint if you are a busy—and overwhelmed—mother or father?  A stockbroker?  A student?  A lawyer?  A construction worker?   A recovering addict?  Surely it’s not possible to be a saint if you are in the world.  Saints are those who cut themselves off from the world and hide away in monasteries and convents, right?  But if that is our understanding of what it means to be a saint, the Pope tells us emphatically that we are wrong.

“Heroic virtue does not mean that the saint performs a type of ‘gymnastics’ of holiness, something that normal people do not dare to do. It means rather that in the life of a person God’s presence is revealed—something man could not do by himself and through himself… Heroic virtue properly speaking does not mean that one has done great things by oneself, but rather that in one’s life there appear realities which the person has not done himself, because he has been transparent and ready for the work of God. Or, in other words, to be a saint is nothing other than to speak with God as a friend speaks with a friend. This is holiness.”

A CORRECTED VISION

Imagine, for all these years many of us have thought that being a saint means undertaking harsh penances, spending 16 hours a day in contemplation, living in a monastery or convent, and having mystical revelations (spiritual gymnastics, as Pope Benedict calls it).  But then Pope Benedict stuns us with a simple revelation: “to be a saint is nothing other than to speak with God as a friend speaks with a friend.  This is holiness.”  Wow!

The Pope, of course, is not saying that holiness isn’t difficult or a lot of hard work.  Penance, prayer, and service are all important means to holiness.  What he is saying, however, is that holiness is God’s work in us. It’s not something we do on our own; it is a work of God’s grace.  This is why if a person is to be holy, it all begins in entering into a deep friendship with God and speaking with Him, friend to friend.

This friend-to-friend dialogue opens us up to new vistas.  When we are completely transparent with the Lord and we allow Him to shine His light into the depths of our souls, He shows us our strengths as well as where we need to change.  It is this heart-to-heart dialogue that starts us on the path to heroic virtue and holiness.

ORDINARY LIFE

So how are you supposed to live heroic virtue?  As St. Josemaria tells us, it’s in the very ordinariness of daily life that we live heroic virtue and holiness.  It’s in being: the most loving and patient parent, the most forgiving and tender spouse, the most diligent student, the most honest and trustworthy employer or employee, or the most prayerful and selfless priest or religious.  And all of these virtues flows from a vibrant interior friendship with the Lord.  In fact, when the ordinariness of our day is lived in union with the Lord, the most mundane tasks are infused with supernatural meaning.

So how about you?  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what it means to be holy and how this translates into your daily life.  You can post a comment.  Your thoughts may help others.

Also, for the sake of shameless self-promotion, feel free to take a look at ordering my book.  I know it is written for seminarians, but many non-seminarians have told me that it has been spiritually helpful to them.

 


[1] Taken from the Sacramentary (the book the priest uses for the Mass), Preface II for Holy Men and Women (the preface is said before the Eucharistic Prayer).

[2] Preface for the Solemnity of All Saints

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4 Responses to “HOLINESS: IT’S NOT ABOUT SPIRITUAL GYMNASTICS”

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  1. Rick Majewski says:

    Hello Fr. Mike,

    I enjoyed your latest article. It is an encouraging reminder that sainthood (living out eternity with God) is achievable for all of us. We find Grace through our Faith and once found we want to live out a Saintly life of good works in His name. A simple formula except for the trials we face along the way. Are those trials not a test of our Faith and if it is genuine – if we are able to approach life’s ordeals in a saintly manner? Your article helps put it in perspective and remind us that sainthood is attainable for all of us. Thank you.

    God’s Peace,

    Rick

  2. Hello Fr. Michael, I like the title of your book! It reminds me of a term I learned in 9th grade theology “radical self reform”.

    This is just a side-comment — not at all related to your book as I haven’t read it. Catholics seem to often use the term “radical” in a way that’s intriguing to me, yet when I check out a supposed radical parish, I’m often left hanging. I’m sure this is more my problem than anyone else’s.

    Anyway, while I could never, nor would I ever want to call myself holy, I really like that you say “it’s in being…” Thank you for this.

  3. Fr. Michael Najim says:

    @Rick: Great to hear from you! Yes, I believe trials are meant to help us to grow in holiness. And, yes, sainthood is possible for all of us…with God’s grace of course!

    @Belinda: The title of the book really speaks to the reality that when God calls a man to be a priest, He’s asking that man to give himself completely to Christ and the Church. It’s radical in that sense. Also, even though my blog is “Live Holiness,” I would never presume to say that I’m holy! I guess that’s the irony: I believe holiness is possible for all of us, but I don’t believe I’m there yet! And if we believe we’re there, we’re being prideful!

  4. Lindsay Rigby says:

    Hi Fr. Mike,

    Thanks for another wonderful post! So true that holiness is not necessarily about achieving great things in the name of our faith, but rather about embracing the role God has called us to and playing it the best we can, no matter how big or how small the part. I believe that the definition of holiness also includes a complete surrender to the Will of God, as we see in the model of Jesus and our Blessed Mother. We know that God’s Kingdom is both a present and future reality… but, by virtue of the free will God gave us, for us to live it out here and now, He requires our cooperation. And the quality of our relationship with Jesus makes all the difference, because it is His strength, not our own that makes this possible!

    May your day be blessed! :o )
    Lindsay

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