The Call to Holiness – A reflection from the Passionist XV General Synod of Provincials

THE CALL TO HOLINESS

The theme chosen for our XV General Synod is: Passionist Life: The Call to Holiness in Community for Evangelization. My aim in this reflection will be to focus on the meaning of ‘Holiness’ with the presupposition that holiness of life is a pre-requisite for our community witness and our evangelical mission.

In this Year of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis points out that it is through our lives (witness) that we point to the reality of God and that we can offer an alternative to the various utopias that are presented by the world. Being consecrated to God (which is for everyone) is a process of becoming holy; becoming more God-like and striving to live out the values of the Gospel.

We are also reminded that our call to be Passionists is rooted in our primary call – Baptism. When we are baptized, we are claimed by God and become His adopted sons and daughters. We enter into a filial (sonship) relationship with God. Through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are “brought back” from “original sin” to what St John Paul II called: “original holiness” – how God meant us to be.

The ‘call to holiness’ comes from God; it is He who is calling us to be holy…”Be holy (perfect) as your heavenly Father is holy (perfect)” (Mt. 5:48). It was in longing for each of us to be holy that God created each one of us. And so it follows that holiness is the normal condition of humankind. It is what each of us is meant to be. The call to holiness is the echo of God’s longing for each one of us. And further, our everyday life is the gift by means of which we are meant to draw ever nearer to holiness. Our daily life is the matter (stuff), so to speak, which we are meant to transform into holiness. This means that every single moment of our daily life, every experience, at whatever time and at whatever place, can serve, and is meant to serve, as spiritual exercise. Someone said: “Every single experience of our daily life is grist for the grindstone of holiness. No experience is wasted.”

If we truly accept this truth, then there is no way we can lose. We cannot lose once we realize that everything that happens to us is meant to teach us how to become holy. Because then, from every single event in our daily lives, we learn about ourselves and so come closer to our true selves; by the same token we come closer to the Holy One (God), who is even closer to our true selves than we are.

So, what actually is ‘holiness’ and do I believe that it is possible to grow in holiness?

Let me just say here that there are a number of words that are used to convey ‘holiness’: sanctity, the call to be saints, the call to be perfect, wholeness, wisdom. And all this is connected with the ‘spiritual life’. It is also important that we understand these terms properly, in its right meaning and context.

What I share with you today is the wisdom of some of the many people who devoted their energies of mind and body to becoming holy. If you like, it is a collection of the left-over crumbs. You know in Mark’s Gospel (7:24-30), when Jesus was traveling in the region of Tyre and Sidon, a Canaanite woman asked him to heal her daughter, and Jesus replied that he had not been sent to Canaanites, but to Israelites: “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house dogs.” To which the Canaanite woman replied: “Ah yes, sir; but even house dogs can eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. “And Jesus himself later used a similar image when he said to the disciples after the miraculous feeding: “Pick up the crumbs that are left over, so that nothing gets wasted” (Jn. 6:12). Over the centuries there are people who have let fall many crumbs of wisdom, which we have picked up and recycled. So, what do they tell us about ‘holiness’?

One such person is the 17th century spiritual writer, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, who says: “…holiness consists of one thing only: complete loyalty to God’s will…it is absolute obedience to God’s will.” He goes on to say that “everyone can practice loyalty, whether actively or passively. To be actively loyal means obeying the laws of God and the Church and fulfilling all the duties imposed on us by our way of life. Passive loyalty means that we lovingly accept all that God sends us at each moment of the day.” Jesus put it in another way: “Listening to God’s word and acting on it!” (cf. Mt. 7:21-27). Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia In Oceania expresses it thus: “Holiness of life and effective apostolic activity are born of constant listening to God’s word” (#38).

So you can see that holiness is not something impossible or for the few. It is accessible to everyone. Holiness is produced in us by the will of God (gift, invitation) and our acceptance of it (response). It is living every moment to the fullest in accordance with our vocation or state in life. What God arranges for us to experience at each moment is the best and holiest thing that could happen to us.

Listen again to what Jean-Pierre de Caussade says:

I believe that people trying to be holy would be saved a lot of trouble if they were taught to follow the right path, and I am writing of people who lived ordinary lives in the world and of those specially marked by God. Let the former realize what lies hidden in every moment of the day and the duties each one brings, and let the latter appreciate the fact that things they regard as trivial and of no importance are essential to sanctity. And let them both be aware that holiness means the eager acceptance of every trial sent them by God…Let them realize that all they have to do to achieve the height of holiness is to do only what they are already doing and endure what they are already enduring, and to realize, too, that all they count as trivial and worthless is what can make them holy.

Thomas Merton, in his writing on holiness says:

Every Christian is called to sanctity and union with Christ, by keeping the commandments of God. Some, by religious vows, have bound themselves to take the basic Christian vocation to holiness especially more seriously. They have promised to make use of certain definite and more efficacious means to “be perfect” – the evangelical counsels…to be poor, chaste, and obedient…renouncing their own wills, denying themselves, and liberating themselves from mundane attachments in order to give themselves even more perfectly to Christ….Sanctity is their “profession” – they have no other job in life than to be saints.

To be holy, to strive for perfection, to become saints means to love in actual fact more perfectly, for this will bring us closer to God. Love is the central element in Christian holiness. As St. John of the Cross said: “In the evening of our lives we shall be examined in love.” It is not sufficient for the tree to remain alive, it must also bear fruit.

St Paul of the Cross said: “He who desires to be a great saint, must take care that nothing live in him which is not purely God; and this he will know to be the case if all his actions are done for the love of God and united with those of Jesus Christ, who is our way, truth, and life.”

One person, at the end of his life, wrote this sentence: “There is only one sadness, the sadness of not being a saint” (Leon Bloy). This sentence is a haunting one because ordinarily we allow ourselves to be saddened by failures of every kind, the failure to become so famous as we had once dreamed of being; the failure to be rich or beautiful or model of health. All these failures, and many others, are constant and nagging sources of sadness to us throughout our lives. But when we reach the end of our lives (“in the evening of our lives”), we shall realize that none of these things which have caused us so much heartache are really cause for ultimate sadness – none of them matters any longer. The only sadness, now, is the sadness of not being a saint!

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to us: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Neither does a person light a lamp and put it under a tub, but upon the lamp stand, so as to give light to all in the house. In the same way let your light shine before people, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:14-16).

All Christian disciples, but especially we religious, are called to be the light of the world. We are supposed to be a light to ourselves and to others. Are we or are we not? Because that may well be what accounts for the fact that the world is in darkness! So, what is meant by the light of Christ in our lives? What is ‘holiness’? Are we really seriously supposed to be saints? How do you feel when someone calls you a ‘saint’? If the truth be faced, many of us do not believe, in practice, that sanctity is possible for us. Yet we are called by God to holiness of life! If so, and if holiness is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is), then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. And he certainly will give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints, it is perhaps because we do not avail ourselves of God’s gift.

St Benedict gave a very wise piece of advice to the monks in his Rule. He said that they should not desire to be called saints before they are holy, but that they should first become saints in order that their reputation for holiness may be based on reality.

We know that the stereotyped image of saints presented to us, whether in stories, pictures or paintings, is often quite unreal…they are often portrayed as being beyond (or have no difficulties with) temptation; has the absolute and heroic answer; throws oneself into fire, ice water, thorn bushes rather than face an occasion of sin; kissing the leper’s sores; without humor and feelings; without interest in the common affairs of people. It leaves us with the feeling that this is not for me…it is quite impossible!

But there is the theological saying that “grace builds on nature”. As Thomas Merton says: “Before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, otherwise we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word ‘saint’. Not only were all the saints perfectly human, not only did their sanctity enrich and deepen their humanity, but the Holiest of all the Saints, the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, was himself the most deeply and perfectly human being who ever lived on the face of the earth. We must remember that human nature was, in Jesus, quite perfect, and at the same time completely like our own frail and suffering nature in all things except sin…If we are to be ‘perfect’ as Christ is perfect, we must strive to be as perfectly human as he is.”

The call to be ‘perfect’ is not about having no imperfections; rather, it is a call to be fully human. So, sanctity is not a matter of being less human, but more human than others. This means that one has a greater capacity for concern, for suffering, for understanding, for sympathy, and also for humor, for joy, for wonder, for appreciation of the good and beautiful things of life.

A false or pretended “way of perfection” (striving to be angels rather than human beings, destroying human values precisely because they are human, setting oneself apart from others) is a sin against faith in the Incarnation. It shows contempt for the humanity for which Christ did not hesitate to die on the cross.

Holiness presupposes, before any Christian education or formation, sound and ordered human emotions. Grace builds on nature not by suppressing our human instinct, but by healing it and lifting it up to a spiritual level. There must always be a proper place for healthy, spontaneous emotions in the Christian life. We see these at work in the humanity of Christ himself. He always displayed a sensitive and warmly responsive humanness. So also, we who want to imitate Christ must learn to do so, not by imposing a hard and violent control/suppression of our emotions, but by allowing grace to form and develop our emotional life in the service of charity (love).

Now, how do we achieve all this? It is natural to wish for a simple method of solving all spiritual problems. I suppose there is always the desire and hope in us that the essence of Christian perfection, or “how to become a saint”, will be presented in a few clear formulas, i.e. do this, follow these steps and you will become a saint (holy). But ‘sanctity’ and ‘holiness’ cannot be easily achieved by following some simple formula – except by living the Gospel, i.e. listening to God’s word and acting upon it. So, while it is quite clear that we are called to ‘holiness’, to ‘be perfect’, and while we know that perfection/holiness consists in “keeping the commandments of Christ to love one another as he has loved us”, still each one of us has to work out his/her salvation in the mystery and often confusion of his/her own individual life. In doing this, each person actually comes out with a new ‘way’, a new ‘sanctity’ which is all his/her own, because each one of us has a unique and peculiar vocation to reproduce the likeness of Christ in a way that is not quite the same as anybody else’s, since no two of us are quite alike. Thomas Merton puts it this way:

Each one becomes perfect, not by realizing one uniform standard of universal perfection in his own life, but by responding to the call and the love of God, addressed to him within the limitations and circumstances of his own peculiar vocation. In fact, our seeking of God is not all a matter of our finding him by means of certain ascetic techniques. It is rather a quieting and ordering of our whole life by self-denial, prayer, and good works, so that God himself, who seeks us more than we seek him, can “find us” and “take possession of us.”

So, then, Thomas Merton would say that to ‘be perfect’ is “not so much a matter of seeking God with generosity, as of being found, loved, and possessed by God, in such a way that his action in us makes us completely generous and helps us to transcend our limitations and react against our own weakness. We become saints not by violently overcoming our own weakness, but by letting the Lord give us the strength and purity of his Spirit in exchange for our weakness and misery. Let us not then complicate our lives and frustrate ourselves by fixing too much attention on ourselves, thereby forgetting the power of God and grieving the Holy Spirit.”

The concept/image we have of God is very important in our quest for holiness and seeking perfection. If we believe that God is truly our loving Father, if we can really accept the truth of his infinite and compassionate concern for us, if we believe that he loves us not because we are worthy but because we need his love, then we can progress with confidence. We will not be discouraged by our weaknesses and failures. A wrong image of God, however, will bring great difficulties in our living the Christian life. So, we must begin by believing that God is our Father. Otherwise we will not be able to face the difficulties of the Christian way of perfection.

Sanctity is about union with God “in Christ”. It is a call to a unique and exclusive relationship with the Holy One. To understand the New Testament teaching on holiness of life, we have to understand the meaning of this expression of St Paul…our “life in Christ”. St John, in his Gospel, also made it quite clear that all spiritual fruit in our life comes from union with Christ, i.e. integration into his Body, just like a branch is united with the vine and integrated in it (cf. Jn. 15:1-11). So what matters above all is not this or that observance, this or that set of practices, but our renewal, our “new creation” in Christ (cf. Gal. 6:15). If then we are to be ‘holy’, Christ must be holy in us. If we are to be ‘saints’, Christ must be our sanctity. For, as St Paul says: “To those who are called, Christ Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor. 1:24). Of course, all this demands our own consent and our effort to cooperate with God’s grace.

Finally, if we are to hear the call to holiness, then we must learn to stop and be still. This is crucial. What our attempt to stop and be still reveals to most of us is that we are in a hurry; we are ahead of ourselves, incapable of resting in one spot. The philosopher, Blaise Pascal, said: “All the miseries of mankind arise from man’s inability to sit still in his own room.” The Indian holy man, Meher Baba, said: “Mind racing – madman; mind quiet – saint; mind still – God.” The quieting of the mind can begin with a stilling of the body.

Dr E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, was an economic adviser to a number of countries. He shares his story of how, in his middle years, he was a conventional Western intellectual, agnostic and quite aimless without any purpose or direction to his life. Among the countries he was economic adviser to, was Burma. He tells about how this country impressed him in a special way, because the ordinary people of that country seemed to carry around with them such an air of calmness. Aware of the Burmese practice where a large proportion of the people spend considerable time in their Buddhist monasteries, Schumacher himself arranged to spend several weeks in a monastery observing the discipline. So he went and sat for five weeks, learning to be still. Those five weeks proved to be the turning-point of his life. He says gradually his body became still; and then, as his desires stopped running away with him, his heart became quiet; and finally, as a result, his mind became clear. It was this ‘clear mind’ which more than anything surprised Dr Schumacher, because as a gifted, highly trained intellectual he always presumed to be clear-minded, whereas now he realized that in the past his mind had been ‘blurred’ by his restless desires.

We will not be able to see any realities clearly (including spiritual realities) if we are being rapidly whisked along by our desires. Hurry can blind us to reality! We can fail to notice what is important. The call to ‘be still’ is not something new for us Christians. It is summed up in the Bible: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). It is in stillness, in silence, that we come to know God. Emptiness, stillness, silence, each of these words is an attempt to pin-point the condition in which God is known.

How often we find that are minds are so full, or preoccupied, that we fail to recognize, to see, to hear, what is essential?

A Story:

A knight set off on a journey to receive the blessing of a holy abbot named Guido. As he drew near to the holy abbot’s monastery he saw a small, grizzled fellow working amongst the plants and flowers in the monastery garden. The knight asked: “Where can I find Abbot Guido?” In reply the small, grizzled fellow simply pointed out to him the path to the monastery. When he arrived at the monastery, the knight was reverently greeted by the guest master, to whom he put forward his request to see the holy abbot. The guest master asked his guest to take a seat, while he would return shortly with the holy abbot. A few minutes later the guest master returned in the company of the holy abbot who turned out – much to the knight’s astonishment – to be none other than the small, grizzled fellow whom he had met working in the garden.

In his writing on ‘Holiness’, Donald Nicholl says: “Preoccupation instead of emptiness; restlessness instead of stillness; noise instead of silence; rushing along unable to stop; all these make us incapable of noticing the battered man on the roadside, of seeing the holy man we are searching for or hearing the call of longing from the Holy One. The cause of all these failures can be summed up in one word; that word is ‘hurry’. “So, in following the call to holiness, we must learn to slow down; to stop and be still. We must grow in appreciation of a life of solitude: being alone with God and with myself.

St Paul of the Cross said: “Physical solitude is a good thing provided that it is backed up by prayer and a holy life, but far better than this, is solitude of the heart which is the interior desert in which your spirit can become totally immersed in God, and can hear and savor the words of eternal life.”

In the end, what does all this say about the ‘call to holiness’? What are the marks of a ‘holy person’? Can I see some of those marks in the way I live my life and call? I will leave you with this little story from the life of St Francis de Sales:

St Francis de Sales, then a bishop, was one day visiting a convent of nuns where it was reported that a nun of great austerity and holiness lived. This report prompted St Francis to inquire what office in the community this holy nun held. She did not hold any office, the other nuns replied, nor ever had done – since she was always so intent upon her devotions, always first into the chapel and last to leave, they had felt they could not ask her to do so. “In that case”, remarked St Francis dryly, “let us wait until she has exercised some office in order to discover how holy she is.”

“The ideal of perfection must not be understood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few ‘uncommon heroes’ of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual. The time has come to re-propose 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. It is also clear however that the paths to holiness are personal and call for a genuine ‘training in holiness’, adapted to people’s needs… This training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer.” – Pope John Paul II (Ecclesia In Oceania #31, 32)

According to St Paul of the Cross:

Prayer is the sure way that leads to holiness. Alas! we easily enter on the road to perdition when we neglect prayer. The prayer which humbles the soul, which inflames her with love and excites her to the practice of virtue, is never subject to illusion.

In prayer the soul is united to God through love. He who, on account of the duties of his state of life, cannot devote much time to prayer, need not be troubled; the exact fulfilment of his duties, with a pure intention, having only God in view, is an excellent prayer.

“…holiness is a matter of reality and not of appearances, of being and not of pretending. Holiness means assuming total responsibility for all that we are and not simply for how we appear to other human beings – or even how we project ourselves to God… what we are always comes out and it is for what we are that we are responsible.” – Donald Nicholl

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