I used to think I had reached the peak of holiness in my life. I went to mass, confession and prayed somewhat regularly. I had studied theology and dedicated myself to a youth group and ministry. What could be holier than that?
Then I started going to confession more regularly with a spiritual director and having more spiritual formation, which put me into contact with some people living real, heroic holiness. And especially after having my second child (kids have a way of bringing out the worst in you…), I realized how I wasn’t as patient, kind or loving in general as I thought I was. It came as a bit of a shock.
Being an Instrument
Even though I liked reading books about theology and saints, listening to worship music and podcasts, I prayed very, very little. I still pray very little, but comparatively more and more, and now I realize how little self-discipline I have. It is nice to pray at a retreat or in a group, but it is a whole other story to “persevere in prayer” as Romans 12:12 says. To pray every day and make God a priority, whether you’re incredibly busy or not, sick or well, happy or depressed.
My favorite story from Cardinal Sarah’s book, The Power of Silence, is a newly-ordained priest who visits Mother Teresa to ask for advice. He thought she would focus more on service, but instead she asked him how much he prayed and said it wasn’t enough. She said,
“Read the Gospel attentively, and you will see that Jesus sacrificed even charity for prayer. And do you know why? To teach us that, without God, we are too poor to help the poor!”. (The Power of Silence, n. 55)
We are too poor to help the poor and we are too weak to love by ourselves. Only God working through us and conforming ourselves more and more to His will can bring any love to others. God working through us depends on our freedom and willingness to give Him our time and our life for Him to take over. True holiness is constant prayer, constantly letting God use our time, our hands, our intellect. True holiness is when people no longer see you but see Christ in you. As John Henry Newman prayed, “Let them look up and see no longer me—but only Jesus”.
It’s Not a Popularity Contest
Another realization I had when I fell off of my holiness pedestal was how insecure I am and dependent on others’ approval. True holiness comes with an inner freedom in which the Father’s will is above all things, including the wills of our family and friends. I thought that by avoiding conflict and by being a nice person, all people would agree that I was a shiny, friendly beacon of light on a hill.
Quite the contrary, just open your Bible and you will see the persecution of the righteous from the Old Testament to Revelation. And of course, there is no better example than Jesus, who is born as a subversive King, persecuted instantly by King Herod, and dies abandoned by all except his mother and a disciple.
In John Eldredge’s book Wild at Heart, a particularly eye-opening part is when his son comes home from school scared of bullies. Instead of telling his son to run away, he tells him to punch the bully if confronted. Jesus turned the other cheek out of love, but not because he was scared. It is cowardly to “turn the other cheek” when you feel it is your only option. John Eldredge says at the beginning of chapter five,
“Yes, I know that Jesus told us to turn the other cheek. But we have really misused that verse. You cannot teach a boy to use his strength by stripping him of it. And yet we suggest that a boy who is mocked, shamed before his fellows, stripped of all power and dignity should stay in that beaten place because Jesus wants him there? You will emasculate him for life. From that point on all will be passive and fearful. He will grow up never knowing how to stand his ground, never knowing if he is a man indeed. Oh yes, he will be courteous, sweet even, deferential, minding all his manners. It may look moral, it may look like turning the other cheek, but it is merely weakness. You cannot turn a cheek you do not have. Our churches are full of such men.”
It has also been eye-opening to see the advice my husband has received from his spiritual director related to his work environment. In most cases, I would want him to do the exact opposite of what his spiritual director advises. I would want him to not make trouble, be quiet, please the boss, fit in as much as possible. Instead, his spiritual director suggests not signing documents that are not honest just to get along, focusing on the work and ignoring the conflicts and power struggles that arise, even raising his voice to be firm if people are not letting him work. Sometimes I think of St. Thomas More, not sacrificing his values for the King, even to the point of death. I identify with his wife, who obviously didn’t want him to die, and thought it would be better for him to sign a paper or be loyal to the King.
Bl. John Henry Newman’s Idea of Sanctity
So what is holiness, if not being active in ministry, enjoying worship music and having other people think we’re great? It is a deep, dark interior battle and the Lord is really the only judge of our souls.
This article about Blessed John Henry Newman really pinpoints how simple and yet how difficult it is to be holy. Newman says in his Meditations and Devotions,
“He, then, is perfect, who does the work of the day perfectly, and we need not go beyond this to seek for perfection. You need not go out of the round of the day. I insist on this because I think it will simplify our views, and fix our exertions on a definite aim. If you ask me what you are to do in order to be perfect, I say, first—
Do not lie in bed beyond the due time of rising;
give your first thoughts to God;
make a good visit to the Blessed Sacrament;
say the Angelus devoutly;
eat and drink to God’s glory;
say the Rosary well;
be recollected; keep out bad thoughts;
make your evening meditation well;
examine yourself daily;
go to bed in good time.”
For me, it was surprising to realize how much more corporal and about daily life holiness is that it is about heroic acts of ministry.
I have realized that holiness is very, very hidden and subdued. It is not a shiny action and being “really nice” to others, but more of a constant transformation to God’s image. It is having a gracious answer to a rude remark, asking about another person instead of talking about yourself, doing the right thing even though it might make enemies. Instead of action, or at least preceding it and greatly superseding it, is prayer. Prayer is the way to let Christ love us and through us and the best way to “be nice” to others.