The Italian mystic St. Paul of the Cross boldly said, “Be as eager to break your own will as the thirsty stag is to drink of the refreshing waters.” I emphasized the phrase break your own will as that imaginary stood out as quite audacious. To break the will seems such a violent thing to do to yourself. After researching a bit on this saint, I learned that Paul was the founder of the Passionists a religious order dedicated to a penitential life in solitude and poverty. Since, Paul of the Cross lived in isolation from the world do his words hold any meaning for a regular, ‘normal’ people who hold down jobs, have a family? Should not “super-holiness” be reserved for priests and nuns?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2013, “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”65 All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are coming up on the perfect season to increase our holiness— Lent! The Lenten season is modeled after Jesus’ 40 day time in the wilderness. Because Jesus is God, he was able to stave off the allures of the Devil. His witness showed that both praying and fasting disable the weaponry of the Evil One. The practice of self-denial is absolutely essential in growing in virtue! Saying YES to God through prayer allows us to say NO to those unhealthy pleasures of the world—through the practice of fasting.
I struggle mightily with the pressures of the world, and those self-imposed. Anger, resentment, and impatience come as a result of succumbing to the things of this world instead of first saying YES to God and praying. Self-reflection and renewing a practice for saying YES to pray helps begin a habit of saying NO to the temptations of impatience, pride, greed, envy, power-control, etc. St. Francis de Sales affirms the message of Paul of the Cross, the Catechism and Christ by stating, “The more one mortifies his natural inclinations, the more he renders himself capable of receiving divine inspirations and of progressing in virtue.” Be fast to practice fasting. If you struggle at first remember to say YES to God (pray!) in order to say NO to yourself.
Christianity in the 21st seems to get more difficult as each day passes. Unfavorable Supreme Court decisions, hostile media reporting, and hypocrisy within the Catholic Church on the sexual abuse scandal makes the desire to follow the teachings of Christ quite tough. Jesus even promised that the way to Heaven would not be easy. In Matthew 19:24 he declared, “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” On average, camels grow to the shoulder height of 6 feet high and the length of about 9-10 feet. Typically, the khaki-colored creatures weigh well over 1,000 pounds. The eye of a needle is quite small, just slightly greater than the width of the thread that goes through it. Certainly, Jesus’ example was only hyperbolic when it comes to entering Heaven! Right?!
The late Catholic nun Mother Angelica quipped, “Holiness of life is not the privilege of a chosen few – it is the obligation, the call, and the will of God for every Christian.” Holy individuals make it appear easy to live the holy life. However, when we try it ourselves it is quite different. Not to downplay that difficult road toward Heaven, because it truly is difficult, I have learned that in some ways holiness need not be as cumbersome as we may make it to be. I wish to share three tried and true steps to grow in holiness.
1. Pray Daily: You don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and as soon as you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!” you can be sure you have already begun.’ 10
St. Josemaria Escriva. Praying is plainly described as talking with God. Relationship involves dialogue: speaking and listening. Prayer involves a two-way conversation. If you are unsure what to say to God, maybe begin your prayer simply in silence–waiting for God start. Some people feel more comfortable petitioning God for help. That is also a great way to start prayer. Just be sure to allow time and be open to God’s reply as well.
2. Learn from Scriptures and Saintly Writings: Another easy step to increase holiness is to open up a Bible or read a spiritual work by a saint. The key to this step is not the length of time, but instead the frequency and consistency by which you acquaint yourself with spiritual writings. Schedules are busy with work and family obligations taking up a large chunk of the day.
Begin with small and reasonable goals with how much time to spend on spiritual reading. Maybe your daily routine allows for an hour, maybe it only allows for a few minutes. Start will just reading for 5 minutes a day. You will be surprised how much your week will improve with insight from those holy men and women!
3. Small Sacrifices: The third thing to incorporate into a daily routine is sacrifice. True love involves giving yourself for the other. It involves sacrifice and reduction of selfish tendencies. Authentic change and orienting your life towards holiness will not happen overnight. In fact, it will take time and likely a lot of time. Be prepared to grow in holiness for the rest of your life!
Because of the long term commitment, I say let’s start small with manageable tiny sacrifices. It may simply involve refraining from a sarcastic comment when your spouse, friend, or neighbor annoy you. St. Josemaria Escriva, “Don’t say, ‘That person bothers me.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.'” That would be a small, but still sacrificial moment. Once you have the daily routine of sacrifice for your loved ones day pat then you may focus on larger sacrifices.
Starting, or perhaps restarting, your spiritual journey need not be impossible. Developing a daily habit of prayer, frequent spiritual reading, and looking for the good of the other [and the Ultimate Other] through small sacrifices will help your increase your virtue and transform your life.
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” –Matthew 11:28-30
“So be holy just as your heavenly Father is be holy.” –Matthew 5:48
Jesus’ charge to his disciples in Matthew 5:48, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” His declaration formed the longstanding and consistent Catholic Church teaching that holiness is a universal call for everyone. Sainthood is not meant to be reserved for priests and nuns. St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, Lumen Gentium, and the writings of St. Josemaria Maria Escriva acted as watershed writings that helped me understanding the catholicity of holiness. Now, I have another work to add to this tremendous list—Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete Et Exsultate.
Maintaining the traditional claim that holiness for both laity and ordained alike, Francis communicates this message in a fresh manner that still adheres to traditional Catholic teaching. Below are key points from the exhortation that stood out to me and believe echo important wisdom and truth for all.
Universal Call to Holiness: The pontiff’s aim in writing Gaudete Et Exsultate is clearly indicated from the beginning, “My modest goal is to re-propose the call to holiness in a practical way for our own time, with all its risks, challenges, and opportunities” (#2). Pope Francis goes on to describe sanctity as a process that is available to all—referring to the need for “saints next door”. Salvation is a communal endeavor and not meant to compartmentalize individuals in isolation. The Argentinian pope declares, “In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved along, as an isolated individual” (#6).
I am reminded by J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring as the best fictional analogy for humanity’s journey towards holiness. Although Frodo is the primary ring-bearer he is surrounded by a cadre of helpmates in his journey to destroy the One Ring. In similar fashion, while you may be the primary character in your unique quest towards sanctity, God provides coworkers [your spouse, family, friends, and the saints] to assist.
Progressive Nature of Holiness: Along with sanctity involving a fellowship, the universal call to holiness involves a journey across the timeline of your life. Pope Francis states in Gaudete Et Exsultate #50, “Grace acts in history; ordinarily it takes hold of us and transforms us progressively.” In other words, it takes time to become a saint! Processes contain both blessings and challenges. On one hand, God mercifully affords humanity multiple opportunities to repent and seek his will. However, the journey of life sometimes becomes difficult and we oftentimes yearn for union with God in Heaven before our earthly affairs complete. The drudgery of life is exhausting and temptations of the world constantly allure and assault us. How may be combat these continual attacks? Communicate with the Holy Trinity. “Prayer is most precious, for it nourishes a daily commitment to love,” the Argentinian pontiff writes (#104).
Realness of Holiness: Sainthood is not meant to be an ephemeral experience. Instead, holiness involves raw, concrete living with our neighbors’ best interests at heart. To quote St. John Paul II from his Apostolic Letter Novo Millenio Ineunte, “If we truly start out anew from the contemplation of Christ, we must learn to see him especially in the faces of those with whom he himself wished to be identified.” Jesus Christ advised us in Matthew 25:40 “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
Pope Francis unabashedly stated, “If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public square” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #98). How easily do we pigeonhole holiness within the walls of a church or within the realm of the Scriptures? Most of humanity work within the world and face opportunities to be charitable to others on an hourly basis.
Throughout the work week, I struggled mightily with anger and contempt towards co-workers who differed in their approach and willingness to assist customers in need. When I allowed anger to color my outlook on justice I don a metaphorical judge’s robe–such sentiment is not healthy for my spiritual well-being. After a frustrating day at work, I called my brother for support. His first reply upon hearing my concerns were, “Matt, are those people still children of God?” Humbly, I had to retracted a bit on my anger and cede to his point. “Yes, of course they are!” I emphatically admitted. This moment coupled with Pope Francis’ charge to be holy in everyday situations helped re-frame my mindset.
4. Surprise of Joy: Together with realizing that holiness is meant to be a tangible experience with love of God and neighbor, Pope Francis reminded me that humor and joy are key components to holiness. He states, “Far from being timid, morose, acerbic or melancholy, or putting on a dreary face, the saints are joyful and full of good humor. Though completely realistic, they radiate a positive and hopeful spirit. The Christian life is ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Rom. 14:17), for the ‘necessary result of the love of charity is joy; since every lover rejoices at being united to the beloved…the effect of charity is joy'” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #122).
In the midst of seemingly harrowing situations saints wear the face of joy. Holy men and women unite themselves to the Holy Spirit through constant prayer and reliance on God. Francis urges, “Hard times may come, when the cross casts its shadow, yet nothing can destroy the supernatural joy that ‘adapts and changes, but always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.’ That joy brings deep security, serene hope and a spiritual fulfillment that the world cannot understand or appreciate” (Gaudete Et Exsultate, #125).
The Lord desires us, his children, to be joyful and fulfilled in this life–and the next. Reading Gaudete Et Exsultate helped remind me that the simple joy of holiness is our ultimate aim in this reality. Sainthood is a calling for all–not the few– and it is possible, but it takes time and the grace of God!