Called to holinessRALPH MARTIN
Jesus summed up his teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48).
John Paul II — and he himself may be among those recognized as a Doctor one day — in his prophetic interpretation of the events of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, Novo Millennio Ineunte, points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church's consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He points out that the Jubilee of the year 2000 was simply the last phase of a period of preparation and renewal that had been going on for forty years, in order to equip the Church for the challenges of the new millennium.
Pope John Paul II speaks of three rediscoveries to which the Holy Spirit has led the Church beginning with the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in 1965. One of these rediscoveries is the rediscovery of the "universal call to holiness."
All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity. (NMI 30; cf. LG 40)John Paul further emphasizes that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.
To ask catechumens: "Do you wish to receive Baptism?" means at the same time to ask them: "Do you wish to become holy?" It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). . . . The time has come to repropose 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. (NMI 30, 31)Before we go much further in our examination of the spiritual journey, let's take an initial look at what "holiness" really means. In the Book of Ephesians we read, "He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Eph. 1:4). To be holy is not primarily a matter of how many Rosaries we say or how much Christian activity we're engaged in; it's a matter of having our heart transformed into a heart of love. It is a matter of fulfilling the great commandments which sum up the whole law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor, wholeheartedly. Or as Teresa of Avila puts it, holiness is a matter of bringing our wills into union with God's will.
Thérèse of Lisieux expresses it very similarly: "Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be . . . who resists His grace in nothing." As she said towards the very end of her life: "I do not desire to die more than to live; it is what He does that I love."
John Paul II goes on to call the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where "training in holiness" is given.
Our Christian communities must become genuine "schools" of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly "falls in love." . . . It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life." (NMI 33)John Paul cites several reasons why this turn to holiness of life and depth in prayer is important. Besides the fact that it is quite simply part and parcel of the Gospel message, he points out that the supportive culture of "Christendom" has virtually disappeared and that Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this world-wide secularization process there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality, which is sometimes met by turning to non-Christian religions. It is especially important now for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and "show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead" (NMI 33, 40).
This great mystical tradition . . . shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart. (NMI 33)These are truly extraordinary words that John Paul uses here, words to which we will need to return in the course of this book. How is this extraordinary depth of union with the Trinity possible? It is indeed the answer to this question that the mystical tradition gives us and that this book will attempt to clearly communicate. John Paul makes clear that this depth of union isn't just for a few unusual people ("mystics") but is a call that every Christian receives from Christ Himself. "This is the lived experience of Christ's promise: 'He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him' (Jn. 14:21)." (NMI 32)
Then John Paul summarizes some of the main wisdom taught by the mystical tradition about the spiritual journey, wisdom that we will pay close attention to in the course of this book.
It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the "dark night"). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as "nuptial union." How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila? (NMI 32)These four principles that John Paul identifies are basic to a proper understanding of the spiritual journey.
All of these principles will be explored in-depth in later chapters. Now we need to recognize the significance of the "rediscovery" of the universal call to holiness and determine our own response to the call.
We all probably know in some way that we're called to holiness but perhaps struggle to respond. Feeling the challenge of the call and yet seeing the obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted and immediate response.
It is not uncommon, for example, to "pass the buck" to others whom we deem in a better position to respond wholeheartedly. Those of us who are Catholic lay people often look at our busy lives and sluggish hearts and suppose that priests and nuns are in a better position to respond to the call. After all, we may think to ourselves, that's what we pay them for! We may think that when our kids are grown, or when we retire, or after a business crisis passes, or when we don't have to care for ailing parents, or when we get a better job, or when we get married, or . . . that then we'll be in a better position to respond.
Unfortunately, being a priest or nun doesn't eliminate temptations to also "pass the buck." With the reduction in numbers, it is understandably easy for priests and nuns to feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities and have such a busy pace of life that they might suppose that it's the cloistered orders who are truly in a good position to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness.
But even in cloistered orders, it's possible to rationalize and "pass the buck." What with caring for guests, overseeing building renovations, attending monastic conferences, or making cheese, bread, or jams, it's possible to suppose that it's the hermit who really can respond wholeheartedly.
But even being a hermit doesn't guarantee such a response. After all, hermits need to work out a rule of life, have meetings with superiors to review it, make sure their medical insurance is covering them properly, deal with internal and external distractions and temptations, and maybe even contribute to a newsletter for hermits!
Or sometimes what holds us back from responding wholeheartedly in our present circumstances is believing that we don't have to focus too much on that right now, because sooner or later any purification needed will be taken care of in purgatory. There are a few problems with this way of thinking.
It's true that sometimes we don't hit the goal we're aiming at, and it's good to have a backup. If we aim for heaven at the moment of our death, and indeed die in friendship with Christ but haven't been transformed enough to be ready for the sight of God, purgatory is a wonderful blessing. But if we aim for purgatory and miss, there really isn't a good backup available.
The source of all our unhappiness and misery is sin and its effects, and the sooner the purification of sin and its effects can take place in our life, the happier we will be and the better able to truly love others. Only then will we be able to enter into the purpose God has for our life. Truly, in this case, better sooner than later.
And finally, it's important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations, and if we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the sight of God. Holiness isn't an "option." There are only saints in heaven; total transformation is not an "option" for those interested in that sort of thing, but is essential for those who want to spend eternity with God.
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb. 12:14)The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is so that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for union; we were created for union; we were redeemed for eternal union. The sooner we're transformed the happier and the more "fulfilled" we'll be. The only way to the fulfillment of all desire is to undertake and complete the journey to God.
In the Old Testament it was clear that to actually see God in our untransformed human condition was to be destroyed.
Then Moses said, "Do let me see your glory!" He answered, "I will make all my beauty pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my name, "Lord"; I who show favors to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will. But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives." (Ex. 33:18–20, NAB)
When Pope John Paul considered what was the most important legacy of the Jubilee year 2000 that should be carried forward into the new millennium, this is what he said: "But if we ask what is the core of the great legacy it leaves us, I would not hesitate to describe it as the contemplation of the face of Christ" (NMI 15).
Bernard of Clairvaux expands our vision of what it means to contemplate the face of Christ by pointing out that we "look upon the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son." Bernard also wholeheartedly encourages us to undertake the journey.
Come then, follow, seek him; do not let that unapproachable brightness and glory hold you back from seeking him or make you despair of finding him. "If you can believe all things are possible to him who believes" (Mk. 9:22). "The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (Rom. 10:8). Believe, and you have found him. Believing is having found. The faithful know that Christ dwells in their hearts by faith (Eph. 3:17). What could be nearer? Therefore seek him confidently, seek him faithfully, "The Lord is good to the soul who seeks him" (Lam. 3:25). Seek him in your prayers, follow him in your actions, find him in faith.And, of course, this wholehearted seeking of the Lord, this contemplation of Christ, is a central part of the message of Scripture.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)This Scripture text is a powerful summary of the process of transformation, which we will now begin to examine in some detail.
Ralph Martin, S.T.D. "The Call to Holiness." chapter 1 in The Fulfillment of All Desire (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2006) 1-10.
Reprinted with permission of Ralph Martin and Emmaus Road Publishing.
Ralph Martin, S.T.D., is director of graduate theology programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He is also the president of Renewal Ministries. His most recent books are: The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, and Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization.
Copyright © 2006 Ralph Martin
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.