Young Woman Sweeping, Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916)
I AM guessing that most of my readers feel that they are not holy. That holiness, saintliness, is in fact an impossibility in this life. We say, “I am too weak, too sinful, too frail to ever rise to the ranks of the righteous.” We read Scriptures like the following, and feel they were written on a different planet:
…as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, “Be holy because I am holy.” (1 Pet 1:15-16)
Or a different universe:
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)
Impossible? Would God ask us—no, command us—to be something that we cannot? Oh yes, it is true, we cannot be holy without Him, He who is the source of all holiness. Jesus was blunt:
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)
The truth is—and Satan wishes to keep it far from you—holiness is not only possible, but it is possible right now.
IN ALL OF CREATION
Holiness is nothing less than this: to take one’s rightful place in creation. What does that mean?
Watch the geese as they migrate to warmer lands; pay attention to the animals of the forest as they prepare to hibernate; notice the trees as they shed their leaves and prepare to rest; gaze up at the stars and planets as they follow their orbits…. In all of creation, we see a remarkable harmony with God. And what is creation doing? Nothing special, really; just doing what it was created to do. And yet, if you could see with spiritual eyes, there may be halos on those geese, bears, trees, and planets. I don’t mean this in the pantheistic sense—that creation is God itself. But that creation radiates the life and holiness of God and that the wisdom of God is made manifest through His works. How? By them doing what they were created to do in order and harmony.
MAN IS DIFFERENT
But man is different than birds and bears. We are created in the image of God. And “God is love”. The animals and sea creatures, the plants and planets, are created out of love to reflect the wisdom of love. But man himself is the very image of love. While the earth’s creatures and plant life move in obedience to instinct and order, man is created to move according to the infinitely higher pattern of love. This is an explosive revelation, so much so, that it leaves the angels in awe and demons in envy.
It is enough to say that God looked at created man, and found him so beautiful that he fell in love with him. Jealous of this portent of his, God himself became the custodian and possessor of man, and said, “I have created everything for you. I give you dominion over everything. All is yours and you will be all Mine”… if man knew how beautiful his soul is, how many divine qualities he contains, how he surpasses all created things in beauty, power and light—to the extent that one can say that he is a little god and contains a little world within himself—how much more he would esteem himself. —Jesus to Servant of God Luisa Piccarreta, from her volumes XXII, February 24th, 1919; as quoted with ecclessial permission from The Gift of Living in the Divine Will in the Writings of Luisa Piccarreta, Fr. Joseph Iannuzzi, p. 37
HOLINESS IS RATHER ORDINARY
Combining St. Paul’s and Christ’s words above, we see a concept of holiness emerging: holiness is to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect. Yes, I know, this sounds impossible at first (and is, without God’s help). But what is Jesus really asking?
He is asking us to simply take our place in creation. Every day, the microbes do it. The insects do it. The animals do it. The galaxies do it. They are “perfect” in the sense that they are doing what they were created to do. And so, what is your everyday place in creation? If you are made in the image of love, then it is simply to love. And Jesus defines love very simply:
If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:10-13)
More than that, Jesus himself became man in order, in part, to show us who we really are.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. (Col 1:15)
And how did Jesus demonstrate what it means to be a son of God? One could say, by obeying the created order, and for man, that means living in the Divine Will of the Father, which is the perfect expression of love.
For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whoever is begotten by God conquers the world. And the victory that conquers the world is our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)
His commandments are not burdensome, writes St. John. That is to say, holiness is really not a call to the extraordinary but to the ordinary. It is simply living moment by moment in the Divine Will with a heart of service. Thus, doing the dishes, driving the kids to school, sweeping the floor… this is holiness when it is done out of love of God and neighbour. And thus, perfection is not some distant, unattainable goal, otherwise Jesus would not have called us to it. Perfection consists in doing the duty of the moment with love—what we were created to do. True, as fallen creatures, this is impossible to do without grace. Such a vocation would be hopeless without the death and resurrection of Jesus. But now…
…Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:5)
Jesus is not calling you to be perfect at any other time than right now because you don’t know where you will be, here or on the other side of eternity, in the next moment. That is why I say that holiness is possible right now: by turning to God with a childlike heart, asking Him what His will is, and doing it with all your heart for Him and neighbour in the power of the Holy Spirit.
YOUR PLACE IN CREATION IS YOUR JOY
The human tendency, unenlightened by wisdom, is to see this call to perfection, indeed of service, as somehow antithetical to joy. After all, we know straight away that this involves denying ourselves and often making sacrifices. One of my favorite sayings of Blessed John Paul II is:
Listening to Christ and worshipping Him leads us to make courageous choices, to take what are sometimes heroic decisions. Jesus is demanding, because He wishes our genuine happiness. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity. —POPE JOHN PAUL II, World Youth Day Message for 2005, Vatican City, Aug. 27th, 2004, Zenit.org
But let us not think that holiness, then, consists in “heroic decisions” or acts alone. Indeed, we hear stories of the feats of the saints, their extreme mortifications, their miraculous deeds, etc. and we begin to think that is what a saint looks like. In truth, the saints moved in the realm of miracles, great sacrifices, and heroic virtue precisely because they were faithful first of all in the small matters. Once one begins to move in the realms of God, everything becomes possible; adventure becomes the norm; the miraculous becomes the ordinary. And the joy of Jesus becomes the possession of the soul.
Yes, “sometimes” we must make heroic decisions, said the late pontiff. But it is the everyday faithfulness to the duty of the moment that demands the most courage. That is why St. John wrote that “the victory that conquers the world is our faith.” It takes faith to sweep the floor with love after every single meal and believe this is a path to heaven. But it is, and because it is, it is also the path of genuine happiness. For it is when you are loving in this way, seeking first the kingdom of God in even the little things, obeying His commandments, that you are becoming fully human—just as the deer are fully deer when they obey the laws of nature. And it is when you are becoming fully human that your spirit is opened to receive the infinite gifts and infusion of God Himself.
God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. In this is love brought to perfection among us, that we have confidence on the day of judgment because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. (1 John 4:16-18)
To be perfect in love is, simply, to take one’s place in creation: to love, moment by moment in the little things. This is The Little Path of holiness…
When human souls have come as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, then they will put on its glory, or rather that greater glory of which nature is only the first sketch. —C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and other Addresses, Eerdmans Publishing; from The Magnificat, November 2013, p. 276
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