Wednesday 19 January 2022

Growth in holiness

If we are to talk about holiness, we must first of all have a clear understanding about what we mean by it. I think I would say that it boils down to having a right relationship to or with God. Holiness is an interior state; yes, we may have certain outward devotional practices, or rules to help us, but these certainly don’t make us holy. Holiness, though it may be helped by things (prayers and devotions etc) is in no sense an outward thing — it is unseen, it is a relationship with God, which may be found in any state of life — providing, of course, it is one which is pleasing to the Lord. This was something the Oratorian Saint Francis de Sales stressed so beautifully in his Introduction to the Devout Life, where he wrote:

When God created the world He commanded each tree to bear fruit after its kind; and even so He bids Christians to bring forth fruits of devotion, each one according to his kind and vocation. A different exercise of devotion is required of each — the noble, the artisan, the servant, the prince, the maiden and the wife; and furthermore such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual. I ask you, would it be fitting that a Bishop should seek to lead the solitary life of a Carthusian? And if the father of a family were as regardless in making provision for the future as a Capuchin, if the artisan spent the day in church like a Religious, if the Religious involved himself in all sorts of business on his neighbour’s behalf as a Bishop is called upon to do, would not such a devotion be ridiculous, ill-regulated, and intolerable? Nevertheless such a mistake is often made, and the world, which cannot or will not discriminate between real devotion and the indiscretion of those who fancy themselves devout, grumbles and finds fault with devotion, which really has nothing to do with these errors.

No indeed, my child, the devotion which is true hinders nothing, but on the contrary it perfects everything; and that which runs counter to the rightful vocation of any one is, you may be sure, a spurious devotion. With the influence of true devotion, family duties are more peaceful, married love truer, service to our King more faithful, every kind of occupation more acceptable and better performed where that is the guide.

It is not only erroneous, but a very heresy, to seek to banish the devout life from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court, or the domestic hearth. Of course a purely contemplative devotion, such as is specially proper to the religious and monastic life, cannot be practised in these outer vocations, but there are various other kinds of devotion well-suited to lead those whose calling is secular, along the paths of perfection. Wherever we find ourselves we not only may, but should, seek perfection.

And we know that although the content of our Faith does not change, our way of thinking about it develops and changes as the years pass. Remember, perhaps, how years ago, a certain hymn stirred up great fervour and sentiment in you — yet now you sing it unmoved. We recall, maybe, how we had certain emotional experiences: when we looked at a particular crucifix or painting of our Lady, we might have had tender feelings towards them, but now feel quite differently. Is our devotion any the less? We might worry that that is the case, but it’s more likely that our tastes have changed, become more refined, or that we have moved on to another kind of experience. Because we do not experience what St Francis de Sales called “sensible consolation” doesn’t necessarily indicate lukewarmness or a lack of love on our part, only that the Lord is drawing us on by other means, wanting us to want Him alone, rather than what we can get out of Him. Someone once rightly put it: We shouldn’t seek the consolation of God, but the God of consolation. I recall Rabbi Blue once quoting another rabbi as saying: “I don’t want your heaven, I don’t fear your hell, I only want you God.” Not perhaps how I would have expressed it myself, only for fear of being misunderstood, but it gets to the nub of it. We are in the business of seeking the Lord for Himself rather than for any reward we may gain or through fear of any punishment we might merit.

The secret is to strain forward with eagerness to love God. St Thomas Aquinas was once asked by someone how could become holy. Thomas’s response was brief and to the point: “Velle”, or “Want it.” The will is of course involved — not mere good wishes, but a strong desire to be united with with God in Christ in a right relationship.

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