By: Rev. Paul Scalia
We do not become weird in becoming holy. We become ourselves.
Chesterton observes that no one ever slaps a crocodile on the back and says, “Be a crocodile!” His observation is not about safety but about the simple truth that no creature in the world needs to be exhorted that way…except man. No one says, “Be a crocodile!” But we do say, “Be a man!” Nobody commands his misbehaving pet, “Act like a dog!” But we might tell a wimp, “Act like a man!” Which is all to say that man, the oddest creature in the world, is a paradox: He must become what he already is.
What is true for man in general holds all the more for Christians in particular. We Christians have to become what we are. This provides a way to understand what the Church terms the “universal call to holiness.” We have already been sanctified, made holy. But, as Saint Paul finds necessary to remind us, we are “called to be holy” — or, as another translation puts it, “called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2). We are to become what we are.
The call to holiness comes, therefore, from who we are.
The call to holiness comes, therefore, from who we are. Which means that it is not something foreign to us. Much of the fear about holiness comes from the suspicion that it does some kind of violence to who we are. Sanctity, however, has already been placed in us by God’s grace. When Saint Peter exhorts us to “be holy in every aspect of your conduct” (1 Pt 1:15), he is not forcing something alien upon us. He is simply exhorting us to be what God has already made us. Being holy — thinking, speaking, and acting in a holy manner — is merely to live in accord with what is most true about ourselves as Christians. We do not become weird in becoming holy. We become ourselves.
How could it be that we would have less if we give ourselves to Him Who is all?
The call to holiness comes also from the fact that God gave us sanctity, not so much as a finished product, but as a life project. Our Lord uses many parables of seeds and growth (the sower, the mustard seed, the leaven) because the kingdom of God within us is meant to mature and flourish. The parable of the talents is apt as well (cf. Mt 25:14-30). He has entrusted holiness to us as something to invest and so bear much fruit.
“To be holy” — easier said than done. Most of us shy away from this call…if it even occurs to us. We think it impossible, too much. And, yes, it does demands everything of us. But much of our wariness comes also from a misunderstanding. We confuse the means for the end, thinking that because the saint must decrease (cf. Jn 3:30), he will end up as nothing. We have a wooden, one-dimensional understanding of sanctity, as if to be holy we must be flattened out to fit on a holy card…as if in giving everything we will then have nothing. And the hagiographers do not help, with their often saccharine and curiously soulless presentations of men and women who lived intimately with Life Himself.
At one point in the Gospels Peter says to our Lord, “We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” (Mt 19:27) It strikes us as an impertinent, even selfish, question. But is it not lingering in the back of our minds also, and for good reason? If we give everything, as holiness requires… What will there be for us? Will anything of us remain? Do we not hold back out of fear? Do we not fear that there will be nothing left for us…and of us?
If we give everything, as holiness requires… What will there be for us? Will anything of us remain? Do we not hold back out of fear? Do we not fear that there will be nothing left for us…and of us?
In response, our Lord says, “Everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:29). In effect, He promises everything. We need therefore to shed the two-dimensional understanding of sanctity. How could it be that we would have less if we give ourselves to Him Who is all? “He Who did not spare His own Son but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him?” (Rom 8:32)
To set out on the adventure and undertake the project of holiness, we need to have in mind something of what it is. To obtain that proper understanding, we return to what Saint Thomas Aquinas gives as two dimensions of holiness — otherness and wholeness — and apply them to ourselves.
Next week: What does it mean to be for us to be other?