Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

To be holy means to ‘put on Christ;’ we should seek him, not self

Published: August 23, 2003

By Charles T. Sullivan

On the whole, I do not think about my personal call to holiness as often as I should. Most of the time, if the truth be known, I let the “stuff” of life get in the way: career, deadlines, meetings, chores, family concerns and innumerable other responsibilities. Frankly, there’s usually little or no spare time left over for serious considerations of saintliness.

And thus, regrettably, I miss the point entirely. Spiritual writers today share near unanimity in their assessment that our busy work-a-day lives present us with countless opportunities to both reveal and reflect the life and love of God that — realize it or not — permeates our very being. We become holy, they say, when we allow God to transform our ordinary thoughts, words and actions into sanctified thoughts, sacred words and righteous actions. In our present enlightened age, the pursuit of Christian holiness is very often viewed with great suspicion and skepticism.

The world seldom understands and only grudgingly tolerates those who earnestly seek to advance in the spiritual life in imitation of the Lord. Many saints throughout history were scorned, shunned, humiliated and even martyred for their sanctity; many modern-day “saints-to-be” are considered social outcasts or pariahs. In striving for holiness, then, we all must be ever mindful “ … the way of perfection passes by way of the cross.” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church,” no. 2015)

And yet, every believing Christian knows in his or her heart there really is no middle ground here, no possibility of straddling the fence. In the final analysis, we must choose to either answer or ignore God’s call to holiness and then prepare ourselves for the eternal consequences of that decision. What is holiness? I am reluctant to offer any pat definition that might possibly be misconstrued as insider knowledge.

Relying instead on reputable Catholic sources, I could say holiness is a participation — or better, an immersion — into the very life of God. It is the divine presence already within us shining forth in our daily lives; it is our finite sharing in God’s infinite love. The word itself means “separateness” as in “separated from the profane and thus directed toward God.” God himself, creator and sustainer, is the source of all holiness.

One of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life is this: The more we succeed in our imitation of Christ and achieve some small measure of holiness, the more our own true, inimitable personalities are unveiled. As we “put on Christ,” the real person God created us to be is allowed to unfold and blossom. C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” articulated it in this way: “The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.”

When we consider the lives of some of the better-known saints, we grasp immediately this is true. The quiet gentleness of St. Francis of Assisi or the manly integrity of St. Thomas More or — in our own age — the loving compassion of Mother Teresa are special distinctive attributes that “define” these remarkable saints. Each one’s individual personality is wonderfully unique.

And yet, these three — and, in fact, all of the saints — never sought to seek themselves. Instead, they strove daily to die to self, to “grow smaller” so the Lord of their lives could be all the greater. (see John 3:30) In imitating Christ, the saints were made holy. By his grace, may one day the same be said of us.