Tag Archives: holiness

Vocation, Freedom, Holiness

My gorgeous sister and husband on their wedding day

The last few days, I’ve been with a very good friend of mine who is now a Dominican. He is like a brother to me, we have been friends since university days. We were blessed enough, these last few days, to have a good amount of time to chat properly. Not just the catching-up-type-stuff, but the real, deep, meaning-of-life-type-stuff. A spiritual and intellectual gift to spend this precious time together. He has been in the Dominicans now for just over three years. It is an inspiration to watch his vocation to religious life. The commitment he has been called to make, the joy and peace this entails, the ensuing sacrifice.

What I have observed is that, in all vocations – whether to marriage, priesthood, apostolic celibacy or religious life – once we commit, limitations result. Choosing one definite pathway rules out a lot else.

My friend and I are both the creative types. (If you’ve read Bill Hybels’ book, Courageous Leadership, this is what he calls ‘visionary leadership’.) Give us ten minutes and we’d come up with ten different ideas for brilliant and exciting projects, and then we’d probably jump right in and get started. At university the number of initiatives we started was vast and varied… and some of them worked out! It is the kind of thing you can do when you are young and free.

Accepting your vocation, however, by its nature limits possibilities. When you are married, your freedom and obedience turns towards your family. When you are a priest, your obedience is towards your parish’s needs and your bishop. In religious life, you require permission for any initiative or project that pops into your mind (like the five ideas a day my friend gets before breakfast).

It could be tempting to think, “what a waste!” When a young, bright, creative person gives themselves to a vocation (any vocation) they surrender their freedom, whether to their spouse and children, their Order, or their bishop. Perhaps they might be given a project that suits their talents – they thrive and create something wonderful for the Church – but then someone else takes over and it ceases to be fruitful.

The ever-inspiring Nashville Dominicans

What I realised, as we were chatting, is that when we are young, we dream great visions of things we would love to achieve or help the Church to achieve. Many of these dreams I am sure are beautiful and good, and we shouldn’t lose them. We need these visions to urge us on!

However, the reality we receive in the Church is one where we accept a vocation in life that does not permit us absolute freedom. God knows that absolute freedom is not good for us. God invites us into a life in his Church where the main thing we achieve is never the projects, the activity, in itself (although it is important); rather, we – ourselves – we are the ‘project’ that remains constant, stays with us throughout our lives. There’s no escaping it! Hard as it may be, our own salvation, our sanctity, is the project God has entrusted us with, the main thing he is concerned about. And this is the main project that is dumped in our lap when we receive our vocation.

Absolute freedom is not good for us. Look at the limitation – of being human! – that God himself accepted in the Incarnation. Our culture, on the other hand, promotes absolute freedom under any circumstances. It seeps into our mentality, and is a cause, I am sure, of the countless young Catholic adults who have not discovered, or not accepted, their vocation. Clinging to their freedom for dear life, they want to leave all possibilities perpetually open. That is another topic for another day 🙂

What’s the takeaway message? I am deeply inspired by my friends who are preparing for priesthood, in religious life, or who are young and newly married. In accepting their limitation in freedom, they discover a deeper freedom of being united to Christ and growing towards holiness through their vocation. Thank you, dear friends, for your witness and inspiration.

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Marriage as a path to holiness

I have already written about this from different angles. In this post, I want to offer a married couple as a model for holiness. Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St Therese, are often referred to, and when I was researching for the recent Faith Matters talk, I came across this inspiring, French-Canadian couple (not yet beatified) who were in the diplomatic service: Georges and Pauline Vanier.

This couple shows us that holiness means fulfilling the duties of your state in life and your profession to the best of your ability. Georges Vanier went into the diplomatic service after the First World War in which he had served. During the War, he had had his right leg amputated and suffered pain from the wound for the rest of his life. When he was invited to become the Governor-General of Canada, he accepted this appointment despite his constant pain. One friend commented: “Good heavens, Vanier, you’ve already got one foot in the grave,” to which Georges replied, “I know, but it’s been there 41 years.” He said, “If God wants me to do this job, he will give me the strength.” This sense of service marked the Vaniers’ public and private lives. Recognising the importance of family life and discovering great joy in it themselves, they established the Vanier Institute for the Family, to give aid to families in need.
 
The Vaniers lived a life of entertaining prime ministers and dining with royalty and when, in the 30s, they lost much of their wealth, they had to continue to keep up appearances within all of these duties. Pauline Vanier stated that the hardship of these years had in fact been the best thing that happened to the children. She suffered from her own personal problems, tending to be highly strung and suffering from depression. Yet, without being overly pious, the couple quietly devoted time each day to prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. In relation to prayer Georges told his daughter: “We can all find time to do what we want.”
 
In the 50s, most of the Vanier children had grown up and left home – one became a doctor, one became a Cistercian monk, and one became a painter. Their fourth son, Jean, who had studied philosophy in Paris, later found his own vocation – he bought a house near Paris and took two men with mental disabilities to live with him – this was the beginning of the L’Arche community, where Pauline Vanier herself would go to live towards the end of her life.
 
There is nothing remarkable in the Vaniers’ life, which I think should be encouraging for us. As husband and wife, they were faithful in carrying out their duties both within their family and professional life. In this faithfulness, we can see what the kingly aspect of our baptismal vocation looks like – to govern and bring order within our lives and the field in which we work. Lumen Gentium explains this by saying, “it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will” (LG 31).
 
Finally, it could be said of the Vaniers that they grew in holiness together. Georges experienced a spiritual awakening in 1938, after which he resolved to accompany Pauline to Mass each day and did so until his last days. Their friends said of them, “We always think of them together”. It is true of all of us – whether married or single – that we grow in God’s life with others. In relationship with others we are in the image of God because that is who God is – an eternal relationship of three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – a life of endless joy we are invited to share.


The Holiness of God in the Lives of His Saints

Yesterday evening I gave a short talk as part of the Faith Matters series, a catechetical series put on in the Westminster Diocese which this month is entitled “Last Things First”. It was great to be at this event with a wonderful group of people, on the feast of All Saints. Fr Stephen Wang gave some theological reflections on the communion of saints, and I followed up with some real-life examples of saints of the 20th Century. I chose three examples, all lay saints of the Church, and linked each example to our lay baptismal vocation to share in Christ’s priestly, prophetic and kingly role. Here is the first saint I spoke about:

Saints are great gifts to us in our life of faith – and not just because they pray for us. When God took on human flesh he revealed to us who he is. How is this related to the saints? When saints allow God to fill their life with his life, they are giving him, so to speak, “another humanity”, another little “incarnation”, so that in their own humanity, people may glimpse God. Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity (a French Carmelite nun of the late 19th Century) prayed to the Holy Spirit to “create in [her] soul a kind of incarnation of the Word: that [she] may be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery.” It is God’s holiness that is radiant in them – so through their character, and the events of their life, we catch a glimpse of him.
 
So that is the first point. Saints give their humanity to God, and they make him visible. We know well that, although we might know our faith very thoroughly – and that is good, we need to – we only really know it – deeply and tangibly – in our experience. Particularly in our own experience, but also in the experience of others: this is where truths that we know come alive. This is another way of saying the same thing: in the lives of the saints, in the experience of others, we glimpse the deep realities of our faith in a way that makes them alive and real to us.
 
The numerous saints of the 20th Century are vivid images to us of God’s holiness – perhaps more so than earlier saints – because their world seems closer to ours: we have photographs and even videos of them which make them more real to us. What I want to do is use three examples of 20th Century saints – two Italians and one French-Canadian married couple – to show what holiness means, in concrete ways. These points are not even necessarily the most important points about holiness, but they are points that shine vividly in the three examples. I have also chosen only lay saints – I think it’s important that, as lay people, we have strong examples of what holiness looks like in a lay life, and indeed, that it is possible. The overarching theme in all three examples is that Christ’s holiness shines through a person’s personality: his holiness does not obscure or obliterate that person’s character, but rather makes it bloom, makes them fully alive.
 
My first example is a married woman from Milan, a wife, mother and doctor: St Gianna Beretta Molla. In St Gianna’s life, we see that holiness means loving those who are given to us to love. These can sometimes be the hardest people to love! In Gianna’s life, in her twenties, this initially meant those she served in her professional life as a doctor. We know that she gave free medical treatment to the poor, often giving them money as well as free examinations and medicine, and helping those who could not continue with their work because of their health to find new jobs.
 
She married at 33 and as a wife and mother Gianna devoted herself to her husband and her children: for her, this was taken to the extreme when, at the end of her life, she loved her child even above her own life. She knew that the continuation of her fourth pregnancy meant that her own life was in danger, and on the way to the hospital, she made clear to her husband: “if they should ask you which of the two lives they should save, do not hesitate…first, the life of the child”. Throughout her pregnancy she had been aware of this risk, suffering without complaint but constantly speaking with God in prayer. She suffered seven agonising days after her daughter’s birth, telling her husband, “it is not just that we should appear before the Lord without much suffering”.
 
What can we learn from this? Because we are baptised, we share in Christ’s role as priest, prophet and king. And when we offer sacrifice in our lives, we are exercising our priestly role. When we do our work well and offer it to God the Father, when we love and sacrifice for those in our lives, when we offer our sufferings to the Father, we are acting as priests – sanctifying and consecrating the world to God. For Gianna, this offering became the offering of her life itself, and it is clear that in this, she sanctified the world around her. After her death, countless people came to see her, all of them aware of the sacrifice she had made, and many going to Confession before they entered her room.

The two other examples will be posted soon!


How are we transformed in Christ?

Often we talk about how we’re called to holiness. But how does this happen? What happens to the soul to make it holy? I’ve been studying a module in prayer and spirituality. The spiritual theology behind the transformation of the soul is fascinating: How often do we throw terms around like the ‘growing in holiness’? This is something we need to understand – for ourselves and others.

The soul is like a cavern which Christ purifies and enlarges as He pours his light within it in prayer

Grace – the new life of the soul

In the parish, we always teach that grace is participation in the life of God. Even the First Communion children can tell you that grace is God’s life in their soul. But, as adults, I think it’s good for us to understand this more deeply. After all, we understand other things – like house prices, and mortgages, and political policies – on an adult level, so why shouldn’t we understand the life of grace too?

Here’s just a few thoughts (and be warned, I am no spiritual theologian – but here are some thoughts from what I have learnt):

  • Just as living things are animated by a principle of life on the natural level, on the supernatural level, the soul’s principle of life is sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is what gives us participation in the very nature and life of God. It is an “analogous” participation in God’s life – since it is adoptive and by grace, not by nature. But just as the Son is begotten eternally of the Father, so the soul in a state of grace constantly receives this life from God – this is why sanctifying grace is also called habitual grace. So in a life lived in prayer and sacraments and love, man grows deeper into the life of God – transformed in the “inner man”.
  • When God loves something, this love creates the goodness in it. This is also true of the soul. Love finds or makes things similar to itself. So God’s love of the soul, communicated to it through sanctifying grace, transforms it into the divine image. At St Leo explained it: “the divine goodness shines in us as in a resplendent mirror.” We’re not transformed into God – we are still human, still finite, and still have our integrity as a human being – but we are resplendent with God’s holiness.
  • John Paul II wrote in Dominum et Vivificantem: “man, living a divine life, is the glory of God”.
  • This can only be a reality in one who prays – it is by means of prayer (a living relationship with God) that one participates in this divine life – we can lay claim to our inheritance! (Ephesians 1:13) Who said prayer is a duty?!?

Catechesis and grace
What is the link to catechesis? Well, this transformation of the soul is surely the goal of all human life. Catechesis needs to teach grace, the virtues, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the principles of the spiritual life, so that people can truly be ‘transformed in Christ’. It doesn’t just magically ‘happen’; we need to understand so that we can make informed decisions about how we will grow spiritually.
My sister is studying to be a nurse, and the more she learns about the body, the more she understands symptoms and illnesses and problems. I think the same is true of the soul. We need to know what sanctifying grace is, and how we get it, and how we keep it. We need to know what mortal sin is, and how it kills sanctifying grace – leaving the soul absent of charity and therefore in a helpless state unless God inspires contrition. Adults need to understand the spiritual life.

Who needs a spiritual workout?!

I go to the gym a few times a week. After work, it is packed with sweaty young professional Londoners – they are all investing time and money into being fit, healthy and looking good. We need to care for our souls in the same way. If I wanted to achieve a particular goal at the gym, my instructor will tell me what exercise to do, how long for, and how often. We need the same direction for our souls – yes, in Confession and spiritual direction – but also the basics need to be taught in catechesis: grace, virtues, divine filiation.
Only then can we lead people towards laying claim to the great promise we have in Christ, as children of God:
“In Him you … were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance, until we acquire possession of it.”
Ephesians 1:13

The grace of conversion

I swear I have the best job in the world…! No sooner is Pentecost over than FOUR people show up at the presbytery this week wanting to become Catholics. How good is the Lord?! I found myself having the same chat with people again and again, finding out how they came to this point, getting to know a bit about them and explaining next steps. What a wonderful thing to be able to do.

For these people the journey they are beginning is reasonably clear before them. They come to sessions, they begin to live a Catholic life by coming to Sunday Mass and praying daily, they meet regularly with their sponsor. They go through the various liturgical rites when they are ready. The Church has developed a very wise, rich process which will mature and make firm the beginnings of their conversion.

However, sometimes I think that Catholics who lapse for a long time and then undergo the grace of conversion would also benefit from a similar process. Most Catholics have never received a thorough, systematic catechesis. Most Catholics have never had a faithful, well-formed person to meet with and share their spiritual journey. For most Catholics it’s a bit hit-and-miss, hot and cold. Wouldn’t most adult Catholics benefit from formation that is based on this catechumenate model? Their conversions could be made firm through a full and complete understanding of our Faith, and they would root themselves in the Liturgy which sustains the grace of their conversion.

I think this would be an incredible model for adult formation in parishes. It would make growth in holiness a real goal for ALL Catholics rather than just those Catholics who are rooted in a good movement or community which helps them grow in holiness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if normal parishes could substantially help people grow in holiness too?