October 19, 2011

Against Personal Holiness

Each year on this feast of the North American Martyrs I read in the Office of Readings the selection from the diaries of St. Jean de Brébeuf and I'm cut to the heart as I hear him express his desire for the martyrdom and horrible sufferings he certainly received.

Still bumbling along, now in the twentieth year of my baptism, how far I am from that! On a good day I can thank Jesus Christ for having found me worthy of the little sufferings of my easy life, but that's on a good day. A lot of the time I still resist, and am still the miserable plaything of the world, the flesh, and devil. Still seeking comfort rather than the Cross, status and esteem rather than the poverty of being nobody for this world, security and a cool dry place to take my walks and sit and read instead of the anxiety of the poor and the dependence on God that only comes from interior poverty.

But what to do with this experience is perhaps the real spiritual question. To be disappointed about it, to let myself feel let down by the fact that I find myself not yet a saint, is also from the flesh. It leads to subtle resentments against God for not fulfilling the vainglorious desires that go all the way back to my first fervor, my love for the idea of being holy, to breathe a purer and more rarefied atmosphere than the rest of humanity mired in its confusion and sin. There is anger in the half-conscious thought that surely I would be a saint by now, surely I would be able to look at myself and see an excellent soul rather than a miserable sinner.

Against such disappointment and resentment, the better response is humility. To forget about my stupid self altogether and its selfish longing to look on itself as holy--this is the path to real sanctity. When I am no longer concerned with myself, it is then that there will no longer be any hooks for the temptations of the world, the flesh, and devil and still less room for the tedious distractions and dramas by which we conspire to hobble each other in the mission to which we are called.

This is why I'm sometimes troubled by talk of 'personal holiness' as a work of the spiritual life. It's all to easy to start to imagine holiness as some sort of commodity or credential that we are supposed to obtain, purchasing bits of it with what effort we can afford. Of course this is an easy way to imagine things, even unconsciously, in a commercial world.

But the way to become holy is not to desire holiness but to desire God. Since God has been our desire all along, it's not even really about doing something at all but about letting go of the distractions that keep us from being who we are in the first place.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a very good post.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you already do this, but if making a Holy Hour every day before the August Presence of Christ Jesus you can't but be transformed in Him.

The desire to authentically die to self precedes the process itself. And when that happens, the applause of the world means nothing.

Love drives a soul to live for Jesus. Very few people actually do bc if people or things were removed they would crack.

Thank you for your service to the Church.

Jeanne said...

This is where I find great comfort and wisdom in St. Francis de Sales, who advised his spiritual directees to bloom where they are planted and to accept the daily good AND bad as the path to holiness. As long as I keep saying "thy will and not mine be done today" I feel like I am making progress, but better still, it's at God's direction through the Holy Spirit, not through my will, which if left to its own devices runs me off the spiritual cliff. Be well, be blessed.