It is an axiom of membership among believing Roman Catholics that nothing matters more than the pursuit of holiness. Even among the mediocre, who seem always to be at their best, it is understood that nothing should come before God and our union with Him. It is just that they so seldom strive to be any better.
That being so, two things need to be kept in mind along the way.
One is that it’s going to take a lifetime to perfect. Interludes of occasional heartfelt prayer will simply not do the job. And since the practice of prayer, as Luigi Giussani reminds us, “is the only human gesture that totally realizes the human being’s stature,” it has got to be rooted deep down in the soul. In order to make it stick, therefore, it will need constant and habitual exercise. A lifetime no less.
Fame may be fickle, but not holiness. If you really want it, you’ve got to work hard to hold and to keep it. It comes at a price, too, “costing not less than everything,” as T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets. “A lifetime burning in every moment,” he tells us. In short, there are no shortcuts to sanctity. Not in this life, anyway.
Nor in the next apparently. Not if we are to trust in the kindness of God. Why else would He have given us Purgatory? Which, if it didn’t exist, Pope Benedict XVI assures us, it would need to be invented. Few of us, after all, are likely to be lifted instantly into Paradise; time will somehow need to be extended into eternity.
While great numbers may be genuinely desirous of seeing God, one suspects that many are still not fully prepared to look Him directly in the face. How great and salutary a mercy it will be, therefore, when, on the other side, one enters a state of complete and final purgation. Indescribably painful, yes, but blessedly finite; and so, the fire that burns away the dross of human sin will be most welcome.
The other thing to remember—and this is the good news—is the fact that none of this can happen without grace, that becoming a saint is not finally up to us. Christianity is not a self-help enterprise. It is not like producing pizza, where it is up to us to fire the oven and keep it going.
Sanctity is a work of God, and everything in the spiritual life points to the primacy of His grace. When Jesus says, “Without Me you can do nothing,” it is no idle boast. Nor is He speaking in metaphor. He really means it. It is only our sins, therefore, that we may take full ownership of, which is why a man without grace is certain to commit them. Perhaps that is why St. Philip Neri, on seeing the condemned prisoner led off to execution, blurted out, “There but for the grace of God go I!”
Nowhere is the urgency of the point given greater expression than in the Church’s sacraments, which provide the perfect setting for the mediation of God’s mercy. In other words, we need to see and to smell, to taste and to touch, and, yes, to hear the sound of God’s grace bursting through the windows of our sensory world—like a hand grenade, as it were, blasting everything in its wake. That way, like the sainted Therese as she lay dying, we are moved to exclaim, Tout est grâce: “Everything is grace.”
The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it in a wonderfully expressive way. “Grace,” he writes, “rides time like a river.” What he means is that it does not merely skim along the surface, nor hover above the flux; rather, it plunges headlong right to the very bottom, reaching into the whole of our created being in order to transfigure it all unto glory. Never does it stand over against nature, but instead it completes and perfects nature, penetrating into the very marrow and texture of the material world to fill it with the things of God. So many outward signs, to use the language of the old catechisms, instituted by Christ to give us grace.
Here is a lovely example of how it works, one which throws the most piercing light upon the mystery, particularly in the tension it shows between divine grace and human freedom. It is a poem called “Love,” consisting of eighteen of the most gorgeous lines you’ll ever read, written by a 17th-century English divine by the name of George Herbert:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah by dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame.
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Now there’s “a drop everything poem,” as the late Tom Howard used to say. The moment you hear it you’ve got to drop everything and pay the fiercest possible attention. To every word. Including, to be sure, the silent spaces in between where the Holy Spirit moves, as Fr. Hopkins would say, “with warm breast and with, ah, bright wings!”
“The right reader of a good poem,” says Robert Frost, whose own poetry provides many examples, “can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound—that he will never get over it.” Certainly, the fellow in the Herbert poem will never get over his, which is no less than the wound of divine love itself.
Yet, how cravenly he shrinks from the invitation! Refusing, really, on the silliest of grounds, to draw near to the God who has come so far to feed him. “Guilty of dust and sin,” he says, even as God will not withdraw the invitation. Dust and sin? Why should that disqualify him? “Know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?” Why this reluctance, then, when the whole point of Christ’s coming was to enter the one in order to redeem the other?
So, there is something far greater than guilt going on here. Indeed, what we have got is an unheard-of gesture of divine generosity (“You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat”), awakening a sense of stunned surprise, followed by sheer, humble submission to a gift he does not deserve but is now delighted to receive (“So I did sit and eat”).
An initiative from God, in other words, giving rise to a response from man; and it all happens in the order of sacrament, most especially the most sublime sacrament of all: the Holy Eucharist. Isn’t this how grace ordinarily communicates itself? The happy combination of two wholly disparate things: God’s free encounter with us, our free cooperation with Him. And, again, it all takes place in the order of sacrament, of signs made sacred by Christ Himself.
How else are we to become saints if not by eating His Body and drinking His Blood?
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