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Called to holiness

"I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun." - Billy Joel.

"For God, each person is absolutely unique. Holiness is the not the realization of a given model of perfection that is identical for everyone. It is the emergence of an absolutely unique reality that God alone knows, and that He alone brings to fruition . . . it is infinitely more beautiful, because only God is capable of creating totally unique masterpieces, while we humans can only imitate." - Father Jacques Philippe.

Two quotes, two very different ideas about holiness. If you took a poll, you'd probably find that significantly more people identify with Billy Joel than Father Philippe. Holiness is perceived to be boring, stifling. It is linked to "holy rollers" who cast their eyes piously downward, or who look down their noses in judgment at everyone around them. Becoming holy, then, must involve stifling who we really are and putting on this mask of dull, soulless sanctity.

According to Father Philippe, nothing could be further from the truth, which I personally find to be a big relief, since the Church has always proclaimed the "universal call to holiness." In other words, God calls each and every one of us to be holy. I'd hate to think that God was calling me to be a boring, self-righteous prig.

So it we're all called to holiness, and if it doesn't mean giving up fun and marching in some kind of sanctified lockstep, then what does it mean? What does it look like? And how do we achieve it?

First of all, we don't achieve it. God does it. Holiness is, in a sense, a "re-creation" of ourselves into our best selves. As St. Paul said, we become "new creations" in Christ. He infuses us with His love, His grace and His virtues - which we couldn't possibly attain on our own. Again quoting Father Philippe: "Only God can get to the bottom of our defects and our limitations in the field of love; only He has sufficient mastery over our hearts for that. If we realize that we will save ourselves a great deal of discouragement and fruitless struggle. We do not have to become saints by our own power; we have to learn how to let God make us into saints."

Do we sit around passively and wait for God to sanctify us? Well, it's not quite that simple. We need to work. But the work consists not in "making ourselves holy," but in removing obstacles to holiness so that God can work unencumbered.

What are those obstacles? Sin. Selfishness. Lack of trust in God's will. Failing to ask God to make us holy. In order to grow in holiness, we need to be striving to do God's will in our lives. That starts with the basics - following the commandments and the teachings of His Church. And, beyond that, it means asking Him to show you His specific will for your life, in both the big picture and the little details.

All of this points to the importance of prayer. We need His strength to root out sin in our lives. And we need to ask Him what we need to do, and then create a silent space to listen for the answers. If we aren't spending any quality time with Him, how can we expect Him to transform us?

Jesus said on several occasions that, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become like little children. That can seem odd. What part of childhood are we supposed to emulate? The lack of responsibility? The playfulness? Not really. It's childlike trust that Jesus is referring to. A child doesn't know the answers, and doesn't pretend to. A child says "Daddy, help me." A child goes where the father leads him.

That's the kind of trust we need to have in the Father if we are to grow in holiness. We have to allow Him to lead us.

Father Philippe says we continue to grow in holiness every time we respond to a prompting of the Spirit. "We will obtain the grace to be faithful in the important things that at present we find impossible, by dint of being faithful in the little things within our grasp, especially when those little things are the ones that the Holy Spirit asks of us by calling to our hearts with His inspirations."

What are we working toward? What does "holiness" look like? As we discussed above, its specific form is unique to each individual. It doesn't suppress their natural gifts, but accentuates them. It allows God's love to shine through and make them more of what they are. Look at Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, the two most visible late 20th-century saints. They were very different people, but they shared a certain radiance. I saw both in person, and in both cases I immediately burst into tears. It was a spontaneous reaction to the divine love that emanated from them.

What about those other "holy" people - the ones who are looking down their noses at everybody else, the ones who walk around with an air of superiority? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, to the extent that those people don't authentically extend the love of God to those around them, they are not holy at all. The first red flag would be when someone announces that he or she is holy. Real holiness is humble. (Which reminds me of one of my all-time favorite John Paul II quotes. When someone close to him was expressing her concerns over his health, she said, using his formal title, "I worry about Your Holiness." To which he responded, "I worry about my holiness, too.")

Holiness isn't self-righteous. It isn't boring, and it isn't monochromatic. It isn't merely a cover over our true selves. It is a transformation, at the deepest level, into our best, most loving, most radiant selves. Real holiness attracts others, because it is based in the heart of Love.

It's what we're longing for, on the very deepest levels. We may not realize it, but it's holiness that will fulfill the deepest desires of our hearts.

Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We're On a Mission from God and Real Love.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010