When C.S. Lewis was approached by a publisher and invited to write a book about the problem of pain, he asked to be allowed to write it anonymously, since, he said, “if I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.” The publisher said no to anonymity, but gave Lewis the exhilarating option of writing a preface explaining that he did not live up to his own principles.
I am in pretty much the same boat here, writing brashly about something called “personal holiness” as if I were St. Francis. To be honest, I am not particularly holy. That is to say, I don’t usually act holy, understand holiness much, think holy thoughts, or say holy things. I moan and groan, yell at my kids, live half my life by the motto “Me First,” mistrust God and generally schlep along the Road to Zion when I could be enjoying a brisk walk. I am, in short, a poor specimen of the new creation.
Why then, should you bother reading any further? There’s only one reason: you are in pretty much the same boat too. So was St. Peter–the one Jesus called “Satan” once. So was St. Thomas–the one who snorted at Lazarus’ resurrection and then, after seeing that with his own eyes, went on to snort at the Resurrection of Christ. So was St. Augustine–whose prayer for years was “O Lord, make me chaste, but please don’tdo it just yet.” And so, if we dare to look, were all the folks Jesus has called down the ages. To paraphrase Our Lord, the Son of Man came to seek the washouts, oddballs, dweebs, wimps and factory rejects. No one knew this better than St. Paul who, after a lifetime of apostolic service could still say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the worst” (I Tim. 1:15).
So the plain truth is that none of us is holy. By and large, while the high and heroic calling of Jesus is nothing less than the Supper of the Lamb, the might of the Holy Spirit and the Beatific Vision, our lives often consist of Big Macs, flab and television. What then, can we do?
By ourselves, nothing. So it’s no use trying to fake holiness to impress God. The Great Physician has already examined us and the diagnosis is as follows: Due to a dominant family trait known as original sin, we are suffering from acute holiness deprivation. The prescription calls for intensive remedial holiness therapy. We need to see what holiness looks like. We need to breathe, eat and wash in holiness. We need a program of holiness exercises to build up our holiness muscles and hone our holiness skills. We need a way to get holiness into our bones, not a doctored X-ray and a phony bill of health.
Jesus is what holiness looks like. And it is surprising what we see when we look. Holiness is not piously ethereal and gooey. It is not necessarily nice and safe and polite, though it is always Good. Holiness can pop up among the cow flops of Bethlehem. It can do a good day’s work hauling lumber around the hillsides of Nazareth or refrain from work on the Sabbath. It can yuk it up at a good joke or grieve over Lazarus, chow down at supper time or fast in the wilderness, drink a hearty health to the bride and groom at Cana or drink the cup of death at Calvary. Is holiness then a mass of contradictions? No, it is one huge affirmation. For holiness undergirds all its works with a fundamental “Yes” to God and His Creation. Such a fundamental “Yes” to God is the very essence of holiness.
That gives us a toehold on our therapy because we now have a role model. Indeed, our holiness exercise program can be summed up nicely in Christ’s words, “Follow me” and in St. Paul’s words (echoed by all the saints), “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Yet, despite what many people think, modeling holiness is not all Jesus does for us. For one week’s stab at imitating Jesus shows clearly that merely having someone to imitate is not enough. We need to be holy inside, not merely do holy-looking stuff. To try to copy Jesus without somehow having His holiness inside us is just to doctor the X-rays again. So what else do we need?
Simply this: As we work, we must receive the Holy Spirit Jesus gives. He wants to make us holy from the inside out and work His Holy Spirit into our guts and bones as we trust Him and do the works of holiness. The full therapy treatment involves not only the exercises of holiness, but the good food, fresh air, cleanliness and healthy, loving relationships Christ provides. That is what the sacraments, the gifts of the Spirit and the Church are all about. In Baptism, we got washed up and filled inside with the holiness (that is, the Holy One) we couldn’t manufacture for ourselves. In Confirmation, we received more of that same Holy Spirit, yet (as they say in the vitamin commercials) especially formulated for the unique needs of adults. In Reconciliation, we receive strength and healing for the dings and broken bones we give and get along the way. In Eucharist, we receive the Life of Lives, the Holy One Himself in all His fullness into our very blood, soul and spirit. And in fellowship we join in Christ’s joyous and painful work of holiness in others as well. All this is what St. Paul is getting at when he says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and do his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
“Personal holiness” then, is paradoxical. For strictly speaking, we have no “personal holiness.” Yet if we will submit to God and His free gift of the Holy Spirit, He will create in us the unbridled “Yes” to life which is the stamp and seal of His own holiness, and He will make it so much a part of us (for we will have chosen it freely) that we will indeed be holy to our fingertips. And He will do it all through Jesus, Who is both God’s “Yes” to us and our “Yes” to God, the Holy One of Israel.