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home : bishop : columns

7/7/2016 9:00:00 AM
We're all called to holiness

Every one of us, without exception, is called to holiness!

How often have you heard something like that and thought, "Well, that's nice, but this had to be for somebody else, not me."

Think again:

•  Peter, quoting Leviticus (11:14), encourages his beloved children in the faith: "As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, 'Be holy because I [am] holy'" (1 Peter 1:15-16).

•  In Hebrews 12:14, we read, "Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord."

•  Jesus Himself says, during the Sermon on the Mount, "So, be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). He says this as if to sum up His teaching in the Beatitudes. Luke (6:36) explains that this divine holiness or perfection is best translated as being merciful.

It helps, I think, to envision our call to be holy as a call to "mercifulness," as St. Luke suggests, and as the lives of the saints, our spiritual brothers and sisters, reveal. God's love for us is manifest in that He forgives us and shows mercy, even though we are sinners and cannot possibly earn that mercy. It is a generous and free gift, offered at great cost because it is both so valuable -- our eternal happiness is at stake -- and because it comes to us through the ultimate sacrifice: the life of Jesus, God's Son. The more merciful we are, the more we become "perfected," or holy, as our heavenly Father is.

Even some of the greatest saints wondered whether being holy could really apply to them. St. Augustine was extraordinarily frank about his struggle with sin -- which is our stumbling block on the road to holiness. "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet," reads one of the famous prayers he used to pray during his difficult times when he was "enjoying (?) life."

I love how honest he is: "Lord, make me holy -- but not yet!" The odd thing was is that his prayer was answered -- eventually. He had long struggled with sins of lustfulness. Some might even say he was, in today's parlance, a sexaholic.

Of course, one can get addicted to just about anyone or anything. The real struggle was against the slavery that sin and addiction cause, turning us in on ourselves and our own gratification, rather than letting out our love to adorn, uplift and bless the beloved.

Augustine (before he was a saint) also came to the conclusion that it was easier for him to "abstain completely" than to be moderate in his struggle to abandon sin and become holy. He began to realize that it was impossible for him to live without God as the center and anchor of his life. He just could not go it alone, no matter how hard he tried.

While he was "plunging" into beautiful things -- his way of describing his misdirected passions -- he was looking for love in all the wrong places, "for our hearts are restless until they rest in you, my God." Nothing would fill up that heart-hole within him but God.

What else can we learn about holiness from him? First, that the more "unholy" we feel, the deeper our yearning may be for the holiness of God. We may (and rightly so) feel very far from God. Yet this sense of being sinful and alienated from God is the first glimmer of hope for us -- not only that there is a God summoning us (or we would not even feel this distance), but that somehow we cannot exist and be happy at the same time without "having" or "possessing" this God, even if we do not know Him very well and are still running away from Him.

The good news is that God wants to be possessed. He thirsts to be found!

One way to characterize a saint might be to say, "A saint is a sinner who keeps praying." It is impossible to pray and sin at the same time, though often our prayer does not reach the level of purity that is focused on God alone. Give it time. The most diabolical of all temptations is the temptation to discouragement. Few people are born saints. We begin to walk the road toward holiness -- toward God, the all-holy -- when, in desperation, we open our heart to the sun of God's forgiveness and loving mercy.

As we discover that mercy and receive it with gratitude, so also can we show mercy. The wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) was that "no one can look upon the face of God and live." This is a paradoxical, poetic way of saying we cannot turn to God without expecting that something radical is going to change deep within us.

What's going to happen is what happened (eventually) to Augustine and all the saints we are invited to join: They stopped being mediocre, living compromised, half-lives, and started to live for real. Mediocrity is the opposite of holiness: half-living versus "whole" (or holy) living.

Another way of looking at sin is to see it as rank stupidity. It is like a drowning person clinging to a jellyfish or a shark instead of a lifesaver. When we hang onto the cross, we get smart and stop flailing about, fighting against God, ourselves and one another, desperately looking for a foundation upon which we can build our lives.

The first step toward holiness is to "accept being accepted" by God. Maybe this is difficult for us because we do not always feel accepted by others, or even ourselves. God is different from us and from most others in this regard: He accepts us and meets us where we are, at our level. This is the "good news" of the Gospel.

First comes the awareness of how desperate and lost we are, seeking happiness and meaning on our own, without God. Second is the discovery that, when we are ready, Jesus is right there for us, with outstretched arms, loving us from the cross.

How much more time will we waste running from His embrace?

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishop Ed and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)

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