Faith and Life

Ordinary Holiness

Often, we rank our perceptions of ‘holiness’ according to our sense of the loftiness of a particular state of life. For example, Catholics commonly believe that all bishops, all priests and all religious are necessarily – and simply by virtue of their vocation in life – in some way ‘holy’. The reality is a little different. Bishops are not holy simply because they are bishops; the same rule applies to priests and also to religious. The one does not necessarily equate to the other.

Now, there is no doubt that some of these individuals are indeed holy in an authentic way – but it is by virtue of the kind of people they are and how they live their lives (that is, holy people living holy lives) and not by virtue of their vocation itself.

You don’t need to believe me when I say this, but you ought at least to listen to one who knows far more about these things than I do –

“To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary life to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness I everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.”

These words were written by Pope Francis, who I suspect knows a thing or two about real holiness. He wrote this in a document called “Gaudete et Exsultate: on the call to holiness in today’s world”. This document is about the call to holiness for ordinary people like you and like me and I greatly recommend a reading of it, if you have not already done so.

The trouble with thinking that holiness is possible only for particular people in very specific vocations is that it usually means we place our perception of the potential holiness of ourselves and those like us – that is, of people in the lay state – somewhere at the bottom of the pile. And if we think it unlikely that we, as lay people, can ever attain real holiness, it is far more likely that we will never try to attain it. What, after all is the point – isn’t it only bishops, priests and religious who are holy? So our thinking may tell us – but our thinking is wrong.

Holiness is a path which is spread out in front of every single one of us, a path each one of us can walk if we choose to do so. Those are the key words here – if we choose to do so.

Each person’s path is different to every other, but it is there before us regardless of our state in life and it matters not the least if we are a nun in a monastery, a mother in the home, or a worker in a shop.

There is a story related in the life of Saint Faustina which helps illustrate the point.

Working in the convent kitchen, the other sisters noticed that Faustina always avoided the very large cooking pots in which the potatoes were boiled. Writing about this later in her Diary, she explained this was because she was exhausted and felt likely to drop the potatoes out of the pot. She considered the situation in her daily examination of conscience and complained to the Lord that she could not do this task. Trusting that He would help her, that evening, she rushed to be one who drained the potatoes and she did so easily.

And in this way, Faustina found a little bit of holiness – through trusting the Lord – even amid the pots and pans of the kitchen. That holiness had nothing to do with Faustina being a nun – it had to do with really trusting in the Lord even when that trust seemed completely misplaced. Every one of us is capable of trusting in the way she did, and of finding our own little piece of holiness by doing so.

Venerable Matt Talbot is another good example. A lay man living in Dublin in the early part of the Twentieth Century, he had lived a dissolute life for many years. Eventually realising he was on the wrong path altogether, he resolved to change his ways and to become holy. Note that well – he determined that he would become holy.

To achieve this, he gave up his former ways, he prayed almost constantly, he availed himself of the Sacramental life of the Church and he did good for others in whatever way he could. And all the while, he continued his daily work at the local brewery, where he gradually became an example of charity and of kindness. For the remainder of his life, only one or two of the people closest to him had any sense that he was becoming holy in the real sense of the word – other than this, his sanctity remained entirely hidden from the world and only came to life after his death. There is a lesson here – holiness is not about being seen to be holy. Authentic holiness is similar to a tiny little mushroom – it, too, likes to be hidden away in the shadows, where it thrives best.

The particular circumstances of Matt’s life provide a shining example to many in our own time, who will live with similar issues and who will probably feel there is little hope for themselves of ever changing and of doing better; Matt Talbot is the proof that this is indeed possible – but only if that path to holiness, present before every single one of us, is embraced fully and then trod decisively and consistently, day after day.

For the most part, authentic holiness comes not through the greatest acts, but through the smallest and most common acts of everyday life. You see, it is not so much about the acts themselves – rather, it is about the intention with which we offer those acts and the love with which we undertake them.

Sitting at a sewing machine, we can find holiness. All we need to do is offer the work we undertake for a particular intention and then do it to the absolute best of our ability – “dear Lord, I give You every one of these stitches as an act of adoration of You; and in recognition of my nothingness before You, in spite of which I know You love me infinitely, and for which I thank You”.

We can do the same if we are brushing the stairs, vacuuming the floors, washing the windows or anything else we care to think of. We simply need to get into the habit of thinking in this way and of seeing the opportunities which are available to us.

But it should be very clear by now that such opportunities surround us constantly and have little to do with being a nun or priest or anything else. It is about us being authentic human beings who seek that holiness to which the Lord invites us, recognising our nothingness before the Lord and loving Him – and our neighbour – through the acts we do day in and day out.

And that part about our neighbour is really, really important if we desire to be holy. If we pray on our knees all day long and then berate and criticise our neighbour in our words and thoughts, or if we hate anyone (no matter the reason and regardless of how sanctimonious it may make us feel), then we have to accept that any claim to holiness is empty and false. And when I say ‘neighbour’, that translates as ‘absolutely everyone’. You see, it is easy to do good for those we love – much harder to do good for those we actively dislike for some reason, or for those whom we deem ourselves to be superior to, or for those who we decide are ‘sinners’ in whatever way. There is only one judge – let’s leave any judging to Him. Our job is simply to love without exception and without exclusion, just as He did.

All of us have those little things which we need to do often, sometimes every day. We may be keeping the family home clean and feeding the children; or we might be caring for an elderly or unwell relative; we may be working in an office with some people we like and some we do not; we may be a young person working in a first job or a part-time job; or we may be a nun in a convent. No matter who we are and regardless of where we find ourselves, there are innumerable little every-day opportunities for us put to good use in order to overcome the temptations of our ego and the love of self, to place the needed of others before our own, to do kindness in some way even if it is neither noticed nor reciprocated.

We can see all these things as little stepping stones on that path to real holiness. It may be hard to do – or to do it consistently – but it is perfectly possible. After all, the Pope says so – and he is simply echoing the Lord, Who says so too, when He invites us to “be holy as your Father in Heaven is holy”. It is us He is speaking to and addressing those words of the Gospel.

All these little things, done with love and with the deliberate intention of helping us to become just a tiny little bit more holy, will achieve that, if we give it all to the Lord every time and trust in His merciful grace to work both upon and within us. Grace builds on nature; we can’t leave it all to the Lord, as He is seeking our active co-operation in this matter. Those little acts may not always change those around us – in fact, they will probably not even notice – but slowly and imperceptibly, they will begin to change us.

And if enough of us are so changed, imagine the effect we might have on the whole world. Then, and only then, we may see something of the beginning of the fulfilment of those words we pray so often – “Thy kingdom come”.



Catholic | Retired Nurse | UK

One Comment

  • Chuma O

    Thank you for this. I recall something from St Josemaria, who was described as the Saint of ordinary life.

    “Heaven and earth seem to merge, my children, on the horizon. But where they really meet is in your hearts, when you sanctify your everyday lives… I have just said, sanctify your everyday lives.”
    St Josemaria Escriva

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