I have a friend on social media called Stuart. He is dying. Some time ago, he decided to write about his experiences as the process of dying moved forward “to be able to show to others that there need be no fear”. I’ve mentioned Stuart here previously, in an earlier post. Stuart is using his dying to teach people – and this he is doing incredibly powerfully. At the risk of embarrassing him, which I certainly do not intend to do, I contend that the powerfulness of his words comes from one thing – Stuart’s deepening holiness as his death approaches. He would likely disagree about being holy, but I suspect almost everyone who is reading what he writes perceives that holiness very clearly.
Life continues. Prayer offered for you all. All offered to Our Beloved Lord. Be kind. Be gentle.
Ignore the passing storms of life. Nothing matters but service to the Lord.
In a sense, what all those readers are seeing is nothing new; saints are a long-standing feature of the Church. Most often, we read about them in books and wonder about them and about the things they did, the lives they lived, the deaths they died. Sometimes, we are blessed to be somewhere around such a person and to see with our own eyes how the Christian life is lived in an heroic manner, day in and day out. And in my opinion, this is one of those occasions.
We shouldn’t really be surprised that such people exist – and, I think, exist in far greater numbers than we might initially imagine. And such people are everywhere, in every parish and every town. There used to be a man in my parish called Dennis; he spent hours upon hours in our parish church, sitting silently and reading the Scriptures. I used to watch him very carefully and the consistency of what he did said something very powerful to me. Dennis has been dead some years now but I have never forgotten him – and nor will I; he left a very powerful impression upon me, such as Stuart is doing today. Another word for this impression which remains with us is ‘example’ – and that is precisely the point of there being saints in the Church. We learn by following their example.
Ultimately, these people are offering to us nothing which is truly their own; they shine with a pure light but that light is not theirs – it is a reflection of the light of Christ. Such souls point us towards the Lord. It is upon him that they are focussed – and by looking at them, we actually look beyond them and toward the Lord, sharing something of their gaze upon Him.
Writing in his beautiful Apostolic Exhortation ‘Gaudete et Exsultate’, Pope Francis spoke at some length about the call to holiness in today’s world. He reminded us that holiness exists not only in those whom the Church has beatified or canonised, but in those “saints next door”, who appear in no books and whose names are known only to the Lord. And such people are all around us, if only we would see them.
The Holy Father, in the same document, said that “holiness is the most attractive face of the Church”. And he is absolutely right. This holiness pours forth from Christ on the Cross, Who draws all people to Himself. It is the divine light which was seen radiating the face of the Lord at the Ascension, and which left Peter, James and John in awe. And that same divine light is reflected in people like Stuart and Dennis and so very many others – most likely, including some people that you know in your own lives.
But this holiness of which we are speaking does not belong exclusively to those people mentioned here – rather, holiness is an invitation which the Lord addresses to each and every one of us. The Second Vatican Council reminded us of this truth very, very clearly.
And that is why we have saints – to show us that it is indeed possible for us, too, to become holy.
That word ‘becoming’ is really important here – we don’t generally wake up one day and find we have become holy. It isn’t quite so simple. And neither is it easy.
To become holy is a response to divine grace, first of all – in other words, responding to or answering that call to holiness which the Lord extends to every one of us. It is not our work and we do not produce or effect it – it is the Lord who does so within us.
Holiness is a journey, where each day is one small step upon the path. For most of us, our holiness will be found in the constant repetition of the mundane activities of our everyday lives – an ‘everyday holiness’ which is lived out through numerous very little acts, each one of which will go unnoticed by all except the Lord. But all of those acts, done out of love, will move us just a little bit forward on that path of sanctity – not because of the acts themselves, I hasten to add, but because of the love with which they are performed. Because love is the secret. As Saint Paul tells us, three things remain – faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love.
Holiness comes from our co-operation with that divine grace which makes all things possible, including our sanctification. God wills our sanctification, for holiness is nothing less than loving Him and neighbour ever-more perfectly. In both the Old and New Testaments there are numerous counsels telling us to be holy – from Leviticus through to St Peter after the Resurrection of Christ. Clearly, then it is indeed possible for us to be holy.
Authentic holiness is like a candle that has been lit and which now burns brightly with the light of Christ.
Perhaps the real question is – are we prepared to do what it takes to become holy? Are we prepared to do what Stuart described above? To become ever more forgetful of self, detaching ourselves from all things except Christ, who alone matters?
When our answer to all those questions is in the affirmative, and when we consistently live out our response day after day, utterly forgetful of self, then – and only then – might we begin to shine with that divine light which we reflect from Christ Himself. Then, and only then, might our authentic holiness become apparent to others, if not to ourselves. Then, and only then, might we show forth the most attractive face of the Church and truly begin to draw others to Christ.