So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
In time for All Saints’ Day, let’s talk about what holiness really is.
Once I had someone tell me: “Oh I thought you were holy. What a disappointment.” I heard this a few times in my lifetime whenever I find myself in disagreement with people I know or when I’d fail in being charitable to others. I would encounter the similar line too when people would hear news about someone involved in the Church and priests would often be the easy target. You would hear them say: “He makes me want to leave the Church.”
Ah, perfection. This is where we often get stuck: we think that holiness is ultimately equated with the dictionary-defined perfection. Google’s number one meaning actually says that it is”the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects.” Other terms that come to mind are: unblemished, pristine, pure. Encapsulated in one word, “sinless.”
In the Bible verse mentioned above, the demand of holiness is indeed, “to be perfect as God is.” But what others miss out when they narrow down what holiness is to this particular passage are the verses that precede it. Verse 48 is simply part of Jesus’ discourse about loving one’s enemies. In fact when you look at the entire 5th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus was teaching His disciples about pursuing the things that we don’t normally do. He was teaching something contradictory to what our impulse can drive us into. Loving your enemies? Whoever does that? Rejoice when people hate you? How can joy even be a fruit of persecution?
Bottomline is, if holiness is being flawless then I think we should rethink the roster of Saints that are being venerated by the Church. Maybe, when we look at holiness we should not see it from the point of not being able to “miss the mark.” Rather, we should look at holiness as one’s relentless pursuit of the extraordinary. And this pursuit of the extraordinary is actually a very ordinary thing for all of us. One word, four letters: LOVE. To be holy is to relentlessly pursue to LOVE so that LIKE GOD “who is love,” (1 Jn 4:8) we can be LIKE LOVE HIMSELF.
THE CALL TO BE (PERFECT) CHARITABLE
Consider this from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 826:
Charity is the soul of the holiness to which all are called: it “governs, shapes, and perfects all the means of sanctification.”
- If the Church was a body composed of different members, it couldn’t lack the noblest of all; it must have a Heart, and a Heart BURNING WITH LOVE. And I realized that this love alone was the true motive force which enabled the other members of the Church to act; if it ceased to function, the Apostles would forget to preach the gospel, the Martyrs would refuse to shed their blood. LOVE, IN FACT, IS THE VOCATION WHICH INCLUDES ALL OTHERS; IT’S A UNIVERSE OF ITS OWN, COMPRISING ALL TIME AND SPACE – IT’S ETERNAL!
What does this mean for all of us? Simple: no one is exempt from being holy because all of us are capable of being charitable. ALL OF US ARE CAPABLE OF LOVING. Sometimes, we just turn off the charitable switch in us when anger, pride, fear get the best of us; when an external threat to our integrity as persons slaps us in the face.
All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.
-Lumen Gentium (Vatican II), 40
Holiness, therefore, is not something reserved for the few; it is actually a call for each and everyone of us. If we are capable of loving another, why limit the love to certain persons? Holiness tells us: love your enemies as well. Love even those who you do not know. In other words: love everyone.
See the example of the Saints, the recent of which our generation got to know of is Mother Teresa. Well she had the choice to be comfortable doing mission for the Sisters of Loreto. She could even choose not to pursue the religious life at all and spare herself the heartache of being able to give herself totally for the poorest of the poor. But she didn’t! She chose to pursue the extraordinary. She chose not to exempt anyone from the fount of love she held within her heart. She chose to burn with love for God and do His will that God’s love may reach the least, the last and the lost. She chose charity. She chose perfection. She chose holiness. She chose the often difficult but joyful path to sainthood.
Now, were the Saints superhuman? Does it mean that Sainthood is synonymous to being sinless?
“Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.” All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness:
- The Church is therefore holy, though having sinners in her midst, because she herself has no other life but the life of grace. If they live her life, her members are sanctified; if they move away from her life, they fall into sins and disorders that prevent the radiation of her sanctity. This is why she suffers and does penance for those offenses, of which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 827
When Jesus said “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” He did not mean that we should “not be human.” What He did mean by it is that we should avoid sin and live lives of love. The path to sainthood is a path that extends “until the end of time.” While we are alive and struggling to love at all cost, there will be moments of weakness. There will be moments when you will be tempted and there will be moments when you will fall. AND THAT IS PART OF BEING HUMAN. (That doesn’t mean that we should get stuck with that, though.) We have been caught up with the “Do Nots” of our faith that we forgot how to rely on GRACE. Without God’s grace, we will continue falling, we will continue failing. Without God’s grace, we will find it hard to repent and get up back again. The Saints were persons who relied on nothing but God’s love and grace. That was their secret of abandoning their lives for the sake of the call.
One prayer that I learned to pray daily was St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Suscipe which is the prayer of total surrender. The last two lines of the prayer goes: “Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”
It is even more romantic in my native tongue: Dagling tatalima ako, ipagkaloob Mo lang ang pag-ibig Mo. At lahat ay tatalikdan ko.
To put it simply, to be a saint is not to be superhuman. Saint Ireneaus said, “The glory of God is MAN FULLY ALIVE.” To be a saint is to be FULLY ALIVE: fully human CONSTANTLY STRUGGLING FOR THE DIVINE. Very human, very weak and yet made strong by God’s grace – that grace we have received during our baptism.
LIVING IN GRACE
Oscar Wilde said:
Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.
We’ve heard this attributed, too, to a lot of famous people: “A saint is a sinner who never stopped trying.” And both of them are true! Like I said, holiness is not about being spotless, it is about trying and trying and trying and trying… to live a life of GRACE. To love our enemies may seem impossible at first and very much appalling to someone who never knew Christ but to us Christians, this can be done through grace! GRACE enables us to love even if it hurts. Grace enables us to rejoice when all things seem amiss. Grace enables us to forgive even if the other person isn’t even remorseful after doing us wrong. Grace enables us to live the Divine life. Grace enables us to make this earth our piece of Heaven. It makes us saints. It tells us that “impossible is nothing.”
Grace is the help God gives us to respond to our vocation of becoming his adopted sons. It introduces us into the intimacy of the Trinitarian life.
-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2021
This grace is available to us abundantly. The problem is that in order to bask in God’s free-gift of grace is that we need to choose to cooperate with the Holy Spirit that fills us with it. Grace is God’s loving initiative to make us SAINTS, we just need to say, “Lord, yes, please make me a saint.” (cf. CCC, 2022)
So does this mean just like the saints, we should do big things in order to be holy?
Whenever I speak to kids about sainthood and I would open the floor for them to cite what makes one a saint, I would always find them mentioning that one has to do something extraordinary to change the world. I will usually grin and flash the image of a 16-year old boy whose recognition of sanctity was simply because he did his duties extraordinarily well: Saint Dominic Savio. Saint Dominic became a saint simply because he fulfilled his roles with so much love and offered all his good works for God’s glory! He was a son, and he was a good one. He was a friend, and he was a loyal one. He was a student, and he was an excellent one. He did all things with love!
Now Dominic got this from another saint who formed him well: Saint John Bosco. When one day Don Bosco found out that Dominic made severe penances because he wanted to be holy, the kind and saintly teacher reminded the young saint: “Do your ordinary duties extraordinarily well.” That he said, was the path to sainthood. Young Dominic took that to heart. He died at 16 and became a saint just because he chose the extraordinary way – love.
THE PATH OF GREAT JOY
And doesn’t love hurt? Isn’t giving off of oneself ,painful? Indeed, it is. But isn’t the path of the Christian the path of the cross? Isn’t the path of the Christian the same one that His Master took?
The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle.Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes:
He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.
-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2015
But even if the road to sainthood entails a lot from us, even if it seems demanding, there is no other way to joy than to follow Christ. There is no road to holiness except through the cross. There is no other path to great joy than “loving until it hurts, until it hurts no more.” (Mother Teresa)
We are assured that when we surrender our life to God and when we desire Heaven so great to “love until it hurts no more,” we will find the joy and contentment that our hearts have been so longing for.
Leon Bloy said something beautiful about what can be our biggest failure in life: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”
Why? Because inherent in each of us is the desire to be happy. Ask anyone and deep down to the core, everyone wants to be happy. Everyone wants Heaven. This ultimate happiness can only be found when we become one with God. When we finally come face to face with “the one our soul loves.” And what path assures us of that? Yes, the way to holiness.
But that joy is not the only effect of treading the path to holiness. Saint Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!” In a world that yearns for true and lasting happiness amid the indifferences, poverty and war, imagine if you choose to be a saint. Imagine if a lot of us will choose to be saints!
So why delay happiness when you can begin now? Why delay “setting the world on fire” when God can use you now? As we celebrate All Saints’ Day, may all of us aspire for greatness. May all of us desire nothing less than holiness. May all of us pine for no One else but God alone. May we all set the world on fire.
At this very moment, say: “Lord, please make me a saint.”