The Call to Sanctity/Holiness/Perfection

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Sermon on the Mount (center) and Healing of the Leper (right) -  by Piero di Cosimo - from Cappella Sistina, Vatican

 

The Call to Sanctity/Holiness/Perfection

by Father Paul A. Duffner, O.P.

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In the sermon on the mountain Our Lord told His listeners, "You are to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:28). He was not speaking to the small group of His apostles and disciples, but to the multitude who followed Him. The call to sanctity, then, is not reserved for a select few.

In more recent times Pope Pius XI was speaking to the modern world in his Encyclical on Saint Francis de Sales when he said:

"We cannot accept the belief that this command of Christ (to be holy) concerns only a select and privileged group of souls, and that all others may consider themselves pleasing to Him if they have attained a lower degree of holiness. Quite the contrary is true . . .The law of holiness embraces all men and admits of no exceptions."

 

The Attainment of Holiness -
A Command from God

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Purification of Purgatory
 

From the above it is clear that the call to sanctity (holiness) is not just an invitation. It is a command, as Our Lord clearly stated: "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind, and with all your strength . . . this is the first and greatest commandment" (Mark l2:30). So it is not just a counsel. Each of us will have a debt to pay when we leave this world in the measure that we fall short of that perfect love, for no one can enter heaven until purified of all forms of self-love that stand in the way of loving God with one's whole being.

It is unfortunate when one has to undergo that purification in purgatory where one gains no merit for all that it costs him, instead of striving to bring about that purification here and now where he gains merit and grows spiritually in the process. Our Divine Savior, Who called us to sanctity, has merited for each of us all the graces needed to attain it.

 

holy_spirit13.jpg (16381 bytes)Sanctity, A Normal
Development of Grace

Each of us, at baptism, received the seeds of sanctity. A seed, as we know from experience, when planted in the ground in proper conditions, grows and eventually produces fruit. This general idea is true both in the order of nature and the order of grace. The seeds of sanctity are these:

Sanctifying grace through which we share in the very life and nature of God. Out of this grace there springs the seven (7) infused virtues (infused powers), namely, the three (3) theological virtues (faith, hope, charity), and the four (4) moral virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude & temperance). The THEOLOGICAL VIRTUES unite us with God (have God as their object), while the MORAL VIRTUES remove the obstacles to that union.

In addition to the seven (7) infused virtues, there comes with sanctifying grace the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Each of the seven (7) infused virtues is perfected by one (1) of the seven (7) Gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Gifts become more active as one makes progress in the spiritual life. When this happens, the Holy Spirit becomes more active in directing the life of the individual soul.

 

mary_flowers.jpg (15309 bytes)The Garden of the Soul

flower_2.gif (3284 bytes)The above-mentioned grace, virtues and Gifts constitute a supernatural organism, the seeds of which, as we said, are received at baptism, and which are capable (with the help of actual graces and our cooperation) of attaining sanctity. If planted in the proper surroundings and conditions, these supernatural seeds will grow and produce fruit, namely, the fruit of good works that merit an increase of grace. If they do not grow and bear fruit, it will not be the fault of the seed, but because of the lack of our cooperation or the lack of proper surroundings.

You know very well that if you plant seeds in the garden, they require water, sunshine, fertilizer, weeding, etc. So also, those supernatural seeds (grace, virtues & Gifts) which remain dormant until the use of reason, will gradually grow and produce the fruit of good works . . . if they are watered with PRAYER....if they are fertilized by the fruitful reception of the SACRAMENTS . . . if the garden of your soul is weeded by MORTIFICATION and SELF-DENIAL . . . . and warmed by the sunshine of WORKS OF MERCY and the FULFILLMENT OF OUR GOD-GIVEN DUTIES. Because of our weaknesses and selfish inclinations due to original sin and the temptations of the devil, there must be constant vigilance on our part to cultivate the garden of the soul.

What we are saying, then, is that holiness (sanctity) is simply the normal development of the divine life infused into the soul at baptism. The garden of the soul is capable (with the help of grace) of producing the most beautiful flowers . . . flowers that do not fade or wither, but keep growing more beautiful . . . flowers you can offer to God through His Blessed Mother. But this beautiful garden doesn't just happen; it requires diligent cultivation, a life-long process.

 

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Charity - by El Greco
 

Christian Perfection (Holiness)
is Perfect Charity

Theology teaches us that the perfection of the Christian life consists essentially in the perfection of charity, i.e. in perfect love of God and neighbor. Of the three (3) theological virtues that unite us to God "the greatest of these is charity." (1Corinthians 13:13). It is the greatest for several reasons:

  1. There can be no supernatural life without it. Every mortal sin (a refusal to return God's love) destroys it. Because charity will last forever, in heaven, faith gives way to vision, hope gives way to possession, but charity remains and comes to full bloom; and the extent of that love determines the degree of sharing Christ's glory for all eternity.
  2. It is the sole source of merit, i.e. of good works that merit an increase of grace, and it must animate all other virtues to make their acts meritorious.

This, then, is the perfection to which we are called, the holiness to which we have been commanded . . . to love God "with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, our whole strength . . . and our neighbor as our self."

 

Three (3) Kinds of
Perfect Love

Saint Thomas Aquinas asks the question: "Is it possible in this life to have perfect love of God?" (II II,184,2) In answering this question, he distinguishes three (3) kinds of perfect love of God:

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)The infinite love of the Divine Persons: This is proper to God alone. He alone can love Himself to the full extent that He is lovable. No creature is capable of infinite love.

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)The perfect love of the Blessed in Heaven, who always love God to the full extent of their capacity. Their mind and heart are always actually and completely occupied with God. We, in this life, are not capable of that love, for we have our ups and downs as to the intensity and extent of our love of God.

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)Perfect love of God in this life: This requires not only avoiding what is contrary to charity, i.e. grave sin, but as St Thomas expresses it, a striving "to remove whatever hinders the mind's affections from tending wholly to God;" i.e. whatever interferes with one's total surrender to God. This implies a striving to avoid even minor deliberate failures against the love of God and neighbor. Yet, it does not exclude sins of human frailty. No one in this life, without a special privilege from God (as the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed), can avoid all sins of human frailty. So their presence should not be a source of discouragement, if one is striving to avoid them.

"Those who are perfect in this life are said to offend in many things with regard to venial sins, which result from the weakness of the present life (i.e. from human frailty); and in this respect they are imperfect in comparison with the perfection of heaven." (Ibid. ad 2)

 

Holiness and
God's Will

agony_poster2.jpg (266759 bytes)Since God is infinite LOVE, infinite TRUTH, infinite GOODNESS, the more closely we are united with Him the more we share in the love and truth and goodness that He is. And, as we saw, the key virtue in uniting us with God is charity (love of God), which essentially involves a union of our will with God's . . . a surrender of our will to His. It is the will that loves....that surrenders . . . that says "Your will, Father, not mine be done" (Luke 22:42).

Yet, because of our many selfish inclinations, deep attachments and blind spots due to original sin, that surrender, that "yes, Father," will at times be difficult and painful. The self-seeking of our fallen nature is directly opposed to the self-giving of charity, a conflict which is at the very heart of the struggle of the Christian life. For this reason, progress in charity presupposes that we are actively cultivating the garden of the soul by the exercise of the moral virtues (such as obedience, patience, humility, chastity, etc.) which keep in check the obstacles to grace.

    (NOTE: We referred above to the four (4) moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. All other virtues that regulate our moral life come under the umbrella of those four (4).)

There is an axiom in theology, according to which, God gives grace in the measure that we do not place obstacles in the way. Yet, even in the removing or restraining of those obstacles, God plays a greater part than we, but we must do what we can through the exercise of the moral virtues and prayer. It is like lifting the shade to allow the sunlight to come in. We don't cause the light, we merely remove the obstacle that prevents the light from entering.

We referred to this earlier dealing with freeing the heart from attachments: In spite of what is said about the need of mortification, the detachment of the heart of man from created goods is primarily the work of divine grace. It is effected primarily by God rather than by man. As St Thomas states, "man's will can be subject to God only when God draws man's will to Himself" (I II,109,7). Yet, God demands a definite cooperation on our part in the way of mortification and sacrifice, before He accomplishes this work of liberating the heart from the strong hold that worldly goods and pleasures exercise over it.

Too, we must remember that the supernatural virtue of charity is God's love, not ours. It is a gift He shares with us perfecting and healing the weaknesses of the will, so that when we love someone - moved by supernatural charity - it is really God loving in us, God living His divine life in and through us. "I live now, not I, but it is Christ living in me" (Galatians 2:20). We must cooperate in those good acts, but as we saw in dealing with actual grace, we are only the secondary cause of the good acts we perform. God, through medium of actual grace, is their primary cause.

 

Holiness does not require Extraordinary Achievements

a-histy2.jpg (20493 bytes)Since holiness is something that God accomplishes in us by His grace, and something He does in the measure that we surrender our will to His, how can we always be sure of what His will is for us? There are various ways we can know this:

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)It is His will that we fulfill His commandments, for their fulfillment is a requisite of loving Him. If you love me, you will keep my commandments"(John 14:15).

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)It is His will that we accept and put into practice His word revealed in the Scriptures, and handed down by the Church; i.e. whatever the Church teaches in doctrine and morals.

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)It is His will that we accept the little crosses that come our way each day, i.e. the little frustrations, irritations, disappointments, slights, inconveniences, etc. God uses these little trials: 1) to test our patience, our unselfishness, our trust, etc; 2) for our purification, for they have a healing effect if seen and accepted as allowed by God for our good. "The Almighty's chastening do not reject. For He wounds, but He binds up; He smites, but His hand gives healing" (Job 5:18); 3) to give the opportunity of meriting an increase of grace. We are not implying that we should not defend ourselves or others against some unjust action, or remind another of something that is out of line, or take obvious natural means to remedy some problem or ailment, etc. We refer to the ups and downs of each day that God foresees, allows, and can bring good out of them, if we try to see and accept the will of God in ruling our life . . . see and accept the Divine Physician applying the remedy fitted precisely to our need.

littlegoldcross.gif (962 bytes)It is God's will that we fulfill the duties of our state in life, and to do so with great fidelity. It is interesting to note that Pope Benedict XV decreed the following, in giving guidelines to the Sacred Congregation of Rites as to the norm of holiness required that one be eligible for beatification.

    "Sanctity properly consists in the conformity to God's will, expressed in a constant and exact fulfillment of the duties of our state in life."

Sanctity, therefore, does not consist in doing extraordinary things, but is essentially reduced to the fulfillment of our duties to God and neighbor by reason of our state in life. Consequently, it is something possible for all of us. For this reason each person should strive to see the expression of God's will in the daily duties toward God and neighbor that fall to him by reason of his role in life.

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Pius XI
 

Before a person can be beatified, it must be proven that the person whose sanctity is being considered practiced the Christian virtues to a heroic degree. This indicates that the Church considers the faithful fulfillment - day in and day out - of one's duties by reason of his state in life as heroic, as Pope Pius XI pointed out:

    "It takes uncommon virtue to fulfill with exactitude, that is, without carelessness, negligence or indolence, but with attention, piety and spiritual fervor, the whole combination of ordinary duties which make up our daily life."

In keeping with our statement that great achievements are not necessary for holiness, Saint Teresa of Avila comments:

    "The highest perfection consists not in interior favors, or in great raptures or in visions, or in the spirit of prophesy, but in bringing our wills so closely in conformity with the will of God that, as soon as we realize He wills something, we desire it for ourselves with all our might, and take the bitter with the sweet" (Foundations, 5).

This untiring fidelity will not always be easy. However, we should not be discouraged by our failures, but begin again each day, fully confident that our efforts will bear fruit - even though much of that fruit is not seen - and will contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ.

bibleman.gif (5411 bytes)biblewoman.gif (4630 bytes)But as we said in the beginning, this presupposes that we are faithful in cultivating the garden of the soul . . . that we WATER it with frequent prayer . . . that we FERTILIZE it with fervent reception of the sacraments . . . . that we WEED it by mortification and self-denial . . . that we expose it to the WARM SUNSHINE of works of mercy and the faithful fulfillment of our daily duties.