For a very long time, I thought I might have a vocation to the religious life. It turned out that I didn’t, but I gave the possibility a lot of time and thought and prayer. My everyday life seemed very far removed, indeed from what I envisioned for my future. Instead of spending hours rapt in the chapel, I was spending hours working, running errands, dealing with people, making mistakes. I didn’t want that everyday life: I wanted holiness, and I believed that the way to holiness was through the monastery doors.
Yes, well, that shows you how little I knew about vocations, about holiness, and about life!
Here’s the thing: We’re called to be holy, to be a holy people. That call is clarion-clear on nearly every page of scripture; today we hear it from Saint Paul, writing to the young Christian communities in Thessalonica. (He also talks a great deal about it when writing to the communities of Corinth and Ephesus.) And it’s reasonably easy to imagine those people, living still in apostolic times, believing the end to be near, risking everything to worship: yes, we say, those were holy people.
But how does holiness translate into the modern world? How do we live it in everyday life?
Living holiness doesn’t mean living perfection. Looking back on those first communities, once we get past our admiration for their courage, once we focus on what Saint Paul was saying to them—well, it’s clear they were up to things they shouldn’t have been; otherwise he wouldn’t have had to be so forceful in his recommendations! Their lives weren’t perfect and flawless, any more than the lives of the nuns I so wanted to join when I was young were perfect and flawless. We’re all human, and being human means being stuck in the everyday bustle and noise and frustration of ordinary lives.
And that very ordinariness is blessed, made holy, by God through the incarnation. Jesus was born into an ordinary human family. For most of his life, he worked at a job, and he took on the same social relationships that complicate our lives today. We sometimes think it would be easier to be holy apart from the people with whom we live and work. But the incarnation reminds us that God calls us to be holy precisely in the midst of those relationships.
Holiness is found in the daily struggle. We shouldn’t think lightly about how difficult it is to show up every day. To not give up. To do whatever tasks your life has set before you and tend to them as best you can. A character in the wonderful movie Chariots of Fire says, “You can praise God by peeling a spud if you peel it to perfection.”
And you don’t peel potatoes in the chapel.
Weathering the storms of life is difficult, and Jesus knows that. He’s been there. And yet still he asks us to carry our daily cross. Struggling to take that cross through the chaos of life is practicing holiness, no matter how messily we carry it or how many times we drop it. The very act of picking it up and moving forward is part of acquiring holiness. Perseverance is a holy act. When we navigate life, work, relationships, problems, joys, and concerns with Christ in our hearts, we are practicing holiness.
The popes are well aware of this. In his 1981 papal encyclical On Human Work, Pope John Paul II explained that work is our sanctification; it is redemptive in nature. “The Christian,” he wrote, “finds in human work a small part of the cross of Christ and accepts it in the spirit of redemption in which Christ accepted his cross for us.”
And Pope Francis devoted an entire apostolic exhortation to the call to holiness. “To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious,” he wrote. “We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs 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 in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain.”
The sanctification of ordinary work was the cornerstone upon which Saint Josemaría Escrivá founded Opus Dei, an apostolate dedicated to spreading the message that work and the circumstances of ordinary life are occasions for growing closer to God, serving others, and improving society. “For the ordinary life of a man among his fellows is not something dull and uninteresting,” he said in a homily. “It is there that the Lord wants the vast majority of his children to achieve sanctity. Either we learn to find Our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find him.”
Saint Augustine, as usual, finds the right words to express what is in many people’s hearts:
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit,
That my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit,
That my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit,
That I love but what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit,
To defend all that is holy.
Guard me, then, O Holy Spirit,
That I always may be holy.
So here’s the conclusion I’ve come to. Right now, they’re not making saints like the ones I used to read about and admired. They lived in different worlds and had different graces suited to their times. But God has asked me to live my life in this world, to sanctify it somehow, to make of all the distractions and drudgery and lack of time a holy thing, an offering of love.
That’s a call to holiness I can handle.
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