Friday, 12 April 2013

79: What is holiness? #2

A friend just posted this question: “The Catholic Church I think defines a saint as somebody who has practiced heroic virtue. So we can talk about holiness as heroic virtueBenedict XIV, an 18th century pope, stated: “In order to be heroic, a Christian virtue must enable its owner to perform virtuous actions with uncommon promptitude, ease, and pleasure, from supernatural motives and without human reasoning, with self-abnegation and full control over his natural inclinations."

And most people would say that one needs to pray for the Holy Spirit to achieve a life of heroic virtue.

What are your thoughts on this definition of holiness and achieving it?” 


Thank you for your question. In this post, you have the first step of my reply: 


First I would like to confirm that what you say is right and is still valid today. Indeed, we have this following paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “828 By canonising some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God's grace, the Church recognises the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.”  (see as well here)

Before moving on to give my thoughts on that issue, I would like to come back to the words that were used in the question and make a clarification. This “old” way of defining Holiness, of trying to “see” it in somebody, is still used today. This is how we find out if somebody is a saint or not. We go through the virtues, and try to ask witnesses of his life who would support the fact that he practised them in a heroic way. We are not God, we don’t see in the soul and spirit of a potential saint, so we simply do a sort of a work a “Spiritual Director” would do, but more in a form of a trial (ecclesiastical tribunal).

You focused on the adjective “heroic”: this is very good; you found a fair definition (phenomenological, i.e. describing it from outside, from what is seen). I would now like to focus on “virtue”. A saint is not invited to practise any virtue, but specific virtues: Faith, Hope, Love/Charity, Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance,…
Temperance    Prudence     Fortitude      Justice
Virtues are like formed muscles (remember the bodybuilders). In order to grow they need:
1- muscles (i.e. the faculties of the soul: mind, will,..),
2- nutrients (from the blood, that nourish the muscles): the Grace of God 
3- exercise (the specific acts of each virtue to be repeated).
The whole structure of the virtues is like, if you will, the muscles on the skeleton.
So, when the Church wants to know if somebody became holy (obviously after his/her death), the “tribunal” acts like a doctor of the soul and of the spirit and tries to perform a “scan” of the “muscles” (i.e. virtues) and to determine their state. But, ultimately, since we are not God and we can’t be 100% sure of something “invisible” to the naked eye and subject to such variations (the human soul), the Church considers the necessity of a Miracle, in order to be sure of God’s judgement.

Now, of course, we need to learn what are the virtues and learn how to make them grow until they reach the “heroic state”.

This analysis reflects as well the state of spiritual theology of that time. Nothing wrong with it, on the contrary. Aristotle, saint Thomas Aquinas, and reaching even until Garrigou-Lagrange (1877-1964).

Now the question is: how can we make all these muscles work? Workout, workout, workout... How can we do it "out of Love for Jesus", not "out of a 'workout' ".

I am old enough to say that I knew books for novices (first year of religious life) were they had to pick a virtue per week or per month and work on it. You had in the book all the lists of the virtues, with different examples and applications. Fair enough.

But we all know that in order to reach that “perfection” of virtue described by Pope Benedict XIV (see the description made in the question) we need to go through a journey of purification as well, and enter in deeper states of contemplation and receive abundant graces.

In order to know the journey well, you have the 11 diagrams commented few months ago starting from this one.

The journey itself of the formation of a virtue has various layers – still according to saint Thomas Aquinas: 

One first layer, coming from our education: the natural exercise of various virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude, temperance, studiositas, magnanimity,…). Aristotle is a good master here. He was adopted by saint Thomas Aquinas, of course, putting his teaching in a Christian frame.

A second layer would add a supernatural intervention of the Grace of God, like a new “blood” injected in the “muscle” (that will make the christian virtue). This is fundamental and helps us understand the big difference between a virtue practised by a Greek philosopher for instance, and the virtue practised by a Christian person, even the most humble one. The Holy Spirit enters in us and starts to make deep changes and elevates our exercise of the virtue (the muscle) to a higher level. Remember that The goal is high: God and that The means is high: God Himself as well, the Holy Spirit. 

A third layer: when the second level is exercised for a long time, with perseverance, faithfulness, the Action of the Holy Spirit increases and goes deeper, transforming really the “muscles” (the habits) in God, in Jesus, making the “movement” (the acts) much easier, more fluid, more spontaneous (see the description you quoted, from Benedict XIVth). The result of this transformation, is that the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (the 7 gifts) are intervening and acting in a smooth way. The sails (7 Gifts) are high up, so when the Wind blows (the Holy Spirit) it is capable of moving the boat (the soul): saint Paul, in his letters, invites his fellow christians to be guided/moved by the Holy Spirit.

Nobody can challenge this “anatomy of Holiness”.

But the questions remains: is that “system” possible? Or is it just a beautiful wishful thinking anatomy?

How can we reach these stages? What are the means? 

Are we just supposed - like athletes - to repeat acts, specific acts in order to make out of them a growth, a habit, a “muscle”: a Virtue? To a degree, it looks too cold as a “system” or as a recipe for “holiness”, too mechanical, too artificial. This is exactly where we are today: in a halt, from the 1950s… 

This is why, offering to any Christian as a central task, the duty to eat, digest and assimilated the “Bread” God gives us in each Mass, is for me the most powerful way to reach holiness. The Bread is: 1- His Word and 2- His Body and Blood. In order to digest this “Daily Bread” we need today to pay great attention to the extension of this manducation (act of eating) that makes today's bread more efficient and long-lasting. The two operations ('ways of prayer' if you will) that help us digest the Bread received during the daily Mass are: 1- Practising the 'Lectio divina' 2- Practising the 'Prayer of the heart'

We need to have a personal relationship with Jesus, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus and His Holy Spirit are our main Masters. They are our Holiness. We need to grow in Them; we need Them to grow in us.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

78: What is holiness? #1


Two facts: 1- Holiness is a fundamental issue in our life. 2- Understanding what is holiness is therefore as fundamental.

Two other facts: 1- Since early 60s, with the Council Vatican II, we have been reminded that Jesus calls all of us to Holiness (see: Lumen Gentium, chapter 5, The Universal call to holiness). And this is very positive.
2- Details about what is holiness and how to reach it remain until today difficult to access. Therefore these concepts remain very imprecise and vague. We often accommodate with general ideas and directions, but when it comes to details, we lack a great deal of practical insight.

Some people think that by just abiding by Christian Dogma, Liturgy (+ Sacraments) and Morality it is enough [or worse: it guarantees you] to reach holiness. Our popular understanding of “holiness” is something, but the more precise one is something totally different.
It is important to notice that our understanding of: 1- The Cross (what Jesus accomplishes on the Cross), 2- Easter, 3- Baptism and 4- Christian life are directly related. Plus, in the end, all will bring us to holiness, obviously.
Our understanding of these 4 realities did shrink a lot from the original view/understanding – with dramatic consequences on our understanding of holiness. It shrank to a frightening point. To explain it, I’ll take an example: the Promise given to Abraham to give him the Land.

After 430 years of “slavery” in Egypt, God decided that the time was right to act and save His People. We all have a geographical idea of the journey of the people of God, from Egypt to the Promised Land (see the map).
This Journey was made in 40 years. (Remember that this journey wouldn’t take more than 3 days waking, if you take a more direct route) I would divide this journey in 4 parts (not like the map shown). This is my choice, just to make my point. 



1- One night: walking to the red sea and crossing it (ok, you may add few days or weeks while Moses and the Pharaoh are defying each others and having the plagues of Egypt). 


2- Two years: from the crossing until the area called Kadesh Barnea. 

3- Thirty eight years: going in circles around the area of Kadesh. 

4- Finally entering the Promised Land: crossing the Jordan, fighting against the local populations (7 tribes). 

The full journey is 1 + 2 + 3 + 4.

I am using the full journey as an example of our spiritual Christian Journey, heading toward Holiness (the “Promised Land”). The whole action that Jesus accomplishes on the Cross comprises in it the full journey. Saving us is not just taking us from Egypt to the desert (crossing the Red Sea)!! It is the same for Baptism: being baptised is not just crossing the Red Sea, finishing from the slavery of the Devil (Pharaoh) like the Fathers of the Church used to say. The full realisation of Baptism is to reach the Promised land. Wouldn’t you agree?
Same for Easter: during Easter Vigil we focus a lot on the essential reading of the crossing of the red sea. Nothing wrong with it. But crossing the desert, spending 40years in it, crossing the river Jordan, have no impact on our understanding of Easter. We often, traditionally use Easter Vigil to Baptise the catechumens. Does it push more toward this “reduction” of the concepts? Well the debate is opened.
Same thing for our Christian daily life: we measure everything by one measure: “am I in the sate of grace or not? If not, I do have to go to confession. So my life is to be or not to be in the sate of grace”. It is like saying: “did I cross or not the desert?”. Ok, fair enough. But where is the Desert in our Christian life? Do we see it? Do we understand its deep meaning? Do we understand manna? Receiving the Law? Not listening to God, and having to go in circles during 38 years until we are totally purified (see Numbers c. 16)? having to cross the waters of the river Jordan? Having to go and fight 7 tribes?
It seems that everything lies on: “am I in the state of grace or not?”, and the rest will take care of itself. I just need to pray, to go to Mass, to confess, to de good deeds, and holiness will come by itself. So: “take it easy, sit down and relax. Take a deep breath, you are saved from the Red Sea. The rest will come, you just need to be a good Christian.”

Crossing the Red Sea is fundamentally like seeing Saul being kicked out of his horse and falling, blind, under the powerful liberating light of Jesus.
All what comes after, is infinitely much more: it is when Paul takes time to grow (he spends 3 years in Arabia)… and then works, serves... Saint Paul’s life doesn’t revolve around his falling from his horse. It seems that for us, holiness is bout falling from our horse.

“Falling from our horse” is technically called: “conversion”. So our Christian life, Baptism, the Cross, Easter, are simply reduced to be BINARY: I am or not in the state of grace (1,0). And, if I am not, I should go to confession. All the rest will be - roughly - fine. (Yes “roughly”, as you noticed.) This is what some will later call: holiness.
People think, vaguely that Holiness will/might come, roughly, automatically, by itself, by power of magic.

I am not sure of that at all. I wouldn’t plan my entire life with “roughly” and “maybe”.

Conclusion: well I invite you to re-read this short blog, meditate on it, write down your thoughts, put them in oder, make your own conclusions and kindly post them in the “comments” below.

Monday, 8 April 2013

77: The Prophetical dimension of Christianity


Let me state it straightaway (not my habit but this time I will derogate from it): all Christians are potentially Prophets. A gist of what prophecy is is given to us in the Old Testament. But the prophecy that Christ offers us is infinitely much more. 


Prophecy grows with us, and within us, until it reaches a first fullness: the Union with Jesus (remember: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me”). In this sense, you can have a rather detailed idea of Christian full prophecy in saint Theresa of Avila’s seventh Mansion (see her book: “The Interior Castle”), or the last third of the “Spiritual Canticle” of saint John of the Cross, or his work “The Living Flame of Love”. Indeed, they do describe the state of the human being when he/she reached the “Union of Love”.

What is prophecy?

First, when we say “prophecy” or “prophets”, we often think of people we find in the Old Testament, and we tend to believe (wrongly) that, with the coming of Christ, prophecy ended. We understand prophecy by just remembering Moses, Elijah, or Isaiah, or any of the prophets. We see them as privileged persons (we don’t have many prophets, when you think about it; for a long period of time – centuries – the number is proportionally small, we have to admit it): “privileged” because, at certain moment of their live (often not all the time), God decides (often for a mission) to talk to them, to give them orders, messages, or something to write (or a mime to perform). God’s decision to intervene in the life of a human being gives us the deep perception of a great closeness and knowledge of God: intimacy. This intimacy can lead as well to miracles (see Elijah, and Elisha,…).
The Prophets don’t always enjoy this experience though: God seems frightening, too high, too holy (see Isaiah 6, or often Moses, in the Sinai)! When you get closer to God “it burns”, you might even die. Indeed: just remember what God says to Moses: I’ll talk to you in the Mountain, but nobody has to touch the bottom of the mountain, otherwise they’ll die. They will hear me speaking to you, but they can’t get close. Often, in the Old Testament people thought that if they get too close to God, they will die. This is why simply, the people of God asked Him not to talk directly to them; they feared they might die if the see Him, if they get too close to Him (see the quote below).
We have to add that, thinking of the Old Testament, we often consider that “prophecy” is about telling “future events”.
Elijah and Elisha
Jesus, The Prophet

Is this all of it? Certainly not. This is an incomplete prophecy, and Jesus, the Real and Only Prophet, will make it complete. Jesus will not only incarnate real final Prophecy, but He’ll share it with everybody.
In John, chapter 1, people ask John the Baptist: “are you the Prophet Moses mentioned and that we are expecting? The Prophet-Messiah.” John says: no. Why? Because all the Prophecy is embodied in Jesus, and He is the One that Moses spoke about in Deuteronomy. ”The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” (Deut 18:15-16)

Jesus is The Word of God, he brings us “words” that are Spirit and Life. He is God Himself, nothing less. So when He speaks, God Himself speaks. In His human nature He has a constant dialogue with God the Father (or with His own divinity). You can see Him various times in the Gospel of John speaking to the Father.

He wants to introduce us into His intimacy with the Father, this is His Goal.
He wants us to receive His Words, to be transformed by them, and to allow Jesus Himself grow in us, and let us reach his own height. He wants us as well to have His Words alive in us, and in Him with Him to transmit them to others.

Prophecy is about being transformed and be united to the only Prophet and have a share of His Prophecy.
From day one, in our spiritual life, we are invited, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to hear Jesus talking to us, giving us our Daily Bread. We do not wait a further stage in spiritual life in order to be made capable of listening to Jesus, the Risen Lord, today. We are in the new era inaugurated by Jesus, a so powerful era. Jesus is amongst us and wants to talk to us.
When we receive His Body and Blood, his soul and his spirit, his whole person in the Host, we receive the whole being of The Prophet par excellence. We don’t receive less than Him.

So the intimacy that we see in the Old Testament, the intimate personal dialogue we witness with the Old Testament Prophets, we see them not only available in the New Covenant, but totally developed.
Indeed all Baptised are Prophets. Indeed all of them received the Spirit of Prophecy, the Holy Spirit.

The only thing is that we tend to forget about prophecy in the New Testament, while it should be the opposite: Jesus accomplishes Prophecy and makes it available to everybody. We tend to think that the Old Testament prophecy is not for everybody, and that what it offers is “too high” and exceptional. While it is different. Certainly Jesus clarified the fullness of Prophecy in what it consists, but again and again: He wants everybody to let is grow in him/her. Let us revive our perfect give of Prophecy, the ability to receive a daily word from Jesus, and put it into practise (that is Lectio divina) and receive the Body and Blood of THE Prophet and be transformed in Him.

You are a Prophet, remember it, and make your prophecy alive.