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.

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