Wednesday, August 24, 2005

So, you want to become holy, huh?

If you're reading this right now, you've apparently read my first post on holiness, and decided, "Hey, that holiness stuff looks pretty neat! I want a piece of that action...!" - now what do you do?

Well, you've come to the right place. I'm paying big money right now to Ave Maria University, so that I can learn how to do just that. And if you're lucky, my feeble attempt today at regurgitating the weath of insight that's been thrown at me lately will be coherent enough for you to make some sense of it and use it for your edification.

The first principle to keep in mind is what we learn directly from Scripture. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Christ responded: "'you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31)

So that makes sense. If holiness is the "perfection of charity" (see the previous post), then it would make sense that the path to holiness would involve the practice of love. Yet these commands, while providing clear direction, are still somewhat vague in terms of giving tangible, practical advice.

Therefore, some distinctions are in order. Catholic theology has traditionally identified the means to sanctification as involving both precepts and counsels. Precepts are, in essence, the practical means of living out Christ's commandment to love, and are universally applicable to all. More on that later. The counsels are secondary in importance to the precepts, and involve ways in which we can strengthen our love for God and man by way of removing things from our lives which, while not inherently bad in and of themselves, could be distractions to our spiritual growth. The counsels are typically identified as: poverty, chastity, and obedience. While applicable to everybody, the practice of the counsels by their very nature will vary from person to person, based upon their vocation in life. Obviously one of Mother Theresa's Missionary Sisters of Charity will live out their lives in a different, and more stringent, way than a layman, who is married with children. Yet even that layman should live the counsels in his heart. For example, he may not be poor in the same way the nuns are, yet he should cultivate a detachment from the things he does own, and be generous with them. In that we he is still living out the counsel of poverty, albeit in a different way. For the Sister of Charity, her life which is lived devoid of any personal property (with the only exception being, I believe, her rosary), is a way for her to ensure that material things will not get in the way of her living out her vocation of service to the "poorest of the poor". The key factor in whether the counsels are efficacious is whether they are being lived according to one's vocation. It's not appropriate for a married man to try to live as simply as a nun - it will negatively affect his family, and his spiritual health. It's also not appropriate for a nun to live as a married man - it will likewise affect her work, and hurt her spiritual life.

Okay, now that we all are clear on how we can use the counsels to advance in our path towards holiness (and once we know our vocation in life, we then know which application of the counsels is appropriate for ourselves), we can focus on the means to holiness that are common to everyone: the precepts. There isn't a set list of the precepts in quite the same way as the counsels, in fact there are many. But they all have the same purpose: to increase our love of God, or of fellow man, or both. There are several main categories of the precepts, outlined here below.

The first precept is that of faith itself. As believers, when we give our assent of faith, we are ultimately responding in love to the dialogue which was begun by God himself. He gave us the revelation of his love for us, Jesus Christ, and our appropriate response to accept and reciprocate his love is to say "yes Lord". And even once we have pledged an initial manifesto of belief, it is still something that can continually be perfected, throughout a process lasting our whole lives. An appropriate prayer, no matter where one is in the spiritual life, is the same prayer issued in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 9: "Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!" The thing about faith is it is fundamentally an act of the will. While good "feelings" sometimes accompany our faith, they are not a constitutive element of it. Great saints (such as Mother Theresa) have given testimony to the fact that enormous dry spells often accompany us in our spiritual lives. Yet those very same saints attest to the redemptive power present when they muscle through those dry spells, and still faithfully assent to the Good News that is Jesus Christ, even when they don't necessarily "feel" that it is true. Now, the ways in which we increase our faith are many. Reading Scripture, meditating on Christ's life, and even the simple motion of making an act of the will to affirm our belief, all increase the faith that we do have. And by increasing our faith we are, in effect, assenting more to God's love for us, and therefore ever more loving him with all our "heart, soul, mind and strength".

Another precept is that of prayer. This one is pretty self-explanatory. By participating in various types of prayer (e.g. thanksgiving, petition, praise), we are uniquely entering into a dialogue with God himself, and, well, can only be expected to take on more of his own characteristics: i.e. the perfection of charity, or holiness. We can always remember that, when asked how to pray, our Lord gave the disciples the Lord's prayer. He wants us to use it!

Participation in the liturgy is another precept. Liturgy, which takes the form of the Mass, and the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office) is, in essence, the prayer of the Church. While the prayers of all the individual members of the Church are efficacious, there is a special merit in the liturgy, which is how the Church "as a whole" prays, going above and beyond the simple sum of the prayers of all her believers. By participating in the liturgy, we grow in the love of God just as we do when we pray, though in a more unified manner with all believers.

The sacraments are another very important precept. The definition of a sacrament would be "a physical sign instituted by Christ through which God's grace is imparted to us." God's grace is, of course, his life that he shares with us (freely given, I might add - there was nothing we did to "earn" it, though it is up to us as to how fully we decide to "participate" in it). We recognize seven sacraments as being special conduits to confer God's grace upon us. As physical and spiritual beings, it is entirely appropriate that Christ would institute a physical sign to impart a spiritual reality. For example, Baptism uses the physical reality of the flowing water, and the words spoken: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" - to confer the grace upon us to wash away the Original Sin we inherited from Adam & Eve. By participating in the sacraments we thus participate in the transmission of God's grace, or life, into us, and since God is holy, it thus follows that the more we participate in his grace, we will also participate in holiness.

A final precept is that of the exercise of the virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Prudence, & Temperance. All of these derive from the Biblical teachings given by Christ showing us how to live our lives, especially the wisdom found in the Beatitudes. Living out, and perfecting, these attributes, is primarily how we go about living out "love for our neighbor". And as St. Paul taught us, "the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). While a virtuous life occasionally involves giving of ourselves in a big way (such as giving our life for another), it typically manifests itself in little ways. By holding our tongue and being patient with our spouse, by muscling through a difficult task at work, by holding back on that extra piece of cake because that way everyone else will be able to have a piece, we steadily conform our temperament to what Christ desired of us, and we grow in love for God and for neighbor.

So there you have it. A sure-fire recipe for growth in holiness, or the perfection of charity. It's all about growing deeper in our love for God and for neighbor. And every one of us can go about that through abundant use of the precepts. The more the better. We can also utilize the right use of the counsels, based upon our state in life. All of these things can help us grow in holiness in this life, while placing us on the trajectory to the perfection of holiness that we will be able to experience in the next life, in paradise.

Well, that was a mouthful. You think I'm getting my tuition money's worth??


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