Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Time and time again, I encounter Believers struggling to climb the ladder of sanctity, through blood, sweat, and tears. Far from a yoke being "easy and burden light" (Mt 11:30), the road for many seems long, tiresome, and even discouraging. In secular culture, individuals are often valued based on their ability to produce and contribute, and creeps into the value system within church culture. In my practice, I often find individuals anxious and emotionally fatigued with the burden of effort and work. I believe that what we're seeing is an epidemic of ignorance - of a lack of knowing the love of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes that "holiness is measured according to the 'great mystery' in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom" (CCC 773). Jesus commands us to "love one another as I have loved you" (Jn 13:34), as "charity is the soul of holiness" (CCC 826). But, you can't give what you don't got! How can we love others without first being loved? If holiness is essentially reciprocal, a response to the gift of God, then we are challenged to be honest with ourselves and recognize our absolute need to receive love, precisely in those areas we struggle to give it. "If you but knew the gift of God..." (Jn 4:10)
In Thomas Merton's, No Man Is and Island, he describes that:
"If my compassion is true, if it be the compassion of the heart and not a legal affair, or a mercy learned from a book and practice on others like a pious exercise, then my compassion for others is God's mercy for me. My patience with others is His patience with me. My love for them is His love for me"
In the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, "it is in giving that we receive". Allow this to sink in for a moment. Maybe the pet peeves and issues we have with others, the "splinters" (Mt 7:5) in our neighbor's eye, are a gift to us - to recognize the painful reality of the same weakness and imperfections in our own lives. What we cannot tolerate in others, we cannot tolerate in ourselves. This reframes love for neighbor with "love thy neighbor as thyself" (Mt 22:39). We are to remain in the posture of first being recipients of God's love. And rather than being self-centered, it is instead, the self, centered in God's love. But how can we receive more? What areas in our hearts are wanting?
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God" (2 Cor 1:3-4)
Whether we are found "naked and ashamed" (Gen 3:10) as a result of our sin, or living from a place of identity as the very "righteousness of God" (2 Cor 2:15), it is never about our worthiness to receive, but His. In all our affliction (2 Cor 1:4) includes suffering our own sin - precisely the place we resist receiving the kindness of love. But who are we to deny a gift already given? Yet we do. Every place in our hearts and minds where there is any opinion or belief that stands in contrast or against knowing and experiencing the love of God is nothing other than a stronghold of self-protection that we are to take authority and responsibility for - to bring under obedience to Christ (see 2 Cor 10:4-5). In these separated or disconnected parts of our hearts, like the "islands" the prophet Isaiah refers to in 42:4, we are to place hope in Jesus, to begin undermining the influence areas of fear and shame in our hearts. Satan says, "Look at your sin"; God says, "Look at my Son".
The way of holiness is essentially a process of healing, appropriating the love of God as privileged recipients of the gospel - despite our spiritual poverty (see Rom 3:11). When the truth of Christ's love abides in our hearts, we will become what we behold, and are transformed into His likeness (2 Cor 3:18). And "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Lk 6:45). Pope Benedict XVI says it well, that healing, "when understood at a sufficiently deep level, encompasses the entirety of our redemption".
So, if you want to grow in holiness, let us champion the role of healing even more than the effort and good works - that naturally flow from a transformed life. Holiness is made visible when the favor of God shines upon His redeemed beloved, where we are first loved and reciprocate with overflowing thanksgiving - Eucharist! "The opposite of sin is not virtue, but praise and thanksgiving" (Cardinal Cantalamessa), which is "our duty and salvation, always and everywhere", and the effortless fruit of a life touched by the mercy of God.