Not Too Holy

Not Too Holy

“I want to be good!  I want to be good!” my nephew exclaimed a couple years ago, near tears.  He had been caught, doing again, what we had recently instructed him not to do.

“Then be good!” I replied.

It seemed simple.  We were very specifically asking him to not do something and he would go and do it again.  It was amusing, though, to hear those words come from him–a proclaimed desire to be good while yet desiring to do the same things again and again.

Don’t we wish we could say that was a problem simply for the young?  Too often I am encountering the Lord saying, “I want to be good!” yet lacking the desire to do what is necessary to be good.

“If you will look into your own heart in complete honesty, you must admit that there is one and only one reason why you are not a saint: you do not wholly want to be one.” William Law

The first time I read this quote, I was a bit surprised.  I found myself wanting to argue but all arguments dying within myself.  It is true.  If I truly wanted to be a saint, I would be one, or at least I would be far closer to one than I am right now.  God’s grace is sufficient: what is lacking must be found in my own desire and willingness to receive His grace.

There is a healthy sadness within myself when I admit that the plan God has for my  life does not match up with my own desires.  I say I want to be a saint, but my actions have a voice that speaks to the contrary.  Because being a saint does not mean to strive to be better then most.  It doesn’t mean to work so that others think you are saintly.  The quest to become a saint is one of the few things in life that cannot be determined by your placement to others.  Even the witness of other saints, while inspiring, cannot tell you if you are the saint you are called to be.  If Bl. Teresa of Calcutta spent her whole life comparing her mission to that of St. Therese of Lisieux, she would have missed the mission to which God was uniquely calling her.  We, too, will get confused if we routinely use others as a measuring stick for our own holiness.

Unlike a credit score or an ACT score, being a saint isn’t boiled down to being in the top 10%.  In high school, it felt like I was one of the only ones who cared about my faith.  I would look at the choices my classmates were making and I would see the choices I was making.  I knew I wasn’t perfect, but I felt pretty good in terms of faith.  And people seemed to recognize that I valued my faith and thought of me accordingly.  When I got to college, I was surrounded by people who were deeply invested in their faith.  I had good formation from my parents, but I remember freshman year looking around and thinking, “Oh, no!  I’m way behind!”  While I was coasting in high school (feeling like I was the only one who cared), these people were going deeper in their faith.  It was a good wake up call, but I was still dealing with it in terms of where I ranked in comparison to others.

In many ways, I am still fighting that battle.  Sometimes I find myself wanting to not get too holy.  It honestly shouldn’t be a concern of mine, because that is a distant dream, but I understand why I think that way.  The closer one gets to Christ, the more one realizes the failings of this world.  The more we act like Christ, the more we run the risk of making others uncomfortable.  What if I get too holy and just being myself makes other people uncomfortable?  I bet some people left dinners early when Jesus would show up.  “Ah, there’s that guy.  Something about him makes me feel uncomfortable.”

Instead, I find myself wanting to be “just holy enough.”  Holy enough that I’m following God, but not so holy that others really notice.  Not so holy that I actually suffer for it.  I want to be called and chosen to live a life of sanctity, but one that makes me well-liked and a perfectly balanced introvert-extrovert.  Oftentimes I romanticize sanctity and assume it means that there will be no problems other than surrendering to God’s will.  People will be wonderful, beautiful beings and my encounters with them will be filled with a gushing of God’s love.  Isn’t that silly, though?  I seem to think holiness will make life easy.  Jesus, however, speaks of picking up a cross and following after Him.

I have several reasons that I am not yet a saint.  One of which is because I fear the persecution and loneliness that will come from selling all my pearls to buy the one of great price.  I worry that putting God in an undeniably central place in my life will make other people step away.  And if you ask me if I think Christ is sufficient, I will say, “Yes, Jesus will fulfill all my wants and desires.”  Yet if you ask if I live like I believe that, I must admit I do not.

I want to be good.  I want to be a saint.  But I do not want it entirely.  Otherwise, this holiness thing would be far closer to being a reality.  If I compare myself to others, I will always be able to find a reason to justify my present state, there will always be motivation to say I’m good enough.  But if I use the correct measuring stick, then I will always see the need for growth.  If I ask, “How closely do I conform my life to the cross of Christ?” I will see the areas of disparity.

Clearly, I am not “too holy.”

Litany of Humility
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart,
Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled …
From the desire of being honored …
From the desire of being praised …
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted …
From the desire of being approved …
From the fear of being humiliated …
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes …
From the fear of being calumniated …
From the fear of being forgotten …
From the fear of being ridiculed …
From the fear of being wronged …
From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I …
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should…

Holiness in the Mundane

Their faces are registering complete shock.

Personally, I’m a little taken aback that what I said is so surprising to them.

“How can homework make us holy?”
“Do you want to do homework?”
“Yes….er, no,” my student responds, wavering, it seems, between what he feels he should say and what is actually the truth.  “No, I don’t.”
“So doing your homework would mean you are going against your own will and desire to do what you should do.”
“So we are supposed to stab ourselves in the arm?!”
“Doing your homework is a bit different than stabbing yourself in the arm.  I’m not saying you need to intentionally inflict pain upon yourself so that you suffer.  Simply accept the suffering that comes your way and offer it to God.  Choosing to do your homework when you don’t want to means saying no to your own will and yes to God’s will.  Right now you are to be a student.  God isn’t requiring that everyone gets a 4.0 GPA, but He does want you to do the very best that you can.”

How often we fail to see the ordinary, inconvenient, monotonous tasks of the day as paths to sanctity!  We want something extraordinary.  Lord, give us some big task, some grandiose mission and we will fulfill it for You!  Instead, we are given long lines at the grocery store, disobedient children, laundry, and snow shoveling.  They don’t seem quick paths to holiness, but the Lord only entrusts big missions to those who are faithful in small matters.

If the cross my students carry is homework, my cross is found in grading their homework and tests.  It is easy to push it aside, to think I have far better things to do.  Yet, in a way that I don’t fully understand, my holiness can be brought about in grading the 63rd paper about the Shroud of Turin or test over the arguments for God’s existence.  Somewhere in the monotony of that work, I can utter with my actions, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

So homework, study guide writing, end of the year planning, and room cleaning here I come.  And somewhere in the midst, may sanctity be found.

Comparatively Speaking

When I was younger, people often compared me to my older sisters.

For the most part, I liked it.  My older sisters were involved in many activities at our small school and they were both really smart.  To me, several years younger than them, they were the type of person I wanted to be when I got older.  I enjoyed being known as the younger sister.

Following in their footsteps wasn’t something I minded, even to the point of telling people that part of the reason I chose the college I did was because my sisters went there.  When I went to college, I always hoped that I would run into someone who had known either one of my sisters.  Too much time had passed, but anytime I met an alumni who attended college the same time my sisters did, I would ask if they knew them.  In fact, it was strange to be in a place where my last name meant nothing and nobody had any expectations for me based on prior knowledge of my family.

The first feelings I had of not wanting to be compared to my sisters were when they entered the convent.  People assumed my following in their footsteps would lead me to the door of a convent.  For one of the first times, I wanted my path to be markedly different than my sisters.

“When will you enter the convent?” was a question I heard more times than I can count.  The fact that I liked Mass, Jesus, and my faith in general (combined with an introverted temperament) made people assume that I was going to become a sister, too.

My younger sister responded differently to people’s expectations.  She oftentimes felt annoyed by the comparison that inevitably happened in a small school.  I remember her battle cry in high school being something along the lines of, “I am my own person!  I am different from my sisters!”  And in many ways, I understand why she felt that way.  Her talents were different from mine and the comparisons she faced seemed to say she didn’t measure up.  People assumed she chose her college because her sisters had gone there but she was quick to declare that was not true.  She picked her college, she said, because she wanted to go there, not because of anyone else who went there.  In fact, it almost made her choose to go somewhere else.

I try to remember these differing views on comparison when I am teaching.  Sometimes the siblings are so much like each other, I can see the older sibling in the younger sibling’s expressions or phrases.  Other times, I have to keep myself from saying, “You are nothing like your sibling”–whether that is for better or worse.

For competitive souls like myself, comparison can become a dangerous road to travel.  I didn’t mind being compared to my sisters when I was younger, and in many ways, I still don’t.  Yet I can push the “competition” to the limits–how does one compete with a cloistered nun?

Someone even told me that one time.  I mentioned that my two older sisters were religious sisters and their comment was something along the lines of, “How can you top that?”  My response, filled with some subtle, yet biting sarcasm, was, “I can’t.”  And internally, But thanks for reminding me.

I believe they meant the comment in jest, but I couldn’t help but walk away thinking, Why would you even tell someone that?  If I’m not planning to be a religious sister, then clearly nothing else I can do could measure up.  So many people who enter religious life feel the pressure to not enter.  My high school and college years were filled with the opposite pressure to enter.  At times I even began to feel badly about wanting to get married and have kids.

This is not how I enjoy being compared.  Who wants to have the battle over who is winning most at life, whether in a religious or secular context?  Because if I have expectations placed on me because my sisters are religious sisters, I am sure to disappoint.  But, as my younger sister recently pointed out, we love to be associated with them.  I will bring them up often and talk about their lives, but I don’t want to live life trying to compete with them.  They aren’t competing with me.

I want to run a different kind of race.  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4: 7)  One where we are running together toward the same goal.  I can look at the people around me and see their gifts and how God is using those to help the whole Church.  People like to be seen on their own merits, not on what others expect of them based on siblings or parents.

However, sometimes the person it is hardest to get to stop with the comparison game is your own self.