Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on Sunday, November 19, 2017 at the Church of the Holy Innocents, Manhattan.
In keeping with the mind of the Church in these last weeks of the liturgical year, we continue our consideration of the end-times. Last week, we reflected on three of the four “last things”: death, judgment, and Hell. Today we’ll look at the more pleasant topic of Heaven.
Life here below is all about the pursuit of sanctity. How does one go about that process, so as to know the greatest measure of fulfillment now, as well as beatitude for all eternity? Saint Teresa of Ávila offered a simple but profound insight: “Trifles make for holiness, but holiness is no trifle.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews declared: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). That does not mean that we despise this earth; it does mean, however, that we understand that we were made for more.
So, how does one get to “the more,” that is, Heaven? By being a saint on earth. And how does one become a saint? By living a life of holiness. And in what does holiness consist? Let me suggest seven elements.
1. Holiness consists in being childlike. Our Lord Himself asserted – unequivocally – “unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:3). But, as you have undoubtedly heard many times, being childlike is quite different from being childish. Saint Thérèse, for example, was devoted to the Holy Child Jesus because she found in Him all the qualities to become a saint herself. What is spiritual childhood, you ask?
The pseudo-sophisticates of the two last centuries of blood and violence need to acknowledge that their programs have failed abysmally and that the human capacity for God can only be satisfied when one approaches that God as a child accepts the loving overtures of a father.
2. Holiness consists in having a strong love for the Holy Eucharist. You cannot point to a single saint in history who did not have a special devotion to the Eucharistic Christ. Let but two serve as representatives of hundreds of others.
In Loss and Gain, Cardinal Newman’s autobiographical novel, he has his alter ego proclaim:
To me nothing is so consoling, so piercing, so thrilling, so overcoming, as the Mass. . . . I could attend Masses for ever and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words, – it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is, not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble.
Saint José Maria Escrivá asserts: “A very important characteristic of the apostolic man is his love for the Mass.” We are allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and one of his spiritual directees: “‘The Mass is long,’ you say, and I reply, ‘Because your love is short.’”
In light of these brief but powerful statements, what are we to think of would-be theologians who tell us that Jesus is as present in nature or in ourselves as in the Bread of the Eucharist – even though the Second Vatican Council and all the Popes since then have said otherwise? What shall be say when polls tell us that two-thirds of those who receive the Lord in Holy Communion each Sunday do not believe in His Real Presence? What shall be our reply when so many clergy and laity alike fail to give the reverence and adoration due the Sacrament in which is contained the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity? How should we react to those (God forbid, some of us included) who make sacrilegious Communions by approaching the holy altar while still in the grip of sin and out of fear of human respect?
3. Holiness consists in devotion to the Blessed Mother. The Fathers of Vatican II in their Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, highlighted numerous titles of the Blessed Virgin, all of which find their way into the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where we read:
This motherhood of Mary in the order of grace continues uninterruptedly from the consent which she loyally gave at the Annunciation and which she sustained without wavering beneath the cross, until the eternal fulfillment of all the elect. Taken up to Heaven she did not lay aside this saving office, but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation. Therefore, the Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix. (n. 969)
As should be readily seen, the titles chosen by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council underscore Mary’s role as an intercessor on our behalf.
Cardinal Newman shares some wise advice he once received: “I recollect one saying among others of my confessor, a Jesuit Father, one of the holiest, most prudent men I ever knew. He said that we could not love the Blessed Virgin too much, if we loved Our Lord a great deal more.”
4. Holiness consists in doing the ordinary things of life extraordinarily well. The saint of “The Little Way” achieved sanctity, precisely by attending to the humdrum details of daily existence with perfection and devotion. Whether she was sweeping the stairs, or working in the sacristy, or giving formation to the novices, she did everything with verve, deliberateness, and conviction. Not for her, the slipshod, the careless, or the half-hearted style of doing things. She believed that “God is in the details,” and that attending to such details led one along the road to perfection.
Simplicity, however, should never be mistaken for simple-mindedness or a simplistic method of evaluating life. As we chase after fame and fortune, as we seek marvels and wonders, as we try to provide a careful nuance for every teaching of Christ and His Church, we complicate what God has actually made very simple. Perpetual malcontents, unsatisfied with their Christian vocation, miss out on the opportunities which the Lord offers each one of us to achieve sanctity in the world of business, in academia, in the family, in public service.
Saint José Maria Escrivá, promoter of the lay vocation decades before the Second Vatican Council, asks a question and quickly answers it: “Do you really want to be a saint? Carry out the little duty of each moment: Do what you ought and put yourself into what you are doing.” He encourages someone who longs to do great things for God: “Persevere in the exact fulfillment of the obligations of the moment. That work – humble, monotonous, small – is prayer expressed in action, which prepares you to receive the grace of that other work – great and broad and deep – of which you dream.” Then he makes a charming observation: “Didn’t you see the light in Jesus’ eyes when the poor widow left her little alms in the Temple? Give Him what you can: The merit is not in whether it is big or small, but in the intention with which you give it.”
The Little Flower summarizes it all rather well: “Nothing is an obstacle to holiness. Different temperaments, situations in which we find ourselves, duties in our state in life, can become material for sanctity.”
5. Holiness consists in embracing the sufferings that come our way. A signal characteristic of our age is the avoidance of suffering at all cost; therefore, it is not surprising to find folks today who think that the acceptance of suffering is neurotic at best and psychotic at worst. But that is to misunderstand the Christian “take” on these matters.
The first point that must be perceived is that the believer does not suffer alone – he suffers in union with Christ, which suffering is redemptive for the one suffering and for any for whom he offers his sufferings. Do you recall what Saint Paul taught the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24)? Does that sound blasphemous? What could be lacking to the sufferings of the God-Man? Our participation. The Head of the Body has indeed suffered and drunk from the chalice of suffering to the full, but what Saint Augustine calls the Totus Christus (the whole Christ), that is, His Mystical Body which is the Church, is called to drink deeply from that chalice as well. As we do that, we do it in union with the suffering Christ and in union with every other believer who has ever lived and suffered in His Name or is doing so presently.
Christians, however, are not masochists. We do not go out of our way to seek out crosses to carry. However, whether one is a skeptic, an agnostic, an atheist or a disciple of Christ, no human being can keep suffering at bay forever. Some avoid it; some delay it; yet others reject it, with horror, resentment or rage. Dr. Kevorkian never would have had any clients or political allies if a truly Christian appreciation of the value of suffering were in place. To repeat: A Christian need not – and should not – look for crosses; but when they come, one must pray for the ability to deal with them lovingly and humanly, resulting in an increase in human dignity, an increase in love in the world, and an increase in glory in Heaven.
6. Holiness consists in the desire to please God. Much of what we do seems calculated to earn us a reward or to avoid a penalty, but that is a very stingy, selfish approach to the living of the Christian life. The traditional act of contrition puts words on our lips which call to mind that while, humanly speaking, we are sorry for our sins because we “dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell,” we are urged to advance to a more perfect form of sorrow, that is, “because [my sins] offend Thee, my God, Who art all-good and deserving of all my love.”
Our fear of the Lord as disciples of Jesus should not be a servile fear but a filial fear. What’s the difference? Servile fear moves a person to avoid certain acts because one is in terror of the chastisement of a monstrous master. Filial fear, on the other hand, moves one to avoid sin because he knows God as a loving Father, Whom he would never wish to displease.
And if we live to please God, we need to recall that He has done all by His sovereign Will, not to please Himself in some kind of divine narcissism, but because that will ultimately benefit us. We desire to please Him in all things because, in humility, we know that He does know best; that He has our best interests at heart; that He is, in the words of Saint Augustine, “intimior intimo meo” [closer to me than I am to myself].
7. Holiness consists in having a sense of humor. Some people have added an eleventh commandment to the Decalogue: “Thou shalt be glum.” In truth, they firmly believe that the more sour one’s puss, the holier one must be. How incongruous that is, however, especially when we note that Christians are commissioned to be messengers of the Gospel, that is, “good news.” Now, this anomaly struck even so vehement an opponent of Christianity as Nietzsche, who quipped: “If Christians wanted me to believe in their God, they would have to look more redeemed!” The greatest saints, however, were not dour, depressing sorts. Saint Philip Neri was a practical jokester. Saint Teresa of Ávila often asked God to deliver her from would-be saints who made a career out of looking miserable.
Good humor makes external various interior dispositions. Peacefulness, calmness, contentment, acceptance of God’s Will in one’s life – all make for genuine joy, which is not a cheap brand of hilarity or superficiality. Joy arises from the sure conviction that God is in charge, and that nothing will happen this day that He and I – together – will be unable to handle. Joy comes about because of the awareness that the greatest battles in life – against the world, the flesh and the Devil – have been fought – and won – by Jesus Christ; it but remains for us to claim the victory. This type of perspective on reality provides a person with a real sense of humor, which is a fitting and necessary pre-condition for entrance into a state of eternal joy.
Pope Benedict opened his apostolic letter promulgating the 2012 “Year of Faith” with these stirring and challenging words:
The “door of faith” is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into His Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the Word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.
Well, we have come to the end of our course in the making of a saint, and the one thing that should strike us is how incredibly easy – and enjoyable – it all should be. Of course, someone like Saint Thérèse set the goal of her life in childhood, as she mentioned so often: “I’ve always wished that I could be a saint.” And then she gives a final piece of advice, advice all of us would do well to heed: “Believe me, don’t wait until tomorrow to begin becoming a saint.” As the Holy Father said, it’s “a journey that lasts a lifetime,” but we need to embark on that journey today. Saint Catherine of Siena put it very succinctly: “All the way to Heaven is Heaven.”