If you look at what all successful people have in common—from sports to entertainment to business—it’s that they have a singular devotion to a specific goal. They have concentrated all of their efforts toward some end, harnessing all of their talent, energy, stamina and will into achieving that particular thing—even to the point of sacrifice, suffering. It’s no mystery that in order to be great at something—not just good, but truly exceptional—you have to give it your all, literally.
When it comes to the spiritual life, for some reason that logic doesn’t seem to sway so obviously. Maybe it’s because at a certain level, we know the journey toward spiritual greatness—to sainthood—is tremendously difficult. We may see the gap from where we are to where we have to go as equivalent to a vast ocean running endlessly into the horizon. Instead, it’s easier to throw up our hands and concede how laughably far from sainthood we are. And besides, it’s God’s job, right? His grace? Of course, we can do nothing without the grace of God, but still, we have some skin in the game, so to speak—we have to respond to his gift of grace. And we’re called to respond with the whole of our lives. Not a sliver, not a fraction, not even a good majority. All of it. God doesn’t ask us to be good, very good, or even extremely good. No. He asks us to be perfect, just as he, our Heavenly Father, is perfect. And so if God is asking for perfection, why do so many of us still lack a singular devotion to the life of God?
We see it all the time: the standard one hour at Mass on Sunday, maybe if we’re lucky a few prayers before meals, and then, of course, the outflowing of impromptu petitions when we’re in need of some supernatural aid. I lived my entire spiritual life like this before, and to be honest, I thought that’s what being a Christian was all about. Yet when we read the convicting, challenging words of Christ, that notion couldn’t be further from the truth. We can use words like “radical” or “revolutionary” to describe the nature of Christianity, but even those words have lost some of their thrust and meat. They’ve become familiar, just like the graphic image of Christ hanging on a Roman torture device can become “familiar” over time. The call to discipleship has become so common that it’s easy to compartmentalize it, causing a fragmented and fractured way of being. In this way, we may do the good things that are expected of us—attend Mass, follow the Commandments, give alms—but they become acts within a vacuum, severed from an ordering to God. We can don the “good Catholic” hat, wear it for a bit, and then exchange it for one of the various other hats tucked away neatly in the closet: our career, friends, family, sports, and leisure caps.
Do we have a clear goal in this life? The athletes whose clear goal is the attainment of the Olympic gold are willing to let everything else become secondary. The way they eat, sleep, study, and train are all determined by that one clear goal. This is as true in the spiritual life as it is in the life of competitive sports. Without a clear goal, we will always be distracted and spend our energy on secondary things. “Keep your eyes on the prize,” Martin Luther King said to his people. What is our prize? It is the divine life, the eternal life, the life with and in God. (Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit)
Do we take Christ’s words seriously when he asks us to search for the prize—the pearl of great price? When he says that we must be perfect, do we nod our heads? When he says that we cannot serve both God and mammon, do we believe him? When he tells us it would be better to cut off our hands and pluck out our eyes in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, do we accept his hyperbolic language as indicative of the utter seriousness of the spiritual life—the need to be fully committed to him without compromise?
“You cannot be half a saint; you must be a whole saint or no saint at all” (St. Therese of Lisieux). And to follow that up with the pithy, incisive words of a famous Christian thinker and philosopher: “To be a saint is to will the one thing” (Søren Kierkegaard).
The one thing—a life completely committed to God and his purposes. I’m reminded of the words of Saint Paul, his encouragement that we should “pray without ceasing.” Back when I was living my Christian faith in a deeply fractured and disjointed way, I didn’t take those words seriously, and if they were meant to be taken at face value, then surely they were meant for the priests, religious, and other “chosen” people of God endowed with special graces. I was like everyone else. I, on the other hand, was average. God didn’t expect too much of me. Of course, that begs the serious question: What kind of God and loving Father would only will some of his children to know the fullness of the divine life—to be perfect—leaving the rest to hover somewhere around spiritual mediocrity, like the forgotten middle children of the family? The Second Vatican Council made it explicitly clear in Lumen Gentium that God does indeed call each and every soul to holiness:
Thus it is evident to everyone that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status are called to the fullness to the Christian life and to the perfection of charity. By this holiness a more human way of life is promoted even in their earthly society.
I think there is also the danger of assuming holiness only entails extreme piety, suffering, and a mournful disposition that repels as opposed to attracts others. In the humorous and insightful (even if only apocryphal) words of St. Teresa of Avila, “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.” Amen! To be a people that strive for holiness with wholeness—to be a people that pray all the time—does not mean we can’t live full, exciting, and rich lives. On the contrary, it’s the only way to live such a life. And that’s what having a life committed to God is about. It doesn’t mean we have to always be talking about God with every person we come across, or spend all of our time reading devotions, reciting the rosary, or dousing ourselves with holy water. Christ went to weddings and drank wine and celebrated; he lounged on the beach with his disciples and ate breakfast; he healed others, preached to the poor, and of course, sacrificed his life for our sake. And he did all of these things while staying perfectly committed to the will of his Father.
Through prayer and gratitude, we can offer up our entire lives, from our passions and leisure to our work and family responsibilities, as a prayer to God—a means of communion with God for our sanctification and the conversion of others. And so if we are Catholic—through and through—then everything we do should communicate this explicitly or implicitly. If we’re at work, it means we do our jobs well, honestly and diligently. It means we speak well of others, no matter the circumstance, and show patience, understanding, and compassion to everyone. Our very lives, in all facets, should speak the fullness of the Creed: I believe in one God, the Father almighty…
We all know those who wear masks in different settings, tailoring their personalities and mannerisms to win the approval of their present company. And though there are times when I’m guilty of this as well, there is always an emptiness that remains whenever I do this. We weren’t created to be fractured individuals. We are called to have Christ as our internal anchor, keeping our being tethered to our true identity as children of the kingdom. And since our actions inform who we are, just as they reflect it, if we act in a way contrary to our Christian identity, then our interiors become muddled. And over time, we can become lost to even ourselves.
When a man constantly looks and looks at himself in the mirror of his own acts, his spiritual double vision splits him into two people. And if he strains his eyes hard enough, he forgets which one is real. In fact, reality is no longer found in either himself or in his shadow. The substance has gone out of itself into the shadow, and he has become two shadows instead of one real person. (Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island)
Thomas Merton speaks of the danger of spiritual splintering that can occur by basing our identities on our acts, especially when our acts are not in line with our true selves. Again, we can check all of the right boxes, but if once the boxes are checked, we turn to living a sinful, selfish life not in accord with God’s will, then we cloud our identities. We were created to only worship one thing—God our Father—and so if we try to worship both God and mammon, or anything else under heaven, we end up giving our lives over to neither, left somewhere in limbo. We are called to a singular devotion to holiness because we can’t be happy otherwise. And in striving toward holiness, we not only worship God more perfectly, but we also become more perfect ourselves.
The glory of God is the human person fully alive. (St. Irenaeus)