What is it to be a saint? Does it mean that we must macerate this flesh of ours with cruel austerities, such as we read of in the life-story of some of God’s great heroes? Does it mean the bloody scourge, the painful vigil and sleepless night, that crucifying of the flesh in even its most innocent enjoyment? No, no, the hand of God does not lead us all by that stern path of awful heroism to our reward above. He does not ask from all of us the holy thirst for suffering, in its highest form, of a Teresa or a Catherine of Siena. But sweetly and gently would He lead us along the way of holiness by our constant unswerving faithfulness to our duty, duty accepted, duty done for His dear sake.
COMMENT: The holy season of Lent is upon us. Many cultural Catholics view it as a time to “give up” something. This is a good thing, but it does not necessarily get to the heart of what Lent is really about.
Lent is about growing in holiness and preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the celebration of Easter. It is about becoming a saint. Precisely how we go about this task will depend on where we are at in our spiritual lives. Giving things up can be a part of that, but there are other sacrifices and mortifications we can adopt that aren’t primarily aimed at giving things up. For instance we can deepen our prayer lives and adopt some extra spiritual practices. We can take on some extra charitable activities. We can get out of bed earlier in the morning. In a sense, each of these involves “giving something up” – time, freedom, sleep – but they are also more than that. Whatever we decide to do we have to avoid a situation where we “give something up” solely because we want to save money or because we want to go on a diet or because we want to go on a binge when Lent ends. If we are to fast or give something up, it should be a part of a well thought-out spiritual plan. There is a risk that we could fail to reap the spiritual benefits of our sacrifices in Lent. This risk may be especially prevalent in culturally Catholic countries (like Ireland) where giving things up is something of a social norm rather than a carefully considered weapon of spiritual combat.
Many books written about saints recount their bloody sacrifices and penances in great detail. Fr Doyle makes it clear today that heavy penance is not the road to sanctity for everyone. True, there were those who were called by God to live a life of hard penance. Fr Doyle was certainly one of these, and he makes it clear in his notes that it was a specific call – in one place he notes that others could commendably do things that he could not because of this special vocation of penance to which he was called. But he also shows his balance by assuring us that most people are not called by that path. This doesn’t mean that we are not called to holiness or that we are called to a lesser holiness or that we are called to a life of sloth and comfort. It just reflects the reality that God calls us all by different paths with different types of sacrifices.
But there is one path by which we can be sure that we are all called, and that is the path of faithfulness to our duties in life. It is impossible to grow in holiness without this adherence to duty. If we try to avoid our duty we will be like the unfaithful stewards that Christ warns us about in the Gospel.
Most of us reading this will struggle to some degree or other to do our work and other duties in life professionally, punctually and cheerfully. Some will be better than others, but there is almost always room for improvement. Perhaps we could follow Fr Doyle’s advice, and adopt a Lenten resolution that will help us grow in holiness by doing our duty well.
This may indeed involve giving something up – the TV, excessive use of the internet or social media, lying on in bed in the morning, idle gossip in the office, an extra long lunch break…
In any event, whatever our resolution is, it should be both achievable and challenging, and we should be prepared to instantly pick ourselves up and start again if (and when) we fail in sticking to it.
It is also worth recalling that for some of people reading this, and perhaps for me writing it, this Lent could our last. Imagine if we had only one more Lent before we are called to render an account of our lives…
Death is perhaps not so far away for some of us as we might think. The spread Covid-19 crisis poses a challenge to all of us, no matter where we are in the world. It poses a threat to our lives and our health; it has lead to restrictions on our freedom to move about and travel; it has undermined our economic stability and jobs, and in some countries it has even been used as a reason to limit our access to the sacraments – in Ireland we have been without Mass and the sacraments for the best part of the past year. Who would ever have thought that such a scenario was possible?! This Lent may impose penances on us that are not of our own choosing, but penances foreseen by God and allowed by His permissive will nonetheless. Like any challenge, it provides us with opportunities to practice the virtues, and perhaps even to a heroic degree. This is the spirit with which the saints would approach the reality in which we now live, as we see from the lives of many saints who lived through much more aggressive plagues – and restrictions on their freedoms – than we now face.
Finally, some thoughts from St Leo the Great:
Relying, therefore, dearly-beloved, on these arms, let us enter actively and fearlessly on the contest set before us: so that in this fasting struggle we may not rest satisfied with only this end, that we should think abstinence from food alone desirable. For it is not enough that the substance of our flesh should be reduced, if the strength of the soul be not also developed. When the outer man is somewhat subdued, let the inner man be somewhat refreshed; and when bodily excess is denied to our flesh, let our mind be invigorated by spiritual delights. Let every Christian scrutinise himself, and search severely into his inmost heart: let him see that no discord cling there, no wrong desire be harboured. Let chasteness drive incontinence far away; let the light of truth dispel the shades of deception; let the swellings of pride subside; let wrath yield to reason; let the darts of ill-treatment be shattered, and the chidings of the tongue be bridled; let thoughts of revenge fall through, and injuries be given over to oblivion.