“Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in the truth.”
An alternate translation by Francis J. Maloney, S.D.B of Jesus’ first words above is: “Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth.” In his Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate Pope Francis repeats the words of the Second Vatican Council that “all the faithful . . . are called by the Lord — each in his or her own way — to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.” For Pope Francis the key to understanding the call to holiness is that it is a call addressed to each person uniquely and personally. He writes: “The important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts, rather than hopelessly trying to imitate something not meant for them.” (11)
Holiness, then, out of our realizing through experience the love of God for us and for the world, and so dedicating our whole being to living out the truth of things, to living in the reality of God’s creative plan for ourselves and for our true place in, that is our mission to, the world. Although it is called an exhortation, Gaudete and Exsultate is not merely exhortatory. One of the great gifts of the writing of Pope Francis is that he speaks in terms of a lived spirituality. He does not primarily define holiness in the abstract and expand on its theological nuances. Rather he describes the way of living that disposes us to receive the holiness of God in our unique regard.
As we have recently mentioned, in the past couple of years our congregation has attempted to enter into a process of shared discernment and decision making, that is in contrast to the demands that those few selected for leadership set the direction and make the decisions. There is a natural resistance to this process. Some will say, for example, “Let the leadership make a decision and let us just do something.” This is a natural enough human reaction. It is the same one that is expressed by Thomas in John 14.
“Where [I] am going you know the way.” Thomas said to him, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”
We are all forever looking for the guru who will show us the meaning of life, who will tell us the way we are to go. For many, this is the purpose of religion. Pope Francis, quoting the Second Vatican Council, reminds us, however, that we are called to holiness “each in his or her own way.” When Jesus responds to Thomas by saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he is telling us to follow him, to do as he does, to be a word of God as he is, in the way in which we are called. So, says Pope Francis, “the important thing is that each believer discern his or her own path, that they bring out the very best of themselves, the most personal gifts that God has placed in their hearts, rather than trying to imitate something not meant for them.”
As an adolescent, typically struggling with lived issues and conflicts about my own identity, I can remember at times praying and wishing to become holy. At that time, however, my idea of being holy was to be freed from the inner fears and conflicts I experienced about who I was. To become holy would be to leap out of the very hard process of my own formation and somehow be changed by God into the one I felt I “should” be, but which I experienced as unrealizable. Perhaps like persons who want others to make their decisions for them, I wanted God to dissolve my inner tensions and conflicts and to make me holy, so I would become an imitation of those whom I saw as holy. This made aspects of religious life at the time very appealing to me. On the day we became novices we changed our names and the way we dressed. As we did so we recalled the words of Ephesians to “put off the old self .. and put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:22-24). What I had yet to learn was that there are no shortcuts to the living out of this call. What I didn’t know then was that the only way to the “new self” of which Paul speaks is through the reality of the “old self.” Holiness is not dissociation from our own self with its personal gifts and conflicts. It is rather living in discernment of the truth of our life and of the unique mission we are to the world, one that springs from our own strengths and weaknesses. As Adrian van Kaam says, “Our limits are the outlines of our call.”
To be made holy in the truth means, for us, to live in a continual discerning search for the truth. It means to refuse to alter the world to fit our ideas or our cravings and aversions, and rather to open our eyes and our hearts so that the world, as it comes to us in our daily lives, may form, reform, and transform us, in God’s time, into the holiness to which we are called. As the Fundamental Principles remind us:
If you allow yourself
to be formed by God
through the common,
flow of everyday life,
you will gradually experience
a liberation and a freedom
never before imagined.
Adrian van Kaam points out that we are formed “by trial and error.” I think this was my basic problem as a young person. I thought error was failure. I felt shamed and humiliated whenever I did something wrong, and so I also felt that if others knew some of what I thought or felt at times, they would despise and reject me. It is not possible to be open to formation by God in this way. We must try to live out who we really are and whom we think we are called to be. In directing the formation of candidates to religious life, I would often tell them that they were in the community to “try it out” by living it. They were to live out that in them which they felt to be called to this way of life. By doing so they would learn whether or not this was the life form in which they could best come to realize their own deep truth and call. “The common, ordinary, unspectacular flow of everyday life” would reveal to them if this way of living was theirs or not. So, to discover in the course of their wholehearted attempt to live it that it was not right for them was not at all a failure.
There is something in us that is scandalized by the pace of our own formation. As I wanted to be “a new man” at the age of 18, so we are also wanting to leap, to just do something, without taking into account that the ways of God are different from ours. Pope Francis’ first condition for discernment is patience. We want to get to the end product of ourselves. But we are not a product. We come to holiness through, in van Kaam’s words, the “gradual, tentative unfolding in all dimensions of life of the unique image of Christ . . . [we] are called to realize.” It is gradually and tentatively, by trial and error, that we discover the truth of ourselves by and in which we are made holy.
Pope Francis’ second condition for discernment is generosity. We must not withhold parts of ourselves from our presence and response to others and the world. We must give all we have, and so be willing to experience our own limits. Part of my self-image in my earlier years was that I was always capable of more in any situation. I preserved that self-interpretation by holding back my full effort. I’d do well enough in school without really giving my heart to study. I’d get by with my music lessons without taking the time required to really practice. This is a way of avoiding the possibility of failure. It is also the way of never learning who we really are, of preserving our own ideas and illusions about ourselves.
An aspect of this generosity, says Francis, is that we must give our whole life and presence to each situation because “no areas can be off limits.” Those areas of our lives that seem problematic or shameful to us must not be held secret. We never really begin to live our life or walk the way we are called until we cease to “ban . . . [God] from certain parts of our lives.” We cannot live in the truth, cannot become the holiness we are called to be, until we allow the sunlight of God’s love into what we are keeping hidden from God.
The discernment of the truth of our unique mission is a lifetime task. As van Kaam says, “We are always and everywhere in formation.” The model of holiness I had as a young person was static and not dynamic and creative. I thought it was a place at which I could arrive once I had become my idealized version of myself. My idea, however, was lifeless. To be holy in that way would have meant to be static in a creation that is dynamic. It would mean that at a point I would cease to grow and to change. Growth and change, however, is the way of human being. As Pope Francis writes: “Once we enter into this dynamic, we will not let our consciences be numbed and we will open ourselves generously to discernment.”
An essential condition for progress in discernment is a growing understanding of God’s patience and his timetable, which are never our own. God does not pour down fire upon those who are unfaithful (cf. Lk 9:54), or allow the zealous to uproot the tares growing among the wheat (cf. Mt 13:29). Generosity too is demanded, for “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Discernment is not about discovering what more we can get out of this life, but about recognizing how we can better accomplish the mission entrusted to us at our baptism. This entails a readiness to make sacrifices, even to sacrificing everything. For happiness is a paradox. We experience it most when we accept the mysterious logic that is not of this world: “This is our logic”, says Saint Bonaventure, pointing to the cross. Once we enter into this dynamic, we will not let our consciences be numbed and we will open ourselves generously to discernment.
When, in God’s presence, we examine our life’s journey, no areas can be off limits. In all aspects of life we can continue to grow and offer something greater to God, even in those areas we find most difficult. We need, though, to ask the Holy Spirit to liberate us and to expel the fear that makes us ban him from certain parts of our lives. God asks everything of us, yet he also gives everything to us. He does not want to enter our lives to cripple or diminish them, but to bring them to fulfillment. Discernment, then, is not a solipsistic self- analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters.
Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate, 174-5