Over the years, I have spoken to many people about their relationship with God. Everyone, on some level, desires to know the secret of holiness, even if they don’t use those words. If they are young, they often imagine that holiness involves some magnificent feat of strength or courage, perhaps engaging in disciplined asceticism or undergoing some form of persecution. If they are older, they think that holiness involves hours of undistracted prayer, followed by self-sacrifice devoid of anger or resentment. If the person is a priest or a religious, their standard of holiness is often measured by fidelity to their vocation. If one is faithful to their vows and fulfilling perfectly the rules and norms of their vocation, then holiness is a natural consequence.
After each person has defended his view with sound reasoning, orthodox theology and examples from the lives of the saints, I feel the need to interject.
“Everything you said is true,” I reply, “but you are missing an important point. If you really want to be holy all of the things you mentioned can be helpful, but…they must be authentic. Most importantly, you must be authentic.”
A mixture of surprise and confusion usually begins to appear on their face as they stare at the ground for a few moments.
“What does authenticity have to do with holiness?” they ask sincerely.
“Everything!” I almost shout back at them.
Asceticism, deep prayer and fidelity to one’s vocation are all necessary means to holiness, yet before these aspects of our spiritual life begin, they must be born from an authentic place. Authenticity means, first and foremost, being the person God has created you to be. In order for that to happen, we must always return to the foundational question: who am I before God? In other words, we must consider things like our personality, cultural background, and talents as we attempt to respond to Jesus’ call to discipleship. The reason for this is simple. It is through our own humanity, never somebody else’s, that we will encounter God and be able to respond to him appropriately.
For example, Jesus recommends “prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29) as a necessary component of our spiritual lives. However, the prayer and fasting of a 20 -year-old is going to look very different from that of a 70-year-old. Likewise, the prayer and fasting of someone who is sick will look different than that of one who is healthy. Which person is praying and faster better? The one who is responding most fully to the grace God is giving him. In other words, the one who is most authentic.
The best examples of authentic holiness can be found, unsurprisingly, in the lives of the saints. Despite the many differences of age, culture, social status, etc. we find in the lives of the saints one common thread: each one of them became the person God intended him to be. St. John Bosco educated and cared for the youth, while St. Benedict become a hermit, and then become the founder of monastic life. St. Teresa of Calcutta served the poorest of the poor in India, while St. Theresa of Lisieux lived a hidden life of silence, solitude and penance in a Carmelite monastery. Because they were authentic, God’s light was able to shine uniquely through each one of them, revealing to the world in greater color the brightness of God’s glory.
Imitating the saints does not mean adopting their way of speaking, thinking or even praying. Nor does it mean going back in history to the time period in which they lived in the hopes of walking in the same footsteps of the saint we admire. Imitating the saints is something much more profound. It means being inspired and enlivened in the way a particular saint has lived his life and using those qualities in our own life to follow Jesus more closely.
When I first discovered St. Francis as a teenager I knew he was the saint for me. Like him, I was restless and eager to experience more from life, yet it wasn’t until my eyes were opened to the beauty of the Gospel that I realized that Jesus was the more I was desiring. Never doing anything in half-measures, I, like St. Francis, threw myself into prayer, work with the poor, preaching and anything else that could further my relationship with Christ. Like St. Francis I wanted to live a deeply contemplative life, yet I also wanted to live and work among the poor. When I discovered the Franciscan way of life a sense of relief overwhelmed me, because I realized that what I desired and felt attracted to already existed. I didn’t have to create something new.
What attracted me to St. Francis was the spirit in which he responded to the Gospel. But I also know that I am not St. Francis, and I cannot and should not imitate all aspects of his personality and temperament. What the Church and the world needs from Franciscans is not another St. Francis, but men and women who, following the path of St. Francis, respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in their own humanity.
The ultimate question each one of us needs to ask is, “What does Jesus Christ look like in me?” Obviously, the answer to that question is going to look different in each person. Whether you are a doctor, a sales clerk, or a student is, in many respects, irrelevant. Being authentic means becoming the person God is calling you to be, not what he called someone else to be. God already has a Francis, a Benedict, and a Teresa. Now he’s waiting for you.
+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR