What is Holiness? (Hint: the Love of God)

“You pray for how long each day?” A woman asked me.

“An hour,” I said.

“You must not eat dessert!”

“Not while I’m praying, no.”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant you must not eat it at all.”

I said I did and tried to explain that a habit of prayer (even for an hour!) can coexist with a habit of dessert.

There are some unusual ideas about holiness out there and, while you may not believe that it requires forsaking dessert, we all slightly distort holiness. So, Francis de Sales offers a clear definition to guide us.

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What is holiness?

For Francis de Sales, devotion is synonymous with holiness. Since we’re more familiar with the word holiness (and because it’s a better search term for Google ; ), I will primarily use that. Francis’s definition has four parts:

  1. “Genuine Living devotion presupposes love of God, and hence it is simply true love of God.” Here is the heart of holiness. The love of God within us, when perfected, is holiness.
  2. “Inasmuch as divine love adorns the soul, it is called grace.” The love of God, when viewed from the perspective of its impact on our souls, is called grace. For example, the expression “I’m in the state of grace” describes the state of my soul before God, but doesn’t imply any outward good acts.
  3. “Inasmuch as it strengthens us to do good, it is called charity.” In other words, the love of God, when viewed from the perspective of its flowering into good works, is called charity.
  4. “When charity has reached a degree of perfection at which it not only makes us do good but also do this carefully, frequently, and promptly, it is called devotion.” The various forms of prayer are means to this end and growth in holiness is growth in the care, frequency or promptness with which we do good.

For Francis de Sales, then, holiness is “true love of God” when it has reached a “degree of perfection” that enables us to do good “carefully, frequently, and promptly.”

For Francis de Sales, holiness is “true love of God” when it has reached a “degree of perfection” that enables us to do good “carefully, frequently, and promptly.”
The key point of this definition is that holiness is the flowering of the love of God within us. Because of sin, God’s love is restricted, but as sin decreases love of God within us becomes more active until we become as united with God as possible in this life. Despite the grandeur of this possibility, we naturally gravitate towards part four of the definition which has us doing everything carefully, frequently and promptly. Part four is important, however, since focusing on doing good protects us from the many ways that holiness can be distorted.

Everyone distorts holiness

“Everyone paints devotion according to his own passions and fancies,” writes St. Francis. In his apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis warned of how the call to holiness is subject to the distortions of gnosticism and palagianism. Even saints can fall into exaggerations of certain aspects of holiness. For instance, St. Bernard of Clairvaux “regretted that he had been too austere with himself.”

The root of these, and every other distortion, is our desire to turn holiness into something we can succeed at because we don’t yet trust the love of God to BE our holiness. This is pride. We don’t do this intentionally, but at the start of the spiritual life we simply can’t help turning it into something that we believe will make us look good.

In my case, this meant trying to “specialize” in giving others fraternal corrections. Since I was so good at finding fault with others, I wanted to turn it into a virtue. Instead, I should have been trying to see the good in people, but I was trying to prove to God that I was good rather than doing what I could and repenting for what I couldn’t.

Holiness is possible in every vocation

“It is an error, or rather a heresy, to wish to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the mechanic’s shop, the court of princes, or the home of married people.”
St. Francis’ definition says nothing about your vocation, how much time you dedicate to prayer or any other life circumstance you might find yourself in. For Francis, “It is an error, or rather a heresy, to wish to banish the devout life from the regiment of soldiers, the mechanic’s shop, the court of princes, or the home of married people.” And, despite the lengthy list of spiritual exercises that he proposes to those who wish to become holy, he tempers that prescription: “the practice of devotion must also be adapted to the strength, activities, and duties of each particular person.”

Since we’ve heard so many times that all are called to holiness, we can be deceived into thinking that we have sufficiently internalized the teaching that holiness is possible in every vocation. But, if you’re like me, you’re guilty of feeling like holiness would be easier if I was one degree higher on the vocational ladder—laymen to priest, for example. In The Fulfillment of All Desire, Ralph Martin points out that a person in any vocation can feel this temptation, even hermits who “need to work out a rule of life, have meetings with superiors to review it, make sure their medical insurance is covering them properly.”

The benefits of holiness

Francis calls holiness “spiritual sugar” and “the delight of delights.” These descriptions are not simply pious effusions, but real helps to us in understanding holiness because our tendency is to see holiness as hard. Yet, its benefits in this life far outweigh the costs.

  1. Less sin in our lives. Yes, holiness is challenging, but it is no where near as challenging as a mediocre catholicism or outright sin. We often forget that sins (even small ones!) are the cause of evil in our lives, so when we consider fighting against it we focus on the struggle rather than the reward. Ask anyone staring at a mountain of credit card debt if their life would be easier if they had struggled a little bit more to reign in their spending. I’m sure they would say, yes.
  2. Greater interior peace. As sin diminishes and we give more time to prayer in silence, we can see the movements of our heart more clearly. When we recognize that something is “off” in our heart, Francis counsels to “look for it before doing anything else and bring it quietly back into God’s presence.”
  3. “Heartfelt inward devotion that renders all such actions pleasant, sweet, and easy.” The technical term for this is contemplation, which, Fr. Thomas Dubay defines as “a wordless awareness and love that we of ourselves cannot initiate or prolong.” Although contemplation is not always “delightful” in the normal way we think of delightful (i.e. ice cream :), no contemplative would trade it for any earthly delight. Contemplation is a gift that God gives at the time he sees fit, and, as Fr. Thomas Dubay proves with the help of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, God wants to give EVERYONE this gift. Contemplation is the joy that Joy of Devotion refers to and making contemplation more known is a primary reason that I started this blog.

The key takeaway

For Francis de Sales, holiness is

  • the “love of God” when it has reached a “degree of perfection” that enables us to do good “carefully, frequently, and promptly.”
  • easily distorted by our “passions and fancies.”
  • “possible in every vocation and profession”
  • “spiritual sugar” or contemplation, which “renders all such actions pleasant, sweet and easy.”

 

Additional Resources

If you’re looking for more information, check out these resources:

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