Monday, September 26, 2011

The path to holiness

Several times recently, as I have clicked around the Catholic blogosphere, I have come across posts referencing the Sacrament of Penance, sin, and the four last things.

I'm starting to think that Catholic blogs, like the liturgy, have seasons. First, there is Advent, in which Catholic writers spar about when it is holiest and best to put up Christmas trees, why we shouldn't have any parties or eat cookies or anything celebratory until after the 25th of December, and why we should all practice a pure Little House on the Prairie frugality and give our children a few simple wooden toys as gifts (and then after Christmas, perhaps, put up a rueful post about your child's favorite bit of garish plastic and which grandparent gave it to him or her, frustrating those readers whose parents do not give garish plastic as gifts and whose children were less than enchanted with the simple wooden toy idea). Then, there is pre-Lent, during which Catholic writers gripe about leftover Christmas goodies and plan diets, express their deep longing for the mortifications of Lent, and scold those who take their Christmas decorations down before Candlmas; Lent follows, and with it lots of introspective posts about the faith coupled with posts complaining about the weather, homeschooling (one's own, that is), and the general sluggishness of life--though a few of the more seasoned bloggers write lofty spiritual posts about why they are giving up blogging/Facebook/Twitter for Lent (the reason given is that they need less virtual clutter in their lives, or that they are in need of monastic silence, and while that's true in some cases I think others just don't want to post during a six-week state of sugar deprivation). After Lent there is joyous Easter posting complete with pretty outdoor pictures, as fits the season. Sometime after Pentecost we enter Ordinary Time, during which Catholic bloggers will write about veils, modesty, the Liturgical Wars, sin, virtue, politics, culture, the sacramental life of the Church, why other Catholics are so darned annoying, the Sixth Commandment, elections, Church news, Catholic motherhood, the new school (or homeschool) year, sacred music, and the like. Then it's time for the Annual Halloween Pumpkin-tossing Fight, just in time to prepare for the pre-Advent fretting...

...I'm kidding. Mostly.

But, as I said, I've noticed a kind of mini-meme lately having to do with sin and the Sacrament of Penance, which are both quite good things to write about. It's true that there's a great deal of difference as to how these things are discussed on a priest's blog as on a lay person's blog (which is not surprising, really). Priest bloggers tend to exhort the faithful to go to confession more often, to make a good confession if they haven't lately, and to examine their consciences carefully and well; lay people tend to talk about the benefits of confession, how important--yet difficult--it can be to get the whole family there regularly, and to express frustration about inconvenient confession times, weird penances, flaky advice (including the infamous "Oh, that's not a sin! Don't worry about it!" response given to anything confessed from a small lie to a bank robbery***) and the like.

I do appreciate priestly exhortations to get to confession, but I also admit to some of the frustrations. We try to go every four to six weeks, God willing. We take advantage of one of two half-hour time slots our pastor has; and, as I've said before, he's the pastor of both our small mission parish with 300 registered families, and our larger sister parish with 1200 families, so I don't criticize Father for not being available for confession more often. But still--he's responsible for hearing confessions for 1500 total families, and priest-bloggers are fond of saying families should go once a month at the minimum (weekly is better, say some!). If 1500 individuals, let alone 1500 families, showed up for confession every week I think Father might not be able to handle the crowd, in much the same way that I might not be able to handle a dozen copperheads should they, and a thousand scorpions, show up unexpectedly in my living room.

I would like to hope that every priest who exhorts his faithful to make weekly, or even monthly, confessions is making time for that to be possible. In my whole life, though, I've only met one such priest (note the 13+ hours of confession Father has scheduled for a single week!). In that amount of time, this dear priest could actually hear the confessions of 1500 individuals in a month--what an example he sets for his brother priests!

And that brings me to the point of this post, which is not, in fact, about confession, or even about sin.

Yes, it is important to try very hard to conquer sin in our daily lives; in fact, one is not being a serious follower of Christ without such an attempt. And yes, in order to root out sin, especially sins which have become habitual, or which could involve grave matter, or which could lead us into committing grave sins, we need to be aware of our sins, examine our consciences without scrupulosity or fear, and make a habit of regular (and even, if we are blessed by a priest like the one I mentioned above, frequent) recourse to the Sacrament of Penance. Yes, both priests and our lay brothers and sisters are acting in charity when they remind us of these things.

But holiness is about much, much more than the avoidance of sin. In fact, the greatest saints, the ones who persevered in the pursuit of holiness all the days of their lives, would be the first to admit that they could not completely root out sins and imperfections and the desires and temptations toward sinful things in their earthly lives. The fallenness of our human nature does not permit anyone born with that taint of original sin to reach perfection upon earth. We must wait until we behold our beloved Christ after we die to realize fully how far short we still are--and yet how greatly He loves us and wishes us to remain with Him forever. We will, I think, embrace Purgatory joyfully, eager to be back in His presence cleansed of those things we didn't even realize still clung to our souls.

If we go too far in equating holiness with the mere avoidance of sin, I think we run the risk of becoming like the unworthy servant in the parable of the talents. So fearful of incurring his master's wrath that he could do nothing good, the servant buries the money, taking comfort in the notion that at least he won't lose any of it. Instead of being rewarded for his caution he is punished; he has not made use of what his master gave him, but has instead in selfishness and fear acted as though the responsibility was never given to him. While we cannot become holy without learning to hate sin and turn away from it, we also can't become holy by fixating so strongly on the avoidance of sin that we begin to shun others, to seek only the purest and most like-minded of people with whom to associate, to consider anything "worldly" or "secular" to be inherently evil or at least impossibly tempting, and, quite simply, to "write off" as lost and worthless anyone who does not live as we do and share, not merely our faith in Christ and His Church, but our smallest personal tastes, likes, preferences, and approvals of minor things.

The path to holiness may frequently be lined with reminders of our sinfulness and our need for confession, but the paving stones are very different. They call us to live our specific vocation as faithfully and willingly and earnestly as possible, to try to die even a little bit to our own selfishness every day, to look for Christ in the eyes of everyone we meet--and to recognize Him joyfully in the poor, the ill, the weak, the oppressed, and to serve Him in them to the best of our poor ability. Becoming good, learning to be holy, is not just about avoiding evil, nor must we think that we must completely conquer sin before we can try to embrace goodness. No one in this life will completely conquer sin; our Blessed Mother was the only person never to sin, and the rest of us will fall woefully short of her--but we please her, and her Son, when we make the valiant effort--and yet, that alone is not enough.

If we would become holy, we must be like the son in the Gospel from this past Sunday, who, after saying he wouldn't serve his father, went and did so anyway. Did he, from that day forward, never displease his father again? It's doubtful. But his service was a step forward on the path to holiness, the service of doing his father's will. It is the same for us; the path to holiness requires a leap of faith from stone to stone, as each stone reveals to us the Father's will. We will reach heaven by following that Way of Love, and only by following Him there.

***Hypothetically, that is. For the benefit of any uptight readers I will state for the record that I've never heard anyone admit to confessing a bank robbery, let alone being told that such was not a sin. I am using "bank robbery" as an all-purpose grave sin here for the sake of humor.


Anonymous said...

I generally agree, but what about shunning others in sin to protect your child's morals/conscience until they are rooted in the faith? What about guiding them to friends who are like-minded from families that are like-minded to avoid the friends that will lead them away from God? What about protecting them from the bad examples who would like to distort their views and morals? I have extensively focused on the Catholic faith in my child's upbringing and education, but the influence of others is still a huge weakness. I have heard many wise Catholic speakers say the type of friends is the biggest indicator of whether one remains Catholic or even connected with God.

Red Cardigan said...

Anonymous, I think when we are talking about our children's friends (and, indeed, all the influences in our children's lives) we have a different sort of duty. Your use of the word "rooted" here is wise; until a tree is rooted it can't handle even the smaller winds, but when it is rooted and grows up strong, it takes a tornado to shake it from its foundations.

But there is balance here, as in all things. Young children have a tendency to want things to be black and white (e.g., we don't watch that TV show because we think it encourages bad values, Timmy gets to watch that TV show, therefore Timmy and his parents are bad people who don't mind watching bad values). It takes patience to correct such errors, by saying, perhaps, that while we don't like that particular show Timmy's parents may find something good about it, and in any case different people will have different ideas about what their children may or may not watch at different ages, and so on. I mean, provided Timmy's parents aren't letting little Timmy watch porn or something, there's no need to set up these extremes about smaller things.

Watchfulness and vigilance about our children during their childhood isn't the same thing as, perhaps, refusing to associate with a particular family at our parish because, on the one hand, their girls wear slacks to Church, or, on the other hand, their girls wear skirts-only even to outdoor sports activities. The first watchfulness is necessary; the second is where we fall down, cultivating a kind of exclusivity that is not conducive to pursuing holiness.

Red Cardigan said...

Oh, and thanks, Anonymous, for being the first person brave enough to leave a comment on this post! :)

Rebecca in ID said...

Beautiful post; thank you.

JMB said...

You left out the dressing up as saints in lieu of dressing up for Halloween! LOL.
Great insights as usual.

Charlotte said...

Well, you know, I agree with what you wrote here. Holiness is a journey, and many "sacred steps" that were sinful have often brought people exactly where they needed to be with God.

Anonymous said...

Observing Jesus in action is not quite the same as allowing Jesus working in one's own self.