A life of holiness is not something that is relegated to the cloister and the monastery. It is for everyone.
This is something I learned from studying the lives of the saints, from learning to pray with the Church, and from the Scriptures themselves. We are all called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, and this demands conformity with Christ: “It follows, therefore, that Christ brings to men a principle of life which is a participation of the very life of God” (1).
Obviously, we all fall short of perfection. But this does not mean that we simply give up, throw our hands in the air, and call it a day. We grow in grace, we grow in Christ.
Now, this is a daunting task for any budding Christian. After our baptism, we are still presented with a choice: “Turn either to the right-hand or to the left; lay both parts before you, with every link of each; Christ with his yoke, his cross and his crown; or the Devil with his wealth, his pleasure and curse: and then put yourselves to it thus…” (2). In a way, I think this is what St. Theophan means when he refers to “a painful change of will” (3); it’s hard to choose the high road when it’s covered in thorns and bramble bushes while the low road is lined with peach trees.
Perhaps this sounds rather heavy, more suited to the cloister or monastery than to us regular lay folk. But I do not believe that this is the case at all. One look at the many lay saints, tertiary religious orders, and other such movements in the world only confirms this. As St. Paul admonishes us, the ear is not useless to the body because it is not an eye. We all have a role to play in the Mystical Body of Christ, and we are called to live out this role and to use our talents to their full potential.
As for myself, this is why I love having a rule of prayer that I can follow day in and day out. It helps me remain grounded in the constant liturgy of the Church, that collective prayer offered to the Trinity across time and space.
Of course, daily life in the world is a hard spiritual battle. I remember that several times in his videos, the great Coptic hermit Lazarus El Anthony says that his spiritual life and struggle is much easier one than ours, for he is alone in the desert. He has only the temptations of his heart, while we have the temptations of every faculty and sense.
So it is that in our daily lives, we must pursue and cultivate a life of holiness, no matter who we are. Christ asks us to follow Him — are we? Am I? And are we following Him in everything we do?
“If every day is “everyday,” then every day is Your day, and every hour is the hour of Your grace”(4). In other words, every day is a call to holiness, to the authentic living out of the Christian life in conformity to our Savior Jesus Christ. We have no excuses but the ones we make ourselves.
The Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur writes, “The soul can be as white and empty of worldly influence as the cell of a monk. The crucifix and some books – that is to say, God and work: this is what fills the solitude of nuns and monks; this is what can make a solitary of the woman who is completely beset by external noise and activity” (5). There is much wisdom to be pondered from this courageous woman whose life was one of interior martyrdom out of love for her atheist husband who loved her but actively rejected her faith until after she died.
The holiness and dedication that we see in the lives of religious is also for those who live in the world. It is not only monks and nuns and priests who are “smitten with heavenly longing, and hungering for the righteousness of the virtues” (6), but also the laity. It follows that we are to satisfy this hunger, thirst and longing from the exact same Fountain that those who have become wed to Christ do.
I leave you with a few words from one of the greatest Doctors of the Church, St. Francis de Sales:
“Almost all those who have written concerning the devout life have had chiefly in view persons who have altogether quitted the world; or at any rate they have taught a manner of devotion which would lead to such total retirement. But my object is to teach those who are living in towns, at court, in their own households, and whose calling obliges them to a social life, so far as externals are concerned. Such persons are apt to reject all attempt to lead a devout life under the plea of impossibility; imagining that like as no animal presumes to eat of the plant commonly called Palma Christi, so no one who is immersed in the tide of temporal affairs ought to presume to seek the palm of Christian piety.
And so I have shown them that, like as the mother-of-pearl lives in the sea without ever absorbing one drop of salt water; and as near the Chelidonian Isles springs of sweet water start forth in the midst of the ocean; and as the firemoth hovers in the flames without burning her wings; even so a true stedfast soul may live in the world untainted by worldly breath, finding a well-spring of holy piety amid the bitter waves of society, and hovering amid the flames of earthly lusts without singeing the wings of its devout life. Of a truth this is not easy, and for that very reason I would have Christians bestow more care and energy than heretofore on the attempt, and thus it is that, while conscious of my own weakness, I endeavour by this book to afford some help to those who are undertaking this noble work with a generous heart” (7).
1 – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life, ch. 1
2 – John Wesley, Wesley’s Covenant Service, Directions For Renewing Our Covenant With God, II
3 – Turning the Heart to God, pg. 2
4 – Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence, ch. 5
5 – The Journal 1899-1906, “February 27, 1906”
6 – Ps. Macarius, “Homily 10”
7 – Introduction to the Devout Life, preface