One of the questions that I have been asked about holiness and the quest for holiness was ‘why do we need to do this now?’
It comes from the mentality that since heaven is for eternity, that we would have eternity to do this, so what’s the rush? The following analogy has been used before – that we are all on a train heading toward a common destination, and we are in different carriages on that very long train called life. We can do all sorts of things on that train – some of us are maximizing our time doing a lot of good things, some of us are making sure that the train is well maintained, some are helping others on their journey, pointing out the various beautiful and interesting sights along the way, and some are just gazing, almost catatonically out into the passing world outside. And some of us are wondering what we are doing on the train. Of course, this analogy is full of theological problems, as it seems to imply that there is universal salvation for all no matter what happens (even for those who happen to jump off the train before it reaches its final destination). But if we were to put aside (albeit temporarily) this huge difficulty, the question of our individual need for holiness would be a good question to ponder.
Holiness is something that allows us to be true to our deepest selves, and reminds us of the great dignity that we hold within. It’s a bit like breathing. Without it, we would die. But we aren’t conscious of it all the time are we? Be honest – if your eyes hadn’t read that last line, you wouldn’t have suddenly made yourself conscious of the fact that you are breathing, or that breathing causes you to live. Our yen for holiness is like that, but on a level that is far more deep and intrinsic than merely being able to breathe. It is our reminder that we are images of not just humanity, but of divinity as well. When we are aware of the need to be holy, and to work toward eventual sainthood, we will slowly but surely, shrug off in our lives anything that detracts us from that goal.
But many people seem to have a warped sense of holiness. So many Christians I have met lament that holiness (in their minds) means that one no longer has the ability to enjoy life, while the truth is simply contrary to that. Proper holiness means that our choices in life become clearer and clearer – that we know that things that do not bring us to true life are precisely the choices that we should not be making. Holiness then is celebrating that we are shunning those choices rather than lamenting that we can’t choose them. Maturity is being truly able to celebrate this awareness. Immaturity is when we are still unhappy with this choice. A scriptural icon of this would be the elder brother of the prodigal son in the Story of the Prodigal Father.
Just as many have a warped sense of holiness, there are also who have a rather unclear understanding of forgiveness and mercy, which are crucial in our search for holiness in life, simply because unforgiveness puts a huge barrier between God and ourselves.
In my last blog, and the entire unfolding of what happened between two readers, there was a lack of understanding of what forgiveness is, what mercy is, and what the sacrament of reconciliation is, and is not. Some people even wrote personal emails to my email address to bemoan the fact that I have not kept private what was deemed to be ‘confession’ by some readers. From this episode, there is clearly a warped sense in many people about justice. Forgiveness is not a mere cheap cancelling out of a very necessary restitution. How convenient it seems to suddenly forget about having offended God in the first place! And this is even more glaring when scripture passages are almost slung at others so that what justice demands becomes ignored or conveniently side-stepped. Indeed, the best quotes from the bible do come from the devil himself.
I am aware that a blog of this nature can and is read by anyone from any part of the world (cyber or otherwise). The problem is that most people will be reading this from their ‘de’-formed catechesis, or what they think is Catholic teaching, and there is no way that I can address a commonly-held ignorance till it is brought up specifically. I suppose this is where I can address something as crucial as this.
A true sacramental confession is one where the penitent expresses a true contrition for the wrongs one has done, and goes before a priest physically (never in cyber space), and in the privacy of the confession which is a one-to-one encounter, whereupon one receives not only the absolution from the priest, but also a suitable penance to address the sinful act that had been committed i.e., made some form of restitution.
An email that is written anonymously to a priest, telling the priest what one has done (or worse, what one is heinously going to do the next day) does not a confession make. And it certainly is not something that the priest is held bound to silence, especially if its nature is evil and harmful to another human being. Of course, the classic situation posed in just about every course taught on the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the seminary is when a murderer (or a terrorist) confesses to a killing, and the question would be what the confessor would do - withhold absolution till he surrenders to the authorities? Not give the absolution at all? These possibilities come to mind. But that is a totally different matter altogether. We cannot ever make a confession in anticipation of a sin that is going to be committed later on. It simply leaves out the very important contrition that is such an essential part of the sacrament.
I realize that I cannot single-handedly correct such misconstrued thoughts and notions about the sacrament of reconciliation that exist out there. But you can. Yes, you, the reader of this blog, especially if you are a Catholic. You can, after having been catechized, albeit a little, by this entry, become the one who corrects the wrongly held opinions of your office colleagues, your children, your neighbour, your spouse, or whoever you know has either an erroneous or ignorant opinion about the kind of life that the Church wants to help us to lead.
I come back to our shared quest for holiness, as an inclusion to this post. Holiness, when sought correctly, helps us to buffer the storms that well up in life, as storms are wont to. It helps us to address upheavals in that proverbial train of life that we are on while the train rolls towards our shared destination in life.
Last weekend, most of the cities in the north east of North American received what is known as a Northeaster. This is when a storm travels from the south, and, converging with the cold air mass from the north, brings in an extremely cold air system down from the Arctic. Because of this, some places had their first snow in autumn.
But something terrible happened. The trees are still not fully denuded as we are still in autumn. The sudden accumulated weight of the snowfall on the leaves caused so many branches of trees to snap and give way and snap under the unnatural added weight of the snow. Many of these felled power lines, causing more than a million Americans to be deprived of power for up to four days.
But this doesn’t happen that much in winter because all the leaves of the trees would have been fallen by then, and much less snow would have accumulated on the denuded branches. It’s nature’s way of dealing with the storms she brings.
So too in our human ‘nature’. Our yen for holiness is what prepares us for those sudden Northeasters that blow from time to time in our lives.
Just as holiness helps us to ‘shed’ the excess baggage and drop the things that lug us down in life, its upside is that it helps us to have free hands to react to the things that can come our way in the most unexpected of times, and unexpected of ways.