Learn to See God Through the Good Things of This World

Having an active or apostolic vocation is not incompatible with the highest degree of holiness

Henryk Siemiradzki, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” 1886, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Henryk Siemiradzki, “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary,” 1886, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg (photo: Public Domain)

We know Our Lord is coming to each of us, but — as with his first coming — it remains a mystery how he will choose to come.

There is a certain point in the spiritual life when most Catholics of the Church-law-abiding, church-building-frequenting, Catholic-newspaper-reading sort realize that they are not holy.

One might be a frequent Mass-and-confession-goer and devoted to the daily Rosary; one might follow the laws of the Church and fulfill one’s duties of state with a moderate degree of accuracy; one might even try to spend some time in personal prayer with Our Lord. But one doesn’t feel especially holy and, to be quite frank, one isn’t. If nothing else, the regular reoccurrence of certain venial sins in confession proves that something is not quite right.

At this point, it is natural and, indeed, right and just that a certain anxiety develop for one’s salvation. One takes it perhaps to those same confessions, consults older and hopefully wiser friends, and delves deeper into spiritual reading. The results can be rather alarming, especially since spiritual people and authors tend to have two faults, from the point of view of unconsecrated persons living in the world.

First, they tend to be rather dry and abstract. Holiness, they say, consists in nearness to God; and nearness to God is the greatest of all delights, so great indeed as to be indescribable in earthly terms. Try to think about God — or rather, spend time in his presence — as much as you can, and then (by his grace) will eventually experience that presence. This is theologically reasonable but not helpful as a practical blueprint.

What makes the blueprint seem yet more impracticable is (this being the second point) that spiritual authors tend to treat the world as a snare and a temptation best fled. Brother Lawrence (in The Practice of the Presence of God) writes one letter advising his correspondent to leave certain “business” as much as possible to another. All very well for Brother Lawrence’s correspondent, but what if one is the “other” who’s left to deal with the business?

Occasionally one will find an author, like Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, who acknowledges directly that having an active or apostolic vocation is not incompatible with the highest degree of holiness.

“The perfect unitive life,” he writes, “brings with it the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith and a passive union which is almost continuous. Like the preceding [illuminative life], this life appears under two forms: the one exclusively contemplative, as in a St. Bruno or a St. John of the Cross; the other apostolic, as in a St. Dominic, a St. Francis, a St. Thomas, or a St. Bonaventure” (The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life, ch.4).

But even Garrigou-Lagrange is thin on details, and certainly, the more frequently reprinted spiritual texts can leave the impression that retreat to a monastery is necessary to save one’s soul. The authors of these texts are writing this way because that is how they saved their souls and how their (anticipated, religious) audience is doing the same; the lay reader ought not to take it too personally. Indeed, even Brother Lawrence (in another part of The Practice) describes experiencing God’s presence in the midst of his business in the kitchen. One presumes, accordingly, that it is not impossible for those in the world to partake in some sense in the unitive way along with their contemplative brethren. But again, how? How is one to save one’s soul while living in the world — especially a world like ours, which even at Christmas time may seem a bit dark? If Christ is coming, how do we prepare for his epiphany?

The clear and obvious answer given by all the writers — and even the mild Garrigou-Lagrange does not omit to say this — is detachment. “St. Catherine of Siena emphasizes [that the end for which all Christians are required to strive is the perfection of charity] … reminding us that we can only perfectly fulfill the commandment of love towards God and our neighbor if we have the spirit of the counsels, that is to say, the spirit of detachment from earthly goods, which, in the words of St. Paul, we must use as though we used them not” (ch. 2).

This detachment is a hard thing perhaps especially when one’s life has been — though possibly more comfortable than that of many monks and nuns — not especially more selfish. The mere cross of having a child or children, even if there are no special obstacles or problems or needs involved; or the contrary cross of not being able to have children — these are soils in which sanctity can certainly flourish. Then there is the extra-familial side of life, whether that takes the form of volunteer work or particular professional choices (to practice, say, honesty or temperance or kindness at work) or even the general choice of a service-focused profession (to be, say, a middle school teacher or a grocer or a trash collector or a nurse).

But while all of these lay endeavors can present both crosses and opportunities for charity, they can also become distractions from God. One can wipe snotty noses for the love of God and end by idolizing the nose (or at least its minuscule possessor). This is an obvious problem for parents and grandparents; but it also extends to many professions, even the more self-sacrificial ones (teaching, nursing, charity work); it is an obvious stumbling block for many artists; it infiltrates even the religious life itself (only consider novice mistresses trying to stay detached from the souls they are training).

So there arises a very real question for the layperson seriously pursuing the spiritual life, of whether one will not at some point be required to drop it all, to leave off the pro-life clinic, the great symphony, the plans for a new Catholic school, and just focus on God? Should one perhaps do that right away, preemptively, just to be on the safe side? One doesn’t know when the Lord will come — hadn’t one better get some real practice being holy before then?

But there is the equal or greater and decidedly opposite temptation to beg the Lord to wait: “I’m not done with this thing — you wanted me to do it, right? — so if you could please, just hold off until I finish establishing this Catholic-friendly business, or reform my HOA so it’s family-friendly, or complete my portrait of St. Nicholas of Flüe, and only make me holy after I’m done with the business, I’d greatly appreciate it. Swooning like St. Teresa would get in the way of holding a paintbrush.”

Both attitudes are mistaken. The trick is to see God through the things of this world, and for this, you want (dare I say it) the advice of a poet or novelist more than a spiritual writer. Tastes differ: some may find it in Flannery O’Connor and some in Chesterton; whatever it is that teaches you, and you in particular, to see God in and through your quotidian activities — well, that, I suspect, is what you need. When the nose, snotty or beguiling or both, ceases to be opaque and the light of heaven shines through — then you have it.

When one does find the wherewithal to see the world in that way, I doubt whether one is much tempted to beg God to let one finish one’s magnum opus. Maybe one won’t finish it; maybe the community service project, the artwork, the mission will be stillborn. Maybe, like St. Zélie Martin and St. Gianna Molla, you will leave small children behind for someone else to raise. That doesn’t mean the work was futile. It only means that the work has turned out to be (though you meant it for others and for God) chiefly for your own sanctification. Sometimes the most holy of motives turns to what the world would call a selfish end: that of one’s own eternal salvation. Nor should any of us be ashamed or embarrassed if it turns out that way for us; we are, after all, “worth more than many sparrows.”