What Does the Universal Call to Holiness Look Like Today?
COMMENTARY: Christ’s call has become domesticated and tame in order to make it conform to the modernity’s cult of bourgeois well-being.
The primary focus of my writing over the past few years has been the universal call to holiness put forward by Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, as the only sure answer to our current ecclesial problems.
Sanctity and the production of saints is one of the chief mandates of the Church and is a key component of Christ’s great commission to make disciples of all nations. And it my further claim that the Church has domesticated this call to holiness and made it tame in order to make it conform to the modernity’s cult of bourgeois well-being. After all, it was Christ himself who warned us that you cannot serve both God and Mammon and that where your treasure is there will your heart be also. And it was Christ himself who called the rich young man (ruler) to give all he had away and follow him. And it is instructive in regard to the entrapments of Mammon that this is the only instance in the Gospels where Christ specifically calls someone personally to follow him and is turned down.
But what does this mean then for laypeople today who are trying to pursue holiness and yet who must live in the world, as is the proper vocation of the layperson?
I remember once getting a text from a former student of mine who had just read an article I had written on Dorothy Day and her life of voluntary poverty which I had sent to him. He responded, simply, “Ugh. How can one be expected to live like that if you have five kids and a Golden Doodle?” I responded that he had missed the point and that the warnings against Mammon had more to do with what it does to the soul than with a general condemnation of possessions as such, especially those possessions we truly need in order to properly raise families.
As Vatican II had pointed out, the call to holiness must be prudentially tailored to your state of life and your own unique circumstances. It does not mean that we must now all put on sackcloth and ashes and go to live on a commune in some holiness compound in the woods.
Nevertheless, the call to holiness does mean that we must at the very least actually strive for holiness in a concrete way, take the call seriously, and seek to avoid all minimalist understandings of how we are to follow the Gospel. Because all too often what happens is we first begin with a false vision of holiness as some kind of Draconian, white-knuckled asceticism, whereupon we realize that this is not possible and so we “settle” into a kind of stale and compromised mediocrity as that which “normal” people do “in the real world.” And the end result is that we really do not take the call to holiness seriously at all, and rather unconsciously adopt the way of life common to the culture at large.
One of the mistakes we make is that we tend to think that holiness has to do with something that is “extraordinary” and “beyond” the normal duties of life since those duties are “merely” a part of the very ordinary quotidian obligations that “everyone does anyway.” And yet, for most of us the path to holiness resides precisely in such ordinary tasks. Think of the “Little Way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who, though in a cloistered carmel, did not equate her call to holiness with that aspect of her life as much as she saw her path to holiness as a faithfulness in charity to all of the small duties of the day. And that is a message that can directly translate into how laypeople in the world can pursue the hidden path of holiness by engaging in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, even if those things are never really noticed by anyone. And of course, the path of marriage and family brings with it a thousand silent and unnoticed crucifixions where the desires of the self must be set aside in the interests of fulfilling one’s state in life as a spouse and a parent. And therefore, we must begin with a resolute seriousness as a Church to start “naming” those crucifixions that most laypeople endure in order to emphasize that these are moments of holiness and not just the fulfilling of “ordinary obligations.”
Allow me to indulge in an autobiographical narrative by way of example. I think of the example of my own parents. They had five children, the youngest of which — my beloved sister Frances — was born with a severe set of heart defects. She was weak and constantly ill and required my loving and holy mother to care for her constantly.
I still have seared into my soul the white-hot memory of my mother staying up all night with Frances holding her in her lap as Frances cried in pain as she vomited up blood and the medicines that had ripped her stomach apart. I remember my mother singing to her and rocking her as she, too, cried with the tears of parental empathy and who would have gladly exchanged places with her suffering little one in a Christ-like act of vicarious substitution. And then the next day, devoid of sleep, my mother had to attend to the needs of the rest of us and did so with devotion and the constancy born of love. And when Frances died at the age of 5 following unsuccessful surgery — a surgery after which she lingered in great agony and suffering for four days before passing, with my parents suffering greatly at her side — their grief was immense.
My father was a man’s man. A Korean war Air Force veteran and a fireman. He was (and still is thankfully) a good man of salt of the earth virtues, filled with the kind of stoic masculinity so common among American men of the post-war era. I never once saw him cry. That is until Frances died. And then I witnessed my strong and self-composed father cry for the first time in my life. Great, heaving, sobs of grief poured out of him over my sister’s casket and I witnessed my stoic father come apart in the following days, sullen, depressed, and with eyes constantly red, as our entire family mourned the loss of one we loved so very dearly. And in the midst of all that my parents had to soldier on and care for their other children with the needs of school and new clothes and daily meals and chores. And my father had to return to duty at the firehouse as if a few days passing-by could heal such a deep offense.
That, my friends, is holiness. But because we all too often have a false, clericalized vision of holiness we miss just how very holy it is to be something as “ordinary” as a mom and a dad. But all that being said, once we have identified what real holiness looks like for most laypeople, then we need to double-down as a Church and preach that message from the rafters if need be.
We need to tell stories like the one I just told in order to revalorize the heroic virtues required to be a parent in today’s world. Because contemporary family life is in crisis, both ideologically in the current attack on the Christian concept of family as an oppressive structure that needs to be socially deconstructed, and practically in the cultural ubiquity of such things as rampant pornography of the most degraded sort as well as the general coarsening and vulgarization of our language and customs of social decorum.
Healthy families conducive to the path of holiness are a domestic Church and are the backbone of the broader Church. And they do not happen by accident. They require the rich soil of a proper ecclesial culture in order to grow and flourish as specifically Catholic families. They are, sadly, undermined by that very same Church when it gives a wink and nod to cohabitation, when it turns a blind eye to priests who bless same sex “unions” and hold “Pride Masses” complete with rainbow vestments and altar cloths, when it appears to greenlight the softening of the discipline of Eucharistic reception for those in what are now euphemistically called “irregular marriages” and when it seems not to care about beautiful liturgy and presents instead to today’s families drab and boring liturgies that seem designed to drive children out of the faith since their entire ethos of insouciance toward the sacred screams out: “This does not really matter.”
But it does matter and in order for families to flourish as the domestic engine of the call to holiness — and thus for the vision of Vatican II to be fulfilled — the Church must start paying attention to the real needs of that most marginalized and endangered periphery of all: Parents.