This text is the complete version of the pamphlet entitled 'SPEAK ABOUT HOLINESS'. It is based on a talk given by Elizabeth Wang.
This little book contains the full version of the text I wrote for our ‘Radiant Light’ Conference in 2000, with a few minor additions and clarifications. As I explain in the next few pages, it was Our Lord Who chose the theme, and asked me to speak about holiness; and His generosity is limitless. I mean that He even told me how to explain the true meaning of holiness. I wasn’t to offer lists of virtues and lists of charitable activities, nor merely to repeat the recommendations which anyone can find in our Catechism; rather, Christ invited me to speak about four main topics to do with holiness; and these are, first, the ways in which we show reluctance to open the ‘door’ of our hearts to Christ; secondly, a simple way to the heart of God; thirdly, the Source of holiness, which is Christ our God, Whom we can meet in the sacraments, which include the Blessed Sacrament - the Holy Eucharist; and, fourthly, the canonised Saints of the Catholic Church, who are models of holiness. So those are the things I’ve tried to describe, with a few other details about aspects of our Faith to clarify the ‘picture’.
8 September 2000
Feast of the Birthday of Our Lady.
“Take yourselves for instance, brothers, at the time when you were called: how many of you were wise in the ordinary sense of the word, how many were influential people, or came from noble families? No, it was to shame the wise that God chose what is foolish by human reckoning, and to shame what is strong that he chose what is weak by human reckoning; those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones that God has chosen - those who are nothing at all to show up those who are everything. The human race has nothing to boast about to God, but you God has made members of Christ Jesus and by God’s doing he has become our wisdom, and our virtue, and our holiness, and our freedom. As scripture says: if anyone wants to boast, let him boast about the Lord.”
(1 Co 1:26-31)
“IN DEEP MUD”.
Two or three years ago, I was reading about Saint Patrick. He’s one of my heroes. Has any of you read his book - St Patrick’s “Confession”?
I remember a little paragraph in which he wrote about how he came to know God, in the midst of suffering, and of how he was then called to speak of God in the very country where he had suffered most: and to do so as a missionary Bishop.
“I am, then, first and foremost unlearned …
But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall …”
THE WORK OF RADIANT LIGHT.
That’s a passage I can identify with. It seems to me that the ‘deep mud’ from which I’ve been rescued is my past ignorance of Christ’s Church - a Church which I found and entered just over thirty years ago; and in sitting on this platform today - as if “on top of a wall” - I know that the Lord wants me to continue to speak about His love for us: to offer encouragement and hope, just as at our Conference last year.
The whole purpose of the “Radiant Light” movement which Our Lord - to my astonishment - has led me to bring into being is to encourage people to practise their Catholic Faith and so to find the peace and joy which we can only find through Christ. When I realised that Christ wanted us to have a Conference this year, as well as last, I turned to Him again in prayer, and asked: “What would You like me to speak about?” - and straightaway Christ urged me: “Speak about holiness.”
CHRIST’S HOLINESS IN US.
At the very same time, He reminded me of the real meaning of holiness; and He did so by giving me an image of a huge cavern, such as one sees underground, in the South of France - and in England, in Cheddar Gorge, in the West Country. And yet the cavern He showed me wasn’t damp and dark or full of menacing shadows. It was full of dazzling light, as if a fire of Glory burned fiercely within it - right up to the ceiling - so that its brilliant rays entirely filled one’s vision. Not a scrap of darkness remained.
This was an image of how Christ’s own holiness can entirely fill and transform the human soul.
This image was His way of showing me that each of us can picture our soul as being like an underground cavern: somewhere private in which we can think, ponder or pray.
OPENING THE DOOR.
It’s as though, in our Earthly life, we start life ‘underground’, far from Heaven and Heaven’s Glory. Each one of us is like the owner and inhabitant of a cavern which is our own soul; and each of us guards the entrance to this cave. Each of us can chose whether to continue to live in darkness - in sin and selfishness - or whether to ‘open the door’ to the loving Saviour-God Who waits outside, so to speak, until we give Him permission to enter our lives.
If we want to meet God here, and be happy with Him, and let Him share our lives - because that’s what we were created for - we’ll want to clean and beautify this cavern; and so it’s essential that we allow Christ to come close to us, to help us to clear up the chaos in our souls and our lives.
If we are willing to turn to Christ in prayer, and to speak to Him about our lives, with some trust and hope, it’s as though we’ve opened the door of our cavern: to let in Christ’s light and truth: to let in all the good things that the Spirit can bring: Christ’s own love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Ga 5: 22-23).
CHRIST: OUR HOLINESS.
Christ’s radiance shining in our ‘interior’ will be our holiness, in the end, and will make each of us a worthy “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Co 6:19); then we can be like those people to whom Christ spoke, when He made wonderful promises to the “POOR IN SPIRIT” (Matt. 5: 4-11), and to those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who are merciful, and the pure in heart, and the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, and those who are reviled on Christ’s account.
RELUCTANCE TO ‘OPEN THE DOOR’.
I suppose that some people will say, in all humility, that they’re not very good at prayer, or that they can hardly believe that - with all their failings - they will ever become holy; yet Christ has asked me to share His very helpful advice. Christ has asked me to mention particular points on the theme of holiness: - but not to give you long lists of virtues and charitable activities: nor simply to offer information which anyone can find in a good Catechism. He has asked me to explain, rather, four aspects of the subject: first, about the ways in which we keep the door of our hearts shut, or only half-open, secondly about what we all need in Earthly life: a simple way that leads straight to the heart of God, thirdly, about the sacraments, above all, the Holy Eucharist: the Blessed Sacrament, and fourthly, about the Saints in Heaven - our models of holiness.
I’ll say a few words about sin, however, in a general sense, before I go any further, in case anyone doesn’t yet really believe that we’re all sinful people, and that each of us needs to change.
SIN, IN OUR LIVES.
You’ll have noticed that some people in the Church have the task of drawing our attention to wars and natural disasters, and to divisions in society, so that we’ll be inspired to pray and to give help, and also to work to eradicate various evils; and this is necessary; yet it’s easy to think of sin as being what ‘other people’ do, and to forget what goes on in our own hearts.
So in speaking about the effects of sin, I’ll just draw your attention to the figure of Christ on the Cross.
THE EFFECTS OF SIN.
I know that I’d wince with horror if one of my friends had been in a car crash or a relation had been viciously attacked in the street, and I was asked to look at the police photographs. And that’s my first reaction when I look at the crucifix. When I see Christ’s bleeding body on the Cross I notice the wounds which have been inflicted on my very best friend; but I see something else: I see a God-given reminder about loving endurance - and also a message about sin, in our world. We can see the crucifix as being a perpetual ‘visual aid’ for Mankind. We’ve only to look at Christ’s wounds, and His crown of thorns, to see the effects of sin. This is what happened because sin envies, sin hates, sin attacks, scorns, slanders, and isolates; and then sin betrays, torments and kills.
That’s the general pattern; and although we might think, of ourselves, that we would never torture or kill anyone, the roots of that behaviour are in our souls - as we’ll realise if we remember for a moment how easily we fall into resentment, or anger or self-pity, or untruth, envy, or pride. This is why we need Christ, and the power of His Spirit: Christ, our hope of change, and the Source of holiness.
We can have what He has. Holiness is His free gift to us, if we’re willing to open our hearts to receive it. It’s that easy, in one sense: we just have to say ‘yes’ to God and then let Him change us while we strive with all our hearts to follow His way, on Earth, and to prepare for Eternal life in Heaven. Unfortunately we’re liable to imagine, after our first little triumphs in the spiritual life, that all we really need for holiness is will-power.
A DESIRE TO CHANGE.
Perhaps some of you are old enough to remember an advert which appeared in most of the country’s magazines, in the ‘sixties’: about a weak, skinny man at the seaside who had sand kicked in his face by people who were more muscular and athletic than he was; and so he decided to go in for heavy exercise, to avoid being humiliated in the future.
Some of us, perhaps, have had that sort of attitude, in the spiritual life: a grim determination to be perfect. This is particularly true of some of us who were converted or led into the Church as adults, and who have a fairly clear ‘before and after’ picture in our minds: of ourselves as weaklings who have struggled through life without Christ and who have then decided to lead a Christian life. But alas, even by our grim determination we didn’t achieve what we’d hoped to achieve.
We’ve discovered what St. Paul meant when he wrote:
“I CANNOT UNDERSTAND MY OWN BEHAV- IOUR. I FAIL TO CARRY OUT THE THINGS I WANT TO DO, AND I FIND MYSELF DOING THE VERY THINGS I HATE.” (Ro 7:15)
POWER TO CHANGE.
Good intentions and will power are not enough; so what a relief it is when we learn that Christ can change us by His power, if only we’ll freely come close to Him.
2 OPENING THE ‘DOOR’
This is the point at which I want to share a few of the illustrations which Christ has given me during the past fifteen years - and to do so by asking you to keep in mind the picture I described earlier.
LIKE A CAVERN.
I’ve said that Christ has shown me how we can picture the soul as being like a cavern: a ‘place’ within ourselves - within our heart and mind - into which we can withdraw, in order to pray: a place which we can ‘open up’ to Christ - as if opening a door, and showing Him our true thoughts, our state of soul, our hopes and fears, and our sins.
It can be a painful process: this opening up of our soul’s interior: yet it’s absolutely essential, if we want to get to know Christ, and if we want to make effective use of the sacraments. If we open our hearts, we can receive the holiness and the virtues which will bring fulfilment to ourselves, joy to other people - and Glory to God; though we can’t do it unless we have a little bit of real faith in God: faith in His great love for us.
GOD’S GREAT LOVE FOR US.
Would you mind reflecting for a moment on the sort of attitude you usually adopt towards prayer: whether you look forward to turning to God, to confide in Him: or whether you’re afraid of Him - or secretly convinced that He doesn’t love you? Perhaps you’re so ashamed of your past life, or of the way you’re living now, that you’re convinced you’re unlovable?
It’s important to remember that Christ has revealed to us what God is really like. Christ is God: God-made man. He came down to Earth to help and comfort us, and to die for our sins, and to remind us that the Father Who sent Him - and the Holy Spirit by Whose power He was made man - is compassionate and tender as well as All-holy. He doesn’t want us to grovel in fear before Him, like slaves. We can say that He’s ‘in love’ with us.
Have you ever watched a happy mother, as she simply gazes at the new-born child in her arms? She’s utterly full of delight at the child’s existence, ready to do anything to ensure its well-being. And that’s how the Lord gazes upon each one of us - all of the time. He’s full of delight at our existence; and He’s doing more than we can imagine, for our well-being. He’s nudging and guiding us, by His Spirit, to keep to the safe path and to do good to everyone; and He loves to hear us speak to Him in prayer. His whole desire and plan is to make us really joyful and fulfilled as children of Heaven.
God’s respect for each one of us is so huge, however, that He never forces us to love Him. He’ll even let us choose to ignore His wonderful plans for us and to walk towards darkness and danger. But until we’ve made our unchangeable choice - until the moment when we die - it’s as though He’s coaxing us to trust Him: coaxing us to ‘open’ our hearts a little: to speak to Him about our sins and sorrows, and our joys, and to let His Divine Light enter our lives.
That’s why I’m going to picture a few of the ways in which - Christ has shown me - we either shut out that Light, or allow it to shine within us.
THE DOOR FIRMLY-SHUT.
Christ has shown me that it’s as though we keep the door of our souls firmly shut, whenever we try to live ‘independent’ of Him - saying a decisive ‘no’ to His laws, and to His plan for our lives. And that’s why we’ve lived in spiritual darkness, alone within our ‘cavern’, so to speak: with the inner restlessness, confusion and unhappiness which are inevitable in such a state.
Perhaps we’ve even spent years piling up furniture behind the door of our souls, to keep God out: determined to be ‘independent’ of God, just as when people pile up sofas to keep out the Bailiffs who want to evict them. But God is no Bailiff. He offers sweetness and peace; but we’re reluctant to shift our ‘furniture’ to let Him in - to move our big sins: the one’s we don’t want to give up because they give us pleasure: I mean, stolen pleasure or selfish pleasure at someone else’s expense, for example, or the secret pleasure of pride or revenge - anything which isn’t part of God’s plan for our lives, and must be given up, if we want to be holy, like Christ.
A DOOR ‘ON THE CHAIN’.
Perhaps some of us have kept the door of our soul ‘on the chain’. We’ve been grudgingly aware that God exists; but we keep God safely at a distance through our lack of faith or lack of courage: whether by neglecting our prayer or clinging to our feuds and prejudices. We’re just not willing to change our way of life, and so it’s unlikely that we’ll find real joy or peace.
A BURNING SHAME.
Or course: things improve a little when we decide that we really need God’s help, or - what’s also true - that if God made us so that He can bring us “SAFE TO HIS GLORIOUS PRESENCE, INNOCENT AND HAPPY” (Jude 1:24) we’d better make contact, or, rather, respond to His promptings.
Whenever we open the door of our hearts widely, however, through sincere prayer, it’s as though the light hurts our eyes. We were used to the dark: but when we’ve finally allowed Christ’s light to shine down, to illuminate our daily routine, we feel so ashamed - because we’re proud and embarrassed. It’s as though we feel a burning spiritual pain on learning what a small, dimly-lit cavern we inhabit, with our feeble love for other people, our grudging way of sharing good things and our reluctance to forgive. So we’re tempted to give up, when we’ve hardly begun. We haven’t yet found the humility or the courage to begin a thoroughly new life, or to persevere in prayer.
FESTOONED WITH COBWEBS.
Or else we’ve found that the ceiling of the cavern of our soul is still festooned with cobwebs, despite our best efforts; I mean that we been trying to co-operate with Christ, by prayer and penance and loving service of our neighbour; but wherever we turn, it’s as though we keep finding more rubbish - more sin - that needs removing from our lives.
Or perhaps our ‘cavern’ is cluttered with things which are not strictly sinful. Perhaps we’re guarding, within our souls, a great number of smart boxes which are stacked even across the central area; and some of these are our most treasured possessions - our favourite habits, our comfortable routine, our hobbies and ambitions. It’s as though we’re not willing to make a clear space, so to speak, where Christ can sit down; and so His presence makes us feel uncomfortable.
OLD BOXES IN THE CORNER.
Maybe we’ve worked really hard. We have been clearing out the cavern; but we’re groaning at the knowledge that - one day - we’ll have to sort through a pile of old boxes in the corner, at the back. They’re full of old resentments and grudges: things we’re hardly aware we possess, but which Christ will reveal to us one day, when the initial clear-up has taken place.
(I’m not referring to past sins long-ago confessed, or to past problems long-ago left behind: to things which people agonise over, year after year - if they’re over-sensitive, or still lacking in trust in God’s goodness. I’m referring to the serious wrongs which perhaps we haven’t yet put right: things which, with Christ’s help, can be confessed or changed, so that the deep-down peace that we long for can be ours - and so that we’ll be ready for Heaven, when God calls us home. I mean that we don’t want to undergo purification after death for a minute more than is necessary.)
AS WE REALLY ARE.
There’s one last problem I want to mention, about prayer, which can hold us back from real joy. It’s as if we sometimes put on special disguises for prayer, not realising that these prevent us from developing a real friendship with Christ. We worry about what Christ thinks of us. We’re over-anxious to ‘tidy up’ before we invite Him to spend time with us.
Have you ever realised that someone is coming to your front door - someone whom you hope will never see you as you really are: untidy, with dishevelled hair? Have you ever leapt up, saying to yourself: “I can’t possibly open the door until I’ve put my jacket and shoes on - or my teeth in?” Or have you ever had someone call round unexpectedly at lunchtime, when your dirty breakfast things are still covering the kitchen table, the bin’s overflowing and your dirty washing is dumped in a pile on the floor?
Christ is the one person Who is never horrified or embarrassed by the ‘state we’re in’: but it’s as though we sometimes panic when prayer-time approaches; and instead of opening the door of our soul and showing Christ what we’re really like - so that He can help us - we greet Him with declarations of love and gratitude when, perhaps, we don’t really want to see Him. We’re almost overwhelmed by our work, or we’re broken-hearted at some new difficulty. It’s as though we’ve put on special clothes in private prayer, to try to impress Christ, when what He wants is to see us comfortable and trusting in His presence, so that we can have an honest and useful conversation.
(This is merely an illustration, by the way, about our relationship with Christ. It doesn’t mean that we should always go to Mass in our gardening clothes. On the contrary, it seems to me that we should try to dress in a neat and dignified way when we take part in the Sacred Liturgy … But that’s another story).
A BEAUTIFUL HOME.
But I think that’s enough about our attitudes.
It’s time to say that what Christ wants for us can indeed happen. If we pluck up courage and open our hearts to Him we can change our lives. A sincere ‘Our Father’, every morning, by someone who hasn’t been practising regular prayer, could bring about a spiritual revolution.
If we persevere in trust, every day, all year, and co-operate with God’s loving work in us, even through dark times, we’ll learn how Christ refreshes and rewards us in unique and marvellous ways. We’ll have a firm foundation on which to place the everyday furniture of our new beautiful home: of this dwelling-place or temple of the Holy Spirit, Who shares our life, with the Father and the Son.
And now let’s examine the ‘simple way straight to the heart of God’ which I mentioned: a way which is simple to follow, if we’re willing to open our heart to God, and also to endure the quite normal difficulties which are encountered by everyone who yearns for holiness.
3 A SIMPLE WAY
The simple way which Christ has shown me is the way found in Sacred Scripture, and in the Sacred Tradition, and in the constant teaching of the Church; and yet it’s so plain and straightforward that people sometimes imagine that it’s too simple, or even too drastic for modern men and women; but it’s a way that Christ has asked me to mention today. It involves prayer and sacramental help, with a few other things as well. It can lead, in the end, if we follow it faithfully, to the joy and peace for which we yearn, to the fruitful works we’ve longed to do - whether or not we see the results - and to union with God, and so to true communion with our spiritual brothers and sisters of every age, race and nation.
A SURE WAY TO GOD’S HEART.
And what is this simple way? If we want to follow it we’ll repent of our sins. We’ll believe in Christ, and in the teachings of His Church. We’ll decide that, by His power and for His sake, we’ll give up sin: by which we mean deliberate wrong-doing: which means giving up immoral practises and sinful relationships - married people as well as single; and of course we’ll pray - opening our hearts to God - and we’ll do penance; and we will show love to God and our neighbour, in every circumstance. Of course, we show love for God by doing His Will, which includes our being members of His Church and receiving the sacraments.
I’m sure you’ve heard these things before, elsewhere; but one of the reasons why Christ has asked me to repeat them is to give you some peace of mind.
Whatever we hear nowadays, none of us should feel inadequate if we can’t say clever things about prayer, or haven’t taken part in the exciting retreats and spiritual exercises we’ve kept hearing about from friends, or from newspapers.
‘ORDINARY’ AND DUTIFUL.
It’s because Christ’s way is simple that there’s no need for us to embark on a relentless search for different kinds of spirituality. It’s not wrong to enjoy the riches of the Christian Faith or to explore some of the varied and tested devotions; but it’s important that we recognise what an enormous blessing it is just to be ‘ordinary’, prayerful, loving and dutiful friends of Christ - and of His Mother Mary, of course, who, like any good mother, is very interested in what we do and longs to see us really happy.
So these are the six ‘basics’: to repent, to believe, to give up sin, to pray, to do penance, and to show love for God and our neighbour.
Of all the things on this list, perhaps the one which puzzles people most is the word: penance.
Traditionally, this means that by numerous little sacrifices and acts of charity - negative and positive things, so to speak - we try to co-operate with God in the straightening-out of our rather warped human nature; and this is the sort of effective spiritual work which is rarely mentioned today. It need not consist of sleeping on the floor, or wearing a hair shirt or fasting on bread and water; but if we offer to God the little sacrifices which we ought to make, as sincere Christians, and do the everyday acts of charity that we ought to do, as sincere Christians who are trying to fulfil our duties, we shall have enough solid penance for a life-time.
I know that some people can’t make up their minds about what sort of penance to do nowadays; and perhaps it’s easier to make a sort of ‘blanket’ resolution to cover some area of our life in which we’ve been a bit undisciplined.
Here are a few suggestions. Can you resolve, right now, never, ever, to grumble about your health, your relations, your work - or your various neighbours - or your parish Priest? What marvellous discipline that would be, worthy of a true disciple! Or, how about resolving always, in every situation, to be courteous and helpful, whether or not you’re treated with rudeness, pity, exasperation - or ignored completely? Which of us resembles Jesus in patience! Or perhaps we can continue to offer, all year, the little sacrifice which we chose to make last Lent?
Whatever we decide to do, we can be sure that, in doing penance, we can at least begin to develop the habit of virtue, and conquer new faults, perhaps, before they grow very large.
CHRIST OUR GOD.
Now it’s time to say a little about who Christ is: and about how He became our Saviour: the one Person Whose help we so desperately need. If we’re going to pray well, and use the sacraments well, we need to know what sort of Person we’re praying to, and to take a brief look at what the Church tells us about what Christ has done for us all.
We’ve heard some of these things so often that they don’t have much impact any more: and that’s a shame, because the truths at the heart of the Catholic Faith are immensely heart-warming and consoling, if we believe them and understand them to some degree; and the greater our understanding, the greater will be our appreciation of the benefits of prayer.
We know from the constant teaching of the Church that God the Holy Trinity has been working through the ages, fulfilling His marvellous plan to give hope and help to sinful people like ourselves.
THE PLAN OF SALVATION.
Now what exactly has God done for us? There’s a verse in Holy Scripture which reads:-
“LET THIS BE WRITTEN FOR AGES TO COME
THAT A PEOPLE YET UNBORN MAY PRAISE THE LORD;
FOR THE LORD LEANED DOWN FROM HIS
SANCTUARY ON HIGH.
HE LOOKED DOWN FROM HEAVEN TO EARTH
THAT HE MIGHT HEAR THE GROANS OF THE
AND FREE THOSE CONDEMNED TO DIE.” (Ps 102:18-20)
Jesus of Nazareth, Who walked this Earth two thousand years ago, claimed that He had come down from Heaven, to save people like ourselves: people of every generation who are prisoners of selfishness: likely to die in darkness and despair unless we find God and make our peace with Him.
The Church teaches us that God the Father has looked down with pity and compassion from His ‘Sanctuary on high’. He has sent His Son, to be made man, through the Holy Spirit’s power, from the Virgin Mary. Jesus Christ died on the Cross for our sins, but He was raised up from death to a new life. He can never die again; and He has formed His followers into a community of faith and hope and love: a united Body, which still exists today, and which teaches with the authority given to it by Jesus.
The Catholic Church teaches us that since Jesus Christ is both man and God, He is the perfect ‘image’ of holiness, and that He came to Earth to ‘bridge the gap’ between Earth and Heaven. Because of His Incarnation, people on Earth have seen Divine Love embodied. Divine Love has been seen, touched and heard: made visible: that’s part of the ‘Good News’ that has been handed on through the centuries so that people like ourselves can be given hope, and be rescued from sin: restored to friendship with God. How can our lives stay the same, once we really believe that God through Whom the Universe was made has been down to our world to live amongst us? Through His sheer compassion, this God of majesty and power - the only God - has walked this earth, shown us how to live, has died a horrible death, for our sakes, yet has been raised up from the grave to a new, indestructible life, and has entered Heaven in triumph, to await us; and He has left behind a living Body which continues His work.
And so Christ invites men, women and children of every age to recognise what He has done for them, to meet Him in prayer and in the sacraments, to share His Divine life, and to imitate Him; and the Church teaches us that Christ wants to make us resemble Himself so closely that we’ll not only bring truth and joy and kindness into the lives of other people, but will, in the end, delight the whole of Heaven by our spiritual beauty!
4 THE SACRAMENTS
A GOOD BEGINNING.
Some of you might be wondering if it’s a bit self-centred to be concerned with the state of one’s soul. We know that it’s healthy to be outward-looking: ready to reach out in love towards other people: glad to help and console our neighbour; but the greatest Saints and teachers in our Church’s long history have always advised that we give the best sort of help when we’re acting from true charity: when our love for our neighbour is Christ-like and unwavering, rather than sentimental or unreliable.
OUR NEED OF THE SACRAMENTS.
Christ wants us to be helpful in the way that every good neighbour is helpful; but He wants us to share the hope and joy that we’ve found through Him and His Church; and so, first, to get that hope and joy, we need the sacraments in which Christ is unfailingly present, ready to pour out His gifts upon us.
Just as Christ is busy gathering us together, and acting in the Church, to help and sanctify us, so He wants to work through us, for the everlasting welfare of other people. He wants us to help them as neighbours should, yet also to work for their Eternal welfare, by guiding them towards the Church, which teaches the truth about Christ, and about the way we should live our lives: transformed by Him, and made joyful. It’s in the sacraments that we can be sure of meeting Christ who is the sure Source of all the virtues we need so badly.
Those of us who have been baptised have learned that Christ has put His Divine Life and Light into our souls, by our Baptism. He strengthens that life in Confirmation. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass we have the supremely holy means of offering praise and thanks to the Father: through Christ, in the Spirit; and also in the Mass, which is both a sacrifice and a sacrament, Christ gives Himself to us, in love, in Holy Communion: sharing His Divine Life and His powerful graces. He restores our life and light in Confession, or Reconciliation, if we have ‘shut out’ His life and light again through serious sin. He gives us comfort and extra strength through our simple ‘confession of devotion’ - when we’ve nothing major to confess, but want to make a fresh start. And there are other sacraments to help us; but the greatest of all is the sacrament of Christ’s Sacred Body and Blood which we receive in Holy Communion, also known as the Holy Eucharist, or the Blessed Sacrament.
FAITH IN CHRIST’S REAL PRESENCE.
Of course, to welcome Christ properly in Holy Communion we need at least a ‘mustard-seed’ of faith in His Real Presence; and a lot of people admit that their faith is very weak. So, if any of you has ever doubted the power of God to change the bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood, at the Consecration - if any of you has ever doubted the Real Presence of Christ in what appears to be nothing more than a small round wafer - I’d ask you to think for a moment about another sort of disc: a recent invention, called a DVD.
Neither of the two discs I’m speaking about is startling, in its outward appearance. (See illustration.) One is a digital video disc, and the other is meant to be the Holy Eucharist, though in fact it’s a circle of white cardboard: just to help you to picture the Sacred Host which we receive in Holy Communion. We could break each of them in half, and we’d find nothing exciting within. There’d be no surprises, if we looked at a DVD through a microscope, or looked through a microscope at a piece of a consecrated Host. Yet - although this is not an exact parallel - each of these little discs can cause extraordinary effects in the life of someone who believes in what he is told about the item, and uses it according to trustworthy instructions.
PEOPLE, GIFTS AND STORIES.
If someone had brought me one of these DVDs ten years ago I might have disputed the claims made to me. I might have said: “I’m a rational human being; are you trying to persuade me that from this little disc - if I use it properly - I can meet people whose faces I shall think of forever, receive gifts of colour and music and dialogue that I’ll never forget, and hear a story that will make me weep for joy or sorrow: a story which can change my life?” I think that, in the end, I would have taken it on authority that from something so small could come astonishing effects, if only I’d put the disc in the right box, where the laser gets to work: to give me a feature film, in my own home.
ON GOOD AUTHORITY.
And so it is, it seems to me, with the Sacred Host, though it’s not an exact parallel. A scientist can tell us how digitalised images re-form to provide us with an image from a DVD, whereas no scientist or theologian can explain exactly how bread and wine are changed into Christ’s Body and Blood: into the whole Person: the Risen Christ, Present amongst us, though under the appearance of bread and wine. But I have it on good authority that that’s what happens. The Son of God Himself told us - and so I believe Him - that by the small disc which we receive during the Mass, in Holy Communion, astounding things can be achieved. He said: “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.” (Jn 6:51)
A digital disc (DVD) and a consecrated Host:
two discs, each of which can give extraordinary gifts.
A SPECIAL PERSON.
Through ‘using’ this disc - through receiving Christ our God - we can receive extraordinary gifts: things even more marvellous than any feature film can bring. We meet a Person Who’s worth being close to for as long as we live - because He created us; He loves us; and, if we love Him, we hope to be with Him forever. We receive the gifts - the Divine power - that can change our souls; and we live out a story which brings us shame or delight, depending on our response to God’s graces: a story which is unending, because every meeting with Christ when we’ve become His firm friends is a unique, new experience, whether of peace in darkness, or renewed contrition, or unexpected, heart-aching joy.
LIGHT SHINING OUT?
I can’t prove to you, as a scientist can, that this happens; but I’m utterly convinced of it, and I know it from experience; and hundreds of thousands of other people can tell you the same thing; and yet, to continue the parallel with the DVD - which won’t shine out if the laser equipment is broken - Christ’s light in us is dimmed, in Holy Communion, if we’ve deliberately ‘shut the door’, so to speak: if our soul is selfish and unwelcoming. But if we ‘use’ this disc well we’ll have what St. Paul describes: some of Christ’s Divine peace, patience, joy, hope and gentleness to fill the ‘cavern’ of our souls: some of Christ’s holiness.
5 MODELS OF HOLINESS
It’s time to do what Christ has asked me to do: to mention the Saints of the Church: people whom we know have been full of Christ’s light and love. We all have our favourites, I’m sure. Since I first ‘discovered’ the Saints, in adult life, when I found the Catholic Church, I’ve been inspired by the life-stories of hundreds of wonderful people. I’m speaking about the canonised Saints - though I’ve been inspired by the uncanonised, as well. But the canonised Saints are all chosen and held up for us, by the Church, as models of holiness.
THE CHURCH’S HISTORY.
I have a picture here of some of the Saints - though I know it’s rather a strange picture, at first glance. (See Frontispiece.) Once, when I was thinking about the New Millennium, and I was asking Christ what was the best way of picturing to myself the whole history of the Church, I was astonished to be given an image of a plant: something like a fox-glove. Have you ever seen one? It has dozens of buds covering it’s long, furry stem; but each bud in the image which Christ showed me was rather elongated - because each bud consisted of the figure of a Saint.
This was Christ’s way of explaining that I mustn’t see our Church history primarily as a list of Popes - although we do have a long list of past pontiffs - or as a Church building which has grown larger and larger. We should see our Christian history as being like an ever-growing plant, which is always putting out shoots of holiness.
THE FLOWERS OF HOLINESS.
The Saints are the flowers of holiness in each age: the most worthwhile ‘result’ of the plant, as it flowers in the world in successive ages. On a real foxglove stem, however, the buds higher up the plant flower one by one, to supplant the flowers lower down the stem which have begun to fade and die. But in the Church, the Saints of one age don’t ‘fade’ away from the Church’s history, since all past Saints are now alive and active in Heaven.
If I turn this picture on one side, just as Christ suggested to me, we can see in a startlingly new way that St. Paul and St. Augustine of Hippo, for example, are as much our contemporaries as are St Charles Lwanga or St. Maria Goretti. St Cuthbert and St Dominic are as much our contemporaries as are St. Thérése of Lisieux and St. Edith Stein; and the knowledge can spur us on, to find out more about the Saints of every age. We can even find the Saints with whom we seem to have a special connection, as we try to follow their example. They love to hear us speak to them; and they give us tremendous help by their prayers.
PEACE AND SIMPLICITY.
What is it that the Saints have in common - despite their vast differences of age, race, culture and language? They’ve all been passionately ‘in love’ with God, and deeply concerned for their neighbour; and they have all given evidence of possessing what we call the fruits of the Spirit: by which we mean: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In their holiness, the Saints seem to have achieved a marvellous simplicity: having learned to concentrate on the one necessary thing which Christ spoke about to Martha when He said that ‘FEW ARE NEEDED, INDEED ONLY ONE” (Lk 10:41): when He was explaining that God’s Will matters more than our own ideas.
The Saints, in loving God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - and in loving His Will for them, loved and remained loyal to the Church which Christ founded.
They loved Christ’s holy Mother Mary, whose love and loyalty surpass that of every other ‘disciple’ of Christ.
They were single-minded in Christ’s service; though, when they sinned or made mistakes, they weren’t too proud to go ‘back’ to Him time and time again, to reveal their weaknesses, and to ask confidently for His help. They were quick to begin again after each fall; and they did have falls and faults to confess.
As they strove to imitate Christ, they all learned how to accept their unavoidable sufferings - whether mental or physical, and whether caused through their own foolishness or through the cruelty or carelessness of other people. They knew that by bearing such pains, in union with Christ, they were joining in His redeeming work, and helping to save souls: which is just what His Mother had done, as well.
So they used every possible means of keeping Christ in mind - or of being close to Him. This means, amongst other things, that they treasured the Holy Scriptures; and they treasured Christ’s Presence in Holy Communion, which I’ve already mentioned, and in the tabernacle - especially during the dark times when they felt their courage failing. They knew - close to the tabernacle - that they were very close to Someone Who loved them immensely and Who admired their least little efforts to please Him.
TEMPORARY TRIALS, PERPETUAL DELIGHT.
If we’re going to take courage from thinking about the example of the Saints, it’s important to remember that however ‘dark’ are our lives - not from sin, I hope, but perhaps from special circumstances or particular trials - none of the bad things will last forever. If we are fervent in prayer, and rely on the sacraments, we can receive what the Saints have all received. We can receive the grace from God to continue in patience; and if we remain faithful, God will show us one day that all our struggles have been worthwhile.
When Christ eventually finishes His purifying work in us our souls and lives will shine with His light and goodness. We will live in a state of perpetual delight and gratitude that He has loved us so much that He died for us, and has ‘worked’ with us, to transform us; and the ‘cavern’ of our soul will be as beautiful as a palace. In the end, it will be a bright and glorious dwelling which is worthy of God the Holy Trinity Who has lived within our soul since our Baptism, but Whose presence has perhaps caused us more shame than gladness.
Our souls will be fit for the Holy Spirit, Whose Glory can now shine out from us in all its radiance. They will be fit for the presence of Christ, true God, Who comes to us in Holy Communion; and they will be fit for the Father: Almighty God, towards Whom Christ has been leading us.
Do you remember what Christ said in St. John’s Gospel? “NO-ONE KNOWS THE FATHER EXCEPT THE SON AND THOSE TO WHOM THE SON CHOOSES TO REVEAL HIM” (Mt 11:27). If we have done everything we can, in simplicity and patience, to empty ourselves of all that is unworthy of a ‘child of God’ - and have allowed God to shower His virtues upon us - we can be confident that we can meet the Father and His tender love, in child-like delight and astonishment: when that happy day arrives, whether in this life or when we die.
6 IN HEAVEN
Surely, Heaven is the goal and hope that we should all keep in mind when we think about sin, and repentance and change, and each time we decide to start again on the way opened up for us by Christ: on the road which leads eventually to holiness and peace. I believe there are two facets of Heaven, however, that we should think about now and then.
The first is the sheer holiness of Heaven: perfect, Infinite holiness. Christ once told me that in order to enter the pure ‘Fire’ of the Godhead with simplicity and joy we need to be thoroughly purified of all our self-centred and uncharitable yearnings, not because God is outraged by our faults, but because He loves us; and He knows that without purification, we shan’t experience the bliss in which He longs to immerse us forever.
But another facet needs stressing, too. Let’s see what Holy Scripture tells us, in one of the many images that we can find there, about Heaven. We’re told that all who enter there shall see God’s face (Rv. 22:4).
“HE WILL DWELL WITH THEM AND THEY SHALL BE HIS PEOPLE … HE WILL WIPE AWAY EVERY TEAR FROM THEIR EYES, AND DEATH SHALL BE NO MORE, NEITHER SHALL THERE BE MOURNING NOR CRYING NOR PAIN ANY MORE.”
Imagine! Nothing but total, exhilarating, unending joy and friendship! That’s what it can be like for you, and for me, if we’ll believe in Christ’s promises, and remain faithful to prayer and the sacraments, and prove our love for God by loving our neighbour.
If we’ve been made holy with Christ’s holiness, we will be at ease in the Father’s presence, free from all shame, utterly full of delight at being a true child of God - praising Him in wholehearted joy, with all the beloved friends who live at last with Christ, and with the Father and the Holy Spirit: One God, in the Glory and bliss of the Kingdom.