“BUT THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE”: HOLINESS AS THE FULLNESS OF LOVE
(Note: This is a rough draft of the talk given
to the seminarians of the Sacred Heart Seminary
during their monthly recollection
The history of Christian spirituality, and of Christian literature has as one of its main themes that about holiness. Perhaps this is something that is not confined merely to spirituality, to spiritual literature or to theology, for that matter. Holiness is a central theme in the Christian life, since it is precisely that which gives reason to our being Christians: “Be holy” (cfr. Lev 11:44). Despite of the simplicity of this supreme Christian ideal, the concept of holiness has been expressed in a lot of ways; communicating this and what it precisely means is mainly responsible for immense rivers of ink to flow throughout the centuries, as spiritual writers have shown in their works. The question about what holiness is and what it entails is one that has produced the greatest spiritual classics in the history of literature. But the abundant literature on Christian holiness is not a mere elaboration of cold concepts, but rather is the fruit of the Christian experience, whether it be the collective experience and tradition of the Church, or be it lived personally by the author itself. The greatest writers on holiness and union with God were great saints, and in this area I cannot but help thinking of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola or Thèrése of the Child Jesus. They wrote not merely of what they have received from the great patrimony of the Church concerning holiness, but also from the richness of their own personal experience with God.
We may have many possible ways of understanding what holiness is. This is what I have been trying to express since the start. In this setting, a monthly recollection given to semianrians—aspirants to the holy Priesthood of the Archdiocese of Palo and its suffragans—I would like to be guided by the theme that the upcoming Jubilee has proposed for this year: “There are in the end three things that last, faith, hope and love; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). This is precisely one theme that would eventually lead us to that of the Jubilee year itself, which is precisely about holiness: “This is the will of God: your holiness” (1 Thes 4:3).
Going back to the issue at hand, I have stated that there the understanding of the concept of holiness is abundant; we could understand it in a variety of ways. Some are precise, while some could not be far from the mark. Others are plain caricatures of holiness, and therefore, far from aiding us in making progress in our Christian life, as retained concepts they stunt our growth. One such example I could still remember from my younger years, while I was in elementary. On thing that was in our school environment was that smiling continually helped you grow in holiness. Many of our teachers were members of a charismatic group, and they got it right when they taught us that joy was consequential to holiness, however, reflecting on the slogan years afterward, a wrong message was transmitted to us pupils—to me at least—in which we had to keep smiling always because it made one holy. I learned as I went through life that people could smile for a lot of reasons—some of which aren’t especially edifying nor conducive to holiness. Even Satan could smile, well at least if we could give him a face or lips to smile with.
Others would picture holiness as associated with long periods of being in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and having countless devotions day in and day out. This is holiness understood as living constantly within the shadow of the parish church or in the air-conditioned comfort of the Adoration chapel, or countless rosaries and novenas to saints. This is something that I believe all of us would have debunked by now. Were it to be so, the beggars in our churches should really be very holy people, and our sacristans and church sweepers should be among the most esteemed in our communities for their holiness. Not that these people cannot be holy, but experience wise we don’t know of any sacristan, or church sweeper, or beggar with exceptional holiness of life here in our immediate surroundings.
These are just two of the conceptions that we could have about personal sanctity or holiness. We may smile at the thought of these caricatures, but at least they contain a grain of truth. It is true that joy and gladness of heart is a component of sanctity, and that this inner joy goes outward to be expressed in a smile; there is no doubt that sanctity requires that devotion and communion with God that is present in prayer, a relationship that is expressed in the way we take time to be in prayer. However, even these—joy, gladness, communion through prayer, devotion—merely lead us to something even more profound. It is something that lies at the heart of sanctity.
To consider this deeper element of holiness, let us be guided by the words of the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13). These are words that perhaps may be very familiar to us; they form part in Paul’s famous “Hymn to love”, which is oftentimes used in wedding liturgies because of the fact that it points to this necessary Christian virtue. What we see are three things that are fundamental, namely, faith, hope, and love. There is nothing more stable than these three; all the rest pass away quickly. These three are what the doctrine of our Faith term as the three theological virtues. By theological we express the fact that these virtues come to us as gifts from God. We are endowed with these three by God.
This is one important consideration that we ought to have when we talk about holiness. Sanctity is a gift from God, a grace, something that we do not come up on our own desire or strength. It is not an accomplishment of mine, or something that I receive a diploma or a certificate that would attest of it as a personal achievement. For these three are fundamentally essential for sanctity. Faith enables us to commit ourselves entirely to God, and thereby seek to know and do His holy will. For its part, the virtue of hope makes us desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Important though they may be, these two however would not remain as well, for even these two would give way to a third virtue. This is a virtue that, in the way that I would like to understand it, the other virtues of faith and hope encounter their maximum expression and their supreme fulfillment. This is the virtue of charity, of love: “and the greatest of these is love”(1 Cor 13:13).
The consideration of sanctity and of these virtues allows us to see that it is charity that brings the two together. It is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things and for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us about love. But here is another given in the youth catechism issued for the latest World Youth Day in Madrid (2011), otherwise known as the YOUCAT: “Charity is the power by which we, who have been loved first by God, can give ourselves to God so as to be united with him and can accept our neighbor for God’s sake as unconditionally and sincerely as we accept ourselves”.
In the Catechism, we find this statement: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness”. Holiness is nothing else than the fullness of Christian life. the Christian life is characterized specifically by one thing: charity. It is not faith that characterizes the Christian, nor is it hope, because Jews have this hope in the coming of the promised Messiah, and Muslims are noted for their faith as well. There is what we call a faith that is Christian and a hope founded on Christ, but that which is typically Christian is charity. In fact, the fundamental law taught to us by the Lord could be summed up in this way: Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. Love is the fullness of Christian life, and brought to perfection, this is what holiness is. Borrowing that happy expression of the conciliar document Lumen Gentium when it mentioned the universal call made out to all followers of Christ, holiness is nothing else but the perfection of charity.
This is so because love is that which unites us with God, allowing us to share in his very own life. Our participation in the life of God begins even while here on earth, through sanctifying grace, which is nothing else but man’s participation in the very life of God. It is a participation of Love that finds its fulfillment in heaven. This is supported by that verse in the letter of John that says: “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him”. The Christian who allows himself to be the dwelling place of the Trinity of Love in his heart soon becomes known for a life that is built upon and characterized by charity.
This union with God who is love, of which holiness is all about, could not be contained in itself, but rather overflows, allowing us to embrace others as well. Love begets love, as one known saying goes. Getting our take from another maxim, this time philosophical, we could say that love is diffusive. This love overflows into one’s neighbor. The love of God is not sterile nor does it leave a person indifferent to the plight of the one nearest to him. It moves the Christian to share this interior life of love with his brethren in the faith, and brings forth a harvest of good works. It incites to action; it never leaves a person indifferent. when a person allows himself to be touched by the transforming power of God’s internal life—that internal life of the Trinity which is love, not only does he become transformed himself; rather, he becomes an agent of transformation in the community wherein he lives.
This is one thing that explains that striking reference in the YOUCAT which mentions charity as a POWER. Holiness, as the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of charity, is a constructive force capable of transforming not merely the societies that we live in, but also even the cosmos. It was the holiness of God that created the universe; it is this explosion of holiness in the Parousia that will recreate the wounded cosmos. In relation to this it is very interesting to remember that the Church is always undergoing renewal; every period in the Church’s bimilenary history has its own period of reform and renewal. It is a manifestation of the holiness of the Church, despite of the sins of her children. It is interesting to note that these periods of strong renewal within the Church were ushered in by holy men and women of every time and age.
This power stems from the touch of God upon every person. For us, in relation with our neighbor, this power stems from the fact that we are able to accept those nearest to us unconditionally and sincerely, as was mentioned in the citation from the YOUCAT. But this is also due to the fact that that in doing so, we have been able to do the same for ourselves: we have accepted the truth about ourselves unconditionally and in all sincerity.
Charity allows us to walk in the path of the truth. This is a truth that we have not invented for ourselves, on that could change with the times or with the fashion. This is something that goes beyond the barriers of nationality and race, gender or sexual preference. What is this truth that I am referring to? Nothing else but having been created in the image and likeness of God, who is love, we have been given new life as children of God in the only-begotten Son of God, and that this filiation—that being a son or daughter of God—is the work of the Holy Spirit. Holiness means living according to the truth of the original plan that God had for each and every single one of us. Sin may have warped this original image, but the coming of the Son of God among us has given us to the opportunity of becoming life unto God himself, with his very life in us.