You're holier than you know

By Father Robert Barron| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Spirituality

In June of 1997, while on retreat at St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, I had an opportunity to talk at some length with Father Godfrey Diekmann. One of the giants of the liturgical movement in this country and a major player in the shaping of Vatican II's document on the reform of the liturgy, Diekmann was in his upper 80s but his mind, wit, and tongue were as sharp as ever.

Caught up in the enthusiasm of his conversation and the excitement of his reminiscences, I asked him, "Godfrey, if you were young again and you could mount the barricades, what would you speak out for today in the church?" The old warrior hit me on the knee with his cane and said without hesitation, "Deification." What Godfrey Diekmann was referring to, of course, is a central doctrine in so many of the church Fathers whom he loves: We human beings are, in Christ, drawn into the very life of God, transfigured into divinity.

Waving his cane like an orchestra conductor, he continued, "In the '30s, I went from Rome to Germany to hear the lectures of Karl Adam, and I'll never forget what he said. He told us that we start at the top, that we start as children of God. The essence of the spiritual life is not trying to make ourselves worthy of God because God has already made us worthy. The essence of the spiritual life is to live out the implications of our dignity as deified children of the Father."

He paused for a few moments, and then he said quietly, "That's what I'd fight for. That's what I'd tell the people."

At the center of Christian faith is the dizzying truth that God has broken open his own heart in order to allow us to share his life. The Father sent the Son into godforsakenness, into marginalization, physical suffering, psychological agony, even into death itself, and then in the Spirit he called him back. But in the return to the Father, the Son carried with him all of us whom he had embraced, showing us that nothing can finally separate us from the heartbroken love of God. When we, through Baptism, enter into the drama of Christ's mission, we are deified, made children of God, rendered holy. The holy life is not primarily about moral excellence or spiritual athleticism or any sort of human achievement; it is about being drawn, by grace, into a dignity infinitely beyond our merits or expectations. Diekmann was right: It is about deification.

Now the holy life "shines," it radiates, it appears. In saints, poets, fools, and friends of God, deification takes on flesh and assumes a form. As the wild diversity of the communion of saints testifies, there is nothing uniform about holiness, but there are certain basic patterns and styles that emerge in the community of the deified.

In the course of this article I would like to "walk around" holiness, seeing its various angles and profiles and faces, hoping to catch facets of it as the light plays on them. In the spirit of Father Avery Dulles, S.J., I will present three "models" or paradigms of holiness, various paths of being holy that have emerged in the Christian tradition and become incarnatein those who realize they begin as children of God. 

First path: Finding the center
The massive rose windows of the medieval Gothic cathedrals were not only marvels of engineering and artistry; they were also symbols of the well-ordered soul. The pilgrim coming to the cathedral for spiritual enlightenment would be encouraged to meditate upon the rose of light and color in order to be drawn into mystical conformity with it. What would he or she see? At the center of every rose window is a depiction of Christ (even when Mary seems to be the focus, she is carrying the Christ child on her lap), and then wheeling around him in lyrical and harmonious patterns are the hundreds of medallions, each depicting a saint or a scene from scripture.

The message of the window is clear: When one's life is centered on Christ, all the energies, aspirations, and powers of the soul fall into a beautiful and satisfying pattern. And by implication, whenever something other than Christ-money, sex, success, adulation-fills the center, the soul falls into disharmony.

Jesus expressed this same idea when he said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and the rest will be given unto you" (Matt. 6:33). When the divine is consciously acknowledged as the ground and organizing center of one's existence, something like wholeness or holiness is the result.

This same truth is indicated frequently through "soul" language. Soul is not, for Christians, some spiritual entity alongside the body; instead, it is the deepest center and source of all that we are: body, emotions, passions, and mind. It is what the Bible calls "the heart," that place-sometimes soft and pliable, other times hard as a rock-that God most often addresses and in which he longs to dwell. It is that deepest wellspring that Saint Teresa of Ávila calls the "interior castle," that Meister Eckhart refers to as the "inner wine cellar," and that Thomas Merton knows as the point vièrge, the "virginal point" where we stand unsullied in the presence of God.

When we live in the interior castle, we are safe; when we are at home in the inner wine cellar, we are regularly intoxicated with the spirit; when we identify with the virginal point, we are one with Mystery. When we live in this space, we are, in a word, holy.

Perhaps the most powerful New Testament evocation of holiness as centeredness is the account of Jesus' calming of the storm at sea. As Jesus and his disciples make their way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, storms blow up and the apostles panic, fearing for their lives. All this time, despite the roaring of the waves and the tumult of the screaming men, Jesus remains, improbably, asleep.

The sleeping Christ stands for that place in us where we are rooted in the divine power, that soul space where, despite all of the vagaries and dangers of life, we are one with the God who governs the whole cosmos and whose intentions toward us are loving. Even when every aspect of my person is agitated and afraid, that central place is peaceful, at rest. Of course, we see that Christ, once awakened by the disciples, rebukes the winds and calms the waves. This means that the source of peacefulness in the whole of one's person, the spiritual power that can restore calm to the stormiest life, is the inner Christ, the ground of the soul.

Another artistic evocation of the center is the "wheel of fortune" that can be found on so many of the medieval cathedrals. At the top of the wheel is a portrait of a king, and over his head is the inscription "regno" (I am reigning). Clockwise on the wheel, to the king's left, is a figure shown plummeting down, and next to him is the motto "regnavi" (I have reigned). At the bottom is a pauper and accompanying him the saying "sum sine regno" (I am without power). And finally, still moving clockwise, we find a well-dressed man ascending toward the king and next to him is the hoped inscription, "regnabo" (I will reign).

But at the center of the wheel, at that unchanging point where the spokes come together, there is a depiction of Christ.

The point is simple and powerful: This wheel of fortune turns and turns throughout one's life, moving one from power and privilege to weakness and penury and then back again. There is really only one guarantee that we have: Whatever state we are in is not our permanent state, for the wheel inevitably spins. But despite the myriad changes, whether one is king or pauper, there is a still-point, a reliably fixed center, where one can find peace and stability. This is Christ; this is the divine power that holds us whether we are great or small, whether we are popular or despised, whether we are king of the world or a beggar on the street.

What the symbol of the wheel tells us is this: Don't live your life on the rim of the circle, but rather at the center-and you will find holiness.

Why have so many of the friends of God had that odd insouciance, that almost comical indifference to death? Why could Saint Ignatius of Antioch encourage the beasts to devour him? Why could Saint Lawrence, frying on the gridiron, tell his tormentors to turn him over because he was already done on that side? Why can Brother Bill Tomes stand in the crossfire of Chicago street gangs in order to force a cease-fire? Because all of these people live in the center, in that place of peace that no storm can shake, in that holy ground opened up for us by God's broken heart.

Second path: Knowing you are a sinner
G.K. Chesterton once said that the saint is the one who knows he's a sinner. Another way to state the same thing: The holy person has no illusions about herself. It is an extraordinary and surprising phenomenon that the saints seem to be those who are most conscious of their sinfulness. Even a cursory reading of Saints Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, Augustine, or Thérèse of Lisieux reveals that these undoubtedly holy people were painfully aware of how much they fell short of sanctity.

At times we are tempted to think that this is a form of attention-getting false humility, but then we realize that it is proximity to the light that reveals the smudges and imperfections that otherwise go undetected. A windshield that appears perfectly clean and transparent in the early morning can become opaque when the sun shines directly on it. Standing close to the luminosity of God, the holy person is more intensely exposed, his beauty and his ugliness more thoroughly unveiled.

But there is nothing fearsome in this self-revelation, just the contrary: for only what we know and see about ourselves through the graceful light of God can be controlled, changed, or rendered powerless. Hence we find that wonderful fusion of the two senses of confession in our tradition: the confession of sin that is tantamount to a profession of the goodness of God. Nowhere is this clearer than in the appropriately titled Confessions of Augustine, a sustained and psychologically detailed admission of sin dovetailing with a hymn of praise to the God of forgiving light.

I realize that this emphasis on confession has become problematic in recent years. Does it not lead to an obsessive or neurotic self-absorption or even to a dangerously low self-image, and does it not reinforce a view of God as prying and judgmental? In truly holy people, knowledge of sin is not denigrating but liberating because it enables them to break through the subtle illusions and self-deceptions that finally stand in the way of joy.

And the most dangerous of these lies that we tell ourselves is that everything is just fine: "I'm OK, you're OK." I like Anthony de Mello's gospel-inspired comeback: "I'm an ass, and you're an ass."

Christianity is a salvation religion, and thus its basic assumption is that there is something wrong with us, indeed something so wrong that we could never in principle fix it ourselves. We are members of the dysfunctional family of humanity, and egotism, fear, violence, and pride have crept into all of our institutions and into our blood and bones. And therefore any attempt of ours to lift ourselves out of the problem, any schema of perfectibility-be it political, psychological or religious-any conviction that we can make it right, is illusory and dangerous.

Just as a child is "saved" from a dysfunctional family only when, as a kind of grace, he sees that there is another way of being family, so we were saved from the dysfunction of sin only when Jesus' way of nonviolence and love, a path not of the world, appeared in our world. To push this analogy just a bit further, just as the child in a household of fear and violence did not fully grasp that there was something wrong until she had seen a saner household, so we human beings did not fully grasp the extent and danger of our sin until Jesus' way appeared as a sharp contrast. His grace was, and is, a sort of searchlight that reveals the dark recesses of our own egotism.

As many Protestant theologians have indicated, the cross of Jesus remains a constant and potent sign of judgment, a calling to mind of sin. When God's own heart was revealed in the mission of Jesus, we human beings responded, not with grateful acceptance, but with violent rejection. Therefore the horror of the crucifixion-God's own Son pinned by us to an instrument of torture and left to die-discloses that most painful truth that we would prefer to keep secret even from ourselves: We prefer our egos to God.

It is for this reason, I think, that so many of the spiritual masters can strike us as a bit sharp and overbearing, out of step with the psychological etiquette of our times. Whether it is Thomas à Kempis on every page of The Imitation of Christ reminding us that we are flawed or the desert Fathers harshly calling us to repentance or Martin Luther insisting that salvation is not a prize that the grasping ego can claim or Jesus himself laying bare the self-deception of the Pharisees-the spiritual teachers concur in forcing us to see the truth.

Bob Dylan said, "The enemy I see wears the cloak of decency," and an essential part of the spiritual program involves the removing of that cloak.

Dante's Divine Comedy is a holy journey of the soul. It ends with the ecstatic vision of the white rose of angels and saints surrounding the blinding light of the trinitarian God, but it begins in the dark but liberating insight that something is wrong: "Midway upon the journey of our life/ I found myself within a forest dark/ For the straightforward pathway had been lost."

Before he can find the right path, Dante is compelled to make a side trip through hell, witnessing firsthand the suffering of the damned. What he is really seeing, of course, is his own sinfulness, and the vision is harsh and relentless. When Dante swoons from the horror of a particular view, Virgil, his mystic guide, kicks him, forcing him to be aware.

He leaves hell finally by the only possible route: climbing down the hairy sides of Satan himself. The message of the poem is clear: no way up but down; no real holiness without awareness. At least part of being a saint is knowing you're a sinner.

Third path: Realizing that your life is not about you
When we live wrapped up around our own egos and their pathetic fears and aspirations, we inhabit the narrow space of the pusilla anima (the little soul), but when we forget our awful seriousness, when we live in a risky freedom, when we leap ecstatically beyond what we can know and control, we inhabit the infinite expanse of the magna anima (the great soul).

The title given to Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma, is etymologically close to this Latin phrase, and it means the same thing. Holy people are those who realize that they participate in something and Someone infinitely greater than themselves, that they are but a fragment of reality. Far from crushing them, this awareness makes them great, capacious, whole.

Father Richard Rohr, O.F.M. says that the initiation rites of young men in various primal cultures have precisely this purpose: to convince the adolescent, through fear, scarification, separation from family, and confrontation with nature and its powers, that he is not in control and that his life has meaning and savor only in relation to a greater whole. Without these experiences, the young person will convince himself that he creates the pattern of his life and that he has to figure it all out. The result of this sort of calculating and egotistic rationalism is imprisonment in the pusilla anima, the small soul.

In a hundred ways, our theological and spiritual tradition attempts to cultivate the great soul, to lure us into that wonderful conviction that it is not about us. At the very end of John's gospel, the risen Jesus confronts Peter and, after moving him from confession to mission, tells him a secret: "When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else...will take you where you would rather not go."

In his youth, Peter labored under the illusion that he could control his life: He walked where he liked, and he tied his own belt. But in his old age-the time of wisdom-he will realize that his life has all along been under the direction of a power that his ego cannot begin to understand or manipulate. In taking him where he does not want to go, this power will introduce him to the magna anima.

The late Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar often spoke of the "theodrama." This is the drama written and directed by God and involving every creature in the cosmos, including those sometimes reluctant actors, human beings. On the great stage that is the created universe and according to the prototype that is Christ, we are invited to "act," to find and play our role in God's theater.

The problem is that the vast majority of us think that we are the directors, writers, and above all, stars of our own dramas, with the cosmos providing the pleasing backdrop and other people functioning as either our supporting players or the villains in contrast to whom we shine all the brighter. Of course, our dramas, scripted and acted from the narrow standpoint of the small soul, are always uninteresting, even if we are playing the lead role. The key is finding the role that God has designed for us, even if it looks like a bit part.

Sometimes, in a lengthy and complex novel, a character who has seemed minor throughout the story emerges, by the end, as the fulcrum around which the entire narrative has been turning, the player in comparison with whom the "main characters" fade into relative insignificance.

There is a wonderful scene in Robert Bolt's A Man For All Seasons in which Richard Rich, a promising and ambitious young man, petitions the saintly Thomas More for a position among the glitterati at the court of Henry VIII. More tells Rich that he can offer him a position, not as a

courtier, but as a simple teacher. The young man is crestfallen, and More tries to cheer him up, "You'd be a good teacher." Rich fires back: "And if I were, who would know it?" The patient More explains: "Yourself, your friends, your pupils, God; pretty good public that!"

What More assumes is the profoundly spiritual truth that the only audience worth playing for is the divine audience, and the only drama worth acting in-even in the smallest role-is God's.

Rich wants a starring role, but More reminds him that it profits him nothing to play even the biggest part in the ego's drama if he misses his role in the theodrama. When you find the pearl of great price, you must sell everything else and buy it.

All the doctors of the spirit tell us that when we make the painful transition from the small soul to the great soul we experience liberation and exaltation. We're out of the prison of the ego and its incessant demands, and we are opened to the adventure of discerning and responding to God's will. In his Abandonment to Divine Providence, the 17th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade encourages us to see every event in our lives-good and bad, fortunate and unfortunate-as expressive of the gracious will of God.

When, through faith, we see every moment and every creature as an ingredient in the divine plan, when we know that there is a gracious providence at work in the universe, we live in joyful surrender and with a sense of wonder. What is God doing for me now? What path is opening up to me? Why did God send that person, that trial, that pleasure to me just now?

One of the most popular spiritual books of the decade is the Celestine Prophecy. What struck me when I read this text-and one reason, I think, for its success-is the enormous emphasis placed on what Christians would call "providence." The various characters meet under surprising and unexpected circumstances, and these meetings turn out to be precisely what each person needed for his or her next step in the spiritual life. The book teaches us to regard the events and conversations of our lives not as mere coincidences but as expressions of a "desire" for spiritual advancement that suffuses the cosmos.

When one strips away some of the New Age language of the Celestine Prophecy and situates this idea in the context of a belief in a personal and providential God, we are not that far from de Caussade. Christian spiritual teachers would hold that God's loving care for the world is not occasional and interventionary but rather constant and all-embracing. And therefore we can and should abandon our lives-even in the smallest details-to this divine love, trusting that God will show us the way.

In the recent film The Apostle, Robert Duvall's character, having been stripped of money, reputation, and status, rededicates himself to service of the Lord, trusting that God will show him the path to walk. He enters a town he does not know, and when he comes to a crossroad he asks, with disarming naivete, "All right, Lord, which way should I go, left or right?" At just that moment, he comes upon the person who will eventually open his life in a new direction.>

"I will lead the blind on their journey; by paths unknown I will guide them," says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah (42:16).

And Jesus tells his disciples, "That is why I am telling you not to worry about your life and what you are to eat, nor about your body and how you are to clothe it.... It is the pagans who set their hearts on all these things. Your Father well knows you need them" (Luke 12:22,30).

Is this just pious boilerplate, or do we believe it, even to the point of basing our lives upon it? Part of what it means to live in the great soul is to de-center the ego and live in exciting and unpredictable relationship to the Mystery, realizing that our lives are not about us.

We start at the top. We have been drawn into the broken heart of God. We are a holy people. This means that we can find the centered place of peace, that "virginal point" where it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. This means that we can see through all of our self-deceptions and illusions, that we can stand in the blinding but finally exhilarating light of Truth. And this means that we can fly, we can break the bars of the prison, we can leave behind the pusilla anima and surrender to the delicious Mystery.

Yes, it's about deification. Thanks be to God, it's not about us.