Above my desk where my MacBook, printer, and lamp share their home, hangs a large framed print of one of my favorite saints, Ignatius of Loyola. He’s dressed in a red chasuble and stole, the traditional vestments for the celebration of Mass. His eyes gaze heavenward; there is a glow on his face and an aura of light around his head. His right arm is bent upward; his hand, fingers and palm also pointing upward, is open in a gesture of praise. His left hand rests on the top of an open book and on the left page are written the words “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam”: For the greater glory of God. It is the image of a saint, an image of holiness.
As much as I love this painting of St. Ignatius and how it can inspire me to stay focused on the Lord, looking at it can also make me forget that he was imperfect. Of course, that may be what the artist’s intention was: images of saints are supposed to reveal their holiness, not their imperfections. However, does being holy mean that we are perfect, that we never sin?
Listen to the words of Pope Benedict XVI:
“Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness… Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness” (See Pope Benedict’s catechesis on the Apostles p. 157).
I don’t know about you, but these are some of the most encouraging words that I have ever read about what it means to be holy. Holiness doesn’t mean that we’re perfect. Holiness doesn’t mean that we don’t sin. Holiness means possessing the habit of beginning again and again in our walk with the Lord, the habit of daily conversion. And what happens is that this habit of beginning again, this habit of asking for and receiving God’s forgiveness every day, eventually becomes stronger than our sinful habits. As we begin again and again, the capacity of our hearts to receive God’s forgiveness and to live in friendship with Him expands. We begin to desire God more than we desire sin.
Yes, this is very encouraging indeed. For, as the Pope says, we can all learn this way of holiness. We can all learn to persevere and walk in an intimate friendship with God.
As much as the saints ought to inspire us to be fully alive, I think that we can sometimes be intimidated by their lives. We think: I could never be like that. When we read the lives of the saints, it seems impossible to achieve that level of virtue. Part of the reason is that some hagiographers paint quite a rosy picture of the saint’s life; they focus on the most heroic and miraculous stories of their lives. When we look at paintings or statues of saints we focus on their halos but tend to forget that they were imperfect. We think that they spent all day on their knees in prayer, that they never had fun, and that they constantly embraced suffering—always joyfully!
But saints have the same weaknesses that we have. The difference is that they have an intimate friendship with God and a capacity to begin again that becomes the defining characteristic of their lives. Saints sin; saints make mistakes. But saints continues to grow in their love for the Lord, and this love eventually becomes the driving force in their lives; this love eventually becomes stronger than their sinful inclinations. The saint simply knows God’s love and God’s desire to forgive in a very deep way. Yes, the saint has an intimate friendship with the Lord.
In the fourth step of the examen prayer, we are invited to ask forgiveness for the sins of the day, the times that we’ve failed to respond to God’s grace; but this time of asking God’s mercy is not meant to be a time of self-loathing for the sins we’ve committed. This step is actually intended to be a time of renewal and rejoicing. During this step, we should be reminded that the Lord loves us so much that He desires to forgive and renew us so that we can continue to walk in holiness each and every day. The point is not to focus on our sins but on the Lord’s love.
We can all learn to be holy, but first we must have a proper understanding of holiness. Holiness is not perfection; holiness is an expanding capacity for conversion and a daily deepening of our friendship with God. Yes, we can all learn this way of holiness. How encouraging!
So how can we put this into practice? Today, in your prayer, when you see some areas that need improvement, don’t give in to feeling bad about yourself, self-loathing, or negativity; rather, rejoice that the Lord loves you so much that He is ready to forgive. Rejoice that the Lord does not love you because you’re perfect; He loves you because you’re His child, because you’re His friend.Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.