One of my favorite traditions my guy friends and I have is what we call a whiskey circle: we gather together, a question is asked, a bottle of whiskey is passed around, and you must answer the question and take a drink before passing it to the next guy. Some of the best memories of my life are whiskey circles in the woods, high up in the Rockies, sitting around a campfire with the men who have impacted my life so much. But one whiskey circle in particular stands out in my memory.
We had one at my bachelor party, and the question for the circle was what was each person’s favorite memory with me. This is part of the tradition: if a circle is going down at an event honoring one of our boys, then we take it as an opportunity to share our memories, jokes, affirmation, and love with that person. It’s pretty boss, and the circle at my bachelor party brought me a lot of laughs, approximately twenty embarrassed glances towards my father-in-law-to-be who was there with us, and a truly humbling contentment from the kind words some of the guys shared.
You see, while each guy made fun of me in his own way (I make it pretty easy for them), a lot of them also made mention of the fact that I have been seeking holiness with them, and that being on that journey together has created a deep bond between us. These are men with whom I have grown, changed, learned, and made a lot of mistakes. They are the men who introduced me to Christ’s fraternal love. These are my friends.
When it got to my father-in-law, who learned a lot about me in that circle that he probably didn’t want to know, he said something that made everyone laugh. He started with, “Well, after hearing some of the stories you boys just told, I’m not exactly sure where all that holiness talk comes from, but…” and then he went on to make fun of me, followed by some very nice comments about me becoming a part of his family.
I truly appreciated the kind things he said, but I think he also brought up a very important question: what does it mean to be holy? And how can a schlub like his son-in-law be considered even remotely close to that path?
The answer is simpler than you might think.
One thing I never really got from my elementary school religion classes was a proper understanding of holiness and sainthood. Saints seemed to be the Elect, special people who were destined for halos from the beginning. Holiness was for priests, nuns, the saints, and the pope, because being holy meant praying all the time, wearing goofy-ass clothes, and being a little bit weird. I don’t blame my teachers; I probably wasn’t ready to understand these concepts anyway. But now I am.
The reality I’ve come to learn (in large part through the help of those great friends I mentioned earlier) is that we all either go to hell or become saints. There’s no middle ground, no third option. I mean, that’s the definition of the word saint: someone who is in Heaven. Canonized saints are those who we know to be in Heaven because of the example of their lives and the miracles Christ performed through them both before and after their deaths. But we trust that there are many who are not canonized, many who did not attain sainthood before their death but found their perfect holiness in purgatory, and who are now counted among the Communion of Saints.
The point of all this is that each of us is called to be a saint, and if we don’t want to become one, then we can just go to hell. Literally.
So how do you become a saint?
One of the most quoted Scripture passages in Catholicism comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians: “12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free —and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many…27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”
This idea that we are all part of the Body of Christ has many implications that have been elucidated by many holy men and women over the ages. It helps us understand vocation, solidarity, Christian unity, etc. But in essence, it’s a passage about who we are. It’s about identity. I am the toenail. You are the femur. Joe is the patella. We all are together in Christ, moving as He moves, playing our own part in His work. Our truest self is found in Jesus.
And that’s what it means to be holy: figuring out what body part you are, and being that body part as best you can. St. Francis de Sales tells us, “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.” You were born anew through the Spirit into this body in Baptism; now you just need to be the part you already are. However you were created, with all of your beauty and imperfections, God has always been calling you to your unique sanctity.
It’s not as difficult as it first seems. Holiness is attainable; you just need to be yourself.
But of course, we aren’t ourselves. We buy into so many lies from the culture, from each other, from our insecurities, from Satan; we are told to be something else, to do this or buy that or act in such a way, and that then we will finally be comfortable with ourselves. And so we grab these little trinkets of temptation, covering ourselves in flash and mask so that the true self is hidden, because we’ve bought into the lies that the true self is not enough. And the longer that true self is hidden from the light, the more shriveled and darkened it becomes. So here we are, a part of the body of Christ, but we’ve covered that part of the body up, hid it from the light that His Body always walks in. The Body of Christ is meant to be “naked without shame” (Gen. 2:25); we need add nothing to it for it to be beautiful. But yet we try.
All my friends meant when they said that I am moving towards holiness is that I’ve started to let go of all those souvenirs of sin that hide who I really am, even though it has meant revealing that shrunken and starved self that is now there. I’ve engaged in honest relationships with people, and so they know my weaknesses (and are apparently quite willing to talk about them over a little whiskey), but they’ve also seen the reality of what God meant when He made me.
Transparency and abandonment: that’s all we can do to move towards holiness. Stop hiding from Him, stop hiding from each other, and let go of all of our attachments to sin. Just let go, and trust that God will take care of the rest.
Holiness does not mean never sinning. It means acknowledging that you are created in and for Christ, that who you are supposed to be is tied up directly in who He is, and then humbly letting go of all those things that hide His creation. To do so will ultimately lead you to sin less, will lead you to a life of virtue, will lead you to a life of peace and all those other things we think of when we think of saints, but it is not those things that made them holy. It was who they were, not what they did. Their holiness was found in what the Trinitarian God did: the Holy Spirit moved inside them, calling them to relationship with Jesus Christ, the Anointed One who is the Way to the Father. The saints are those who realized, through the inspiration of the Spirit, their desperate need for God, and they simply allowed Him to bring them into His own heart.
And you are made with just as much beauty and dignity as they. So stop hiding it.
And then, once you’ve stopped hiding who you are, you have to deal with the consequences of your actions. You have to allow yourself, whatever body part you may be, to be nursed back to health, restored to the beauty and glory and dignity you were given in Baptism and that you shriveled with the darkness of your sin. And there’s only one way to do that.
I guess you’re just going to have to come back for Part 2 of the Birth of Holiness.