The signs of a new year are all around us. Even though the Church is still celebrating the Christmas season, holiday decorations are slowly disappearing.
The crowds at shopping malls are thinning out. Everyone is focused on getting back to a regular routine of work and family. And yes, many are contemplating those longed-for but often dreaded New Year’s resolutions. Whether it’s resolving to lose weight, exercise more, save money, or just become a better person, people are trying to make a new start.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all chose holiness as our top goal for this year? Wouldn’t you love to come to the end of 2017 and say, “I know that by the grace of God I have become more like Jesus. Even if it’s just a little bit, I can tell that I am closer to him. I have become more loving and forgiving. I am more willing to serve him and his people.”
This year, we want to focus on this goal of growing in holiness. Following the sentiments of a popular hymn, we want to explore how we can become more holy by asking the Holy Spirit to “fill” us with God’s love, to “melt” and “mold” us to be more like Jesus, and to “use” us in building his kingdom.
Signposts along the Way. So what does it mean to be holy? St. Francis of Assisi linked holiness with poverty and simplicity. St. Teresa of Calcutta connected holiness to caring for the poorest of the poor. And St. Francis de Sales taught that holiness is not reserved only for great saints or priests and religious; everyone can become holy.
Clearly, there are many different paths to holiness, but at its heart, holiness has to do with being set apart for God. The Old Testament tells us how God called Abraham to become the father of a new nation, a nation that would be a light to all the other peoples around them. Then, with Moses he entered into a covenant with this people; from that point on, the Israelites were forever joined to God. The essence of this covenant is summed up by this promise from God: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (cf. Exodus 6:7; Leviticus 26:12; Jeremiah 30:22).
This unique relationship between God and the Israelites set them apart from all of the other nations. It turned them into “a people holy to the Lord” (Deuteronomy 26:19).
In a similar way, God wants his Church to be set apart for him. He wants us to be his people, just as he wants to be our God. He wants us to be his own prized possession, a light and witness of his love to the whole world.
Love Leads to Holiness. This idea of being set apart for God is similar to the way a man and woman set themselves apart for each other when they get married. Standing before the priest or deacon and in the company of family and friends, they exchange vows, which say, essentially, “I belong to you and you alone. I am giving up everyone else just to be united with you.”
Now, we all know that nothing can compare with the loving relationship between a husband and wife. But we also know that when we exchange our vows with each other, we are accepting all the challenges that come with married life: the good times and the bad, the financial challenges, the hard work of raising children, the promise to care for each other “in sickness and in health,” and much more. But we still say yes in our vows because our love for each other has touched us in a way that nothing else can.
In a similar way, when we experience God’s love filling us, bringing us peace, and inspiring us to do good, we, too, will want to bind ourselves to him in a loving relationship. This is the way all the saints of the Church responded—the ones we all call holy. Because they were filled with God’s love, they chose to be set apart for him.
God wants us to be “a holy nation, a people of his own” (1 Peter 2:9). So he asks us to consecrate our lives to him each morning and then strive to live each day as one set apart for him: loving him, loving each other, and obeying his commands.
We need to be clear: holiness is not reserved only for the great saints. St. Teresa of Ávila once wrote that communion with God “is nothing more or less than a friendly encounter” with him. It’s nothing more or less than knowing that we are loved and treasured by our heavenly Father. And for Teresa, the key to this friendly encounter “is not to think much but to love much.”
Just Focus on Jesus. The story of a man named Ray may help explain Teresa’s words. About a year ago, Ray was attending a Mass at his parish. As usual, he was preoccupied by the stresses in his life: his job, his kids, and the family’s finances. Nothing extreme was happening, but he couldn’t put aside his everyday worries and concerns.
Ray’s pastor was away on a trip, and the visiting priest did things a little differently. During his homily, the priest spoke about how important it is to feel Jesus’ presence in our hearts and not to rely only on our reason and intellect. Then, at the end of the homily, he asked everyone to sit quietly for a few minutes and seek the presence of the Lord. “Try your best to shut down all the distracting thoughts, and just focus on Jesus. Imagine Jesus sitting right next to you. Picture him placing his arm around your shoulder and telling you how much he loves you. Or look at the crucifix, and think about the love that moved Jesus to give up his life for you.” As the choir sang softly in the background, Ray took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and asked the Lord to touch his heart.
After a few moments, Ray felt a sense of peace come over him. It began in his heart and radiated out from there. His shoulders relaxed. He began to smile. His worries subsided. He felt nothing but love in his heart, and he knew that it was coming from the Lord. For the next few minutes, as the choir continued to sing, Ray wasn’t “thinking much”; he was being loved much, and that love warmed his heart and filled him with joy.
Being Filled in Prayer. Jesus wants to fill us with his love. He wants to give us moments of grace like Ray’s so that we can learn to hold onto his love and his peace in the difficult days as well as the good days. So how can we come to experience Jesus “loving us much”?
It begins with prayer. On that Sunday, Ray was moved by the homily, but it was only as he quieted himself and turned to the Lord that his heart was touched. Now, if he wants to hold onto that sense of peace, he will have to return to the place of quiet where he first experienced God’s love. The same is true for us. The secret to our being filled with God’s love and peace rests on our decision to set aside time to be with Jesus—every day, if possible.
As best you can, set aside a time for quiet prayer, a time when you will put away your agendas, your needs, and your petitions. Try to settle your mind, and rest in God’s presence. In your imagination, picture Jesus standing in front of you or sitting by your side. Remember that he loves you and wants only the best for you. Perhaps you could begin by singing one or two of your favorite hymns from Mass. Or maybe you could play some worship music on a CD. You may also want to meditate on a short passage of Scripture, maybe one of the readings from Mass that day. Or maybe you could dwell on just one or two words that describe God—words like merciful, compassionate, kind, or just.
Whatever you choose to do, keep in mind that it doesn’t all depend on you. Jesus wants to be with you. He loves you and wants to fill you with his love. Even if you fall asleep in the middle of your prayer, God will still bless you. St. Thérèse of Lisieux once said that it didn’t bother her when she fell asleep. She felt very safe instead because she knew she was resting in the arms of her heavenly Father.
Make the Time. So as 2017 begins, let’s make time for Jesus. Let’s try our best to set ourselves apart for him in our prayer and in our everyday lives. Let’s practice the art of coming into his presence and receiving his love. And then, let’s display that love to the world. This is the most important thing we can do if we want to grow in holiness.