The Word Among Us

January 2018 Issue

Portraits of Holiness

Three surprising stories.

Portraits of Holiness: Three surprising stories.

We know that life isn’t always easy. We all encounter times of struggle, stress, and hardship, and we don’t always feel that we have the endurance we need to make it through the tough times.

Thank God for his Holy Spirit! Thank God for his promise that the Spirit can help us become holy, like Jesus. In many of his letters, St. Paul prayed that his readers would find the strength and endurance that flow from a life of holiness. He prayed that the Colossians would be “strengthened with every power” with God’s own strength (Colossians 1:11). He prayed that the Ephesians would experience “the surpassing greatness of his power” (Ephesians 1:19). And he prayed that God would fill the Christians in Rome “with all joy and peace in believing,” so that they could “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). Even speaking about himself, Paul said that he wanted to know the “power” of Jesus’ resurrection (Philippians 3:10).

Now, the strength that Paul talked about is not some magical ability to perform stupendous acts of wonder. It’s the strength to stand fast against temptation, to love people we find challenging, to forgive each other, and to reach out to the poor and needy. In this article, we want to tell the stories of three different people who became shining examples of holiness to the people around them. We want to tell how they found the strength of the Lord as they grew in holiness—and how their witness can inspire us.

St. Ignatius of Loyola: Holiness and Knowledge. One of the simplest steps we can take toward holiness is to take the time to learn more about Jesus. You may want to read the Scriptures a little more or find a book that can teach you some more about prayer. Trust that God will bless even small, simple steps and make them fruitful. Remember, God loves to reveal himself to us. He is so eager that he will take any opportunity we give him and use it to bring us closer to him.

One good example of this principle is the sixteenth-century saint, Ignatius of Loyola. Confined to bed while he recovered from a war wound, he began to read a life of Christ and stories about the saints. Now, it wasn’t out of a burning desire for holiness that Ignatius picked up these books. There simply weren’t any other books available! But Ignatius’ indifference didn’t stop the Lord. As he read, the Spirit began to soften his heart.

Before long, Ignatius discovered that those books were changing his outlook on life. He went from dreaming about winning glory in battle to dreaming about doing glorious things for Jesus. And as he dreamed, the Holy Spirit gave him a taste of God’s love, filled him with joy, and encouraged him to persevere. Over time, Ignatius became a new man. Yes, he did his part by reading those books, but the Holy Spirit did so much more for him. This former soldier and seeker of glory went on to found a new religious society, the Jesuits, and to develop the Spiritual Exercises, which continue to lead countless people closer to the Lord.

What happened to Ignatius of Loyola can happen to us. Every day, we can seek to increase our knowledge about Jesus, and this knowledge can change us a little bit more into his image. Ignatius’ story also tells us that if we draw closer to the Lord, we’ll begin to change the way we think and act as well: from anger to love, from harshness to gentleness, from insensitivity to patience, and so on. Other people will begin to notice these changes as well, and it will draw them closer to the Lord.

St. Benedict Joseph Labre: The Fruit of Holiness. On Wednesday of Holy Week in 1783, a gaunt, homeless beggar named Benedict Joseph Labre died after taking a tumble on the steps outside of a church in Rome. As word of Benedict’s death spread, people from all over the city rushed to pay their last respects to this man, whom everybody knew as an unsual sort of contemplative. At his funeral on Easter Sunday, the crowd was so large that soldiers were called in to help restore order. Within a few months of Benedict’s death, more than 130 miracles were ascribed to him, and he was canonized eight years later.

On the outside, Benedict was not your typical saint. He had been homeless for years. He spent his life wandering from church to church and immersing himself in prayer and Eucharistic Adoration. He purposely avoided friendships and seemed to take an odd pleasure when people were repulsed by his unkempt appearance and raggedy clothing. Modern Church historians have concluded that he probably suffered from depression and had a form of autism.

Yet despite his appearance, his odd behavior and his other challenges, Benedict loved Jesus—and it showed. Everyone who encountered him was touched by his humility and his gentleness. Despite all of his hardships, even despite his “oddness,” Benedict’s faith warmed people’s hearts and drew them closer to the Lord.

The story of Benedict Joseph Labre reveals two important truths about holiness. First, anyone can become holy. And second, holiness makes a difference. When we allow the Holy Spirit to form us, people notice. No matter our circumstance, we begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit, and that fruit has the power to affect the people around us.

Stephen and Melanie: The Joy of Holiness. Growing in holiness helps us to appreciate everything that God has done for us, not just the forgiveness of our sins. We see his grace active in our lives. We see our loved ones as gifts to help us along the way. We see the many blessings he has poured out on us and the ways he has sustained us in times of sickness or trial. Seeing all of this changes our disposition. We become more cheerful and free-spirited because we know that our lives are in God’s hands. We become less concerned for ourselves and more concerned for other people because we are convinced that God is looking out for us.

Stephen felt that his marriage was struggling. He and his wife, Melanie, were drifting apart. At the prompting of a friend, Stephen began to go to daily Mass and to set aside some time every day for personal prayer. As he did, he was surprised to discover that he enjoyed being with the Lord. He also discovered that this sense of contentment wasn’t confined to Mass or his prayer time. It lasted throughout his day.

Prayer and Mass: these two small changes in Stephen’s life brought about some larger changes. Without recognizing it, he became more patient and less apt to argue with Melanie. He became less concerned about every little thing that she did wrong and became more attentive to her needs. He began to go out of his way to show her affection and help her with the chores at home.

Stephen may not have noticed these changes, but Melanie certainly did, and it softened her heart. His peace made her happy. His patience lightened her burdens. Intrigued, she started going to Mass with him. As a result, not only was their marriage strengthened, but they both grew closer to the Lord.

Real Holiness. The stories of Ignatius of Loyola, Benedict Joseph Labre, and Stephen and Melanie tell us that holiness is not a matter of grand, sweeping gestures or seemingly impossible heroic actions. It’s a matter of bringing our everyday lives under the gentle and easy yoke of Jesus. It’s a matter of seeking out the Lord, trying our best to follow him, and letting his Spirit change our hearts.

It is a great privilege to draw near to Jesus, and it is a wonder to watch him shape us into his own likeness. So let’s make it our goal in this new year to spend more time with the Lord. Let’s make holiness our highest pursuit. Let’s tell the Lord that we want to become like him.

May the Lord bless you this year. May he make you holier as the days and weeks and months go by so that you will be an ever-increasing reflection of him to everyone you meet.