The call to Holiness
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THE CALL TO HOLINESS

Jesus summed up his teaching in a startling and unambiguous call to His followers: You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48). Perfect in purity of heart, perfect in compassion and love, perfect in obedience, perfect in conformity to the will of the Father, in short, perfect in holiness. When we hear these words we can be understandably tempted to discouragement, thinking that perfection for us is impossible. Indeed, left to our own resources, it certainly is just as impossible as it is a rich man to enter heaven, or for a man and a woman to remain faithful their whole lives in marriage. But with God, all things are possible, even our transformation.

Pope John Paul II points out that the Holy Spirit is again bringing to the forefront of the Church's consciousness the conviction that these words of Jesus are indeed meant for every single one of us. He stated that the Jubilee of the year 2000 was simply the last phase of a period of preparation and renewal that had been going on for forty years, in order to equip the Church for the challenges of the new millennium.1
He reminded Christians of the rediscovery brought by the Holy Spirit beginning with the Vatican II:
All the Christian faithful, of whatever state or rank, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity.2
1 Novo Millennio Ineunte, Jan. 6, 2001(henceforward cited as NMI).
2 NMI 30; see also Lumen Gentium 40.

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He emphasized that this call to the fullness of holiness is an essential part of being a Christian.
To ask catechumens: Do you wish to receive Baptism? means at the same time to ask them: Do you wish to become holy? It means to set before them the radical nature of the Sermon on the Mount: Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48) The time has come to repropose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction.3

Before we advance further in our examination of the spiritual journey, let's take an initial look at what holiness really means. In the Book of Ephesians we read, He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:4). To be holy is not primarily a matter of how many Rosaries we say or how much Christian activity we're engaged in; it's a matter of having our heart transformed into a heart of love. It is a matter of fulfilling the great commandments that sum up the whole law and the prophets: to love God and our neighbor, wholeheartedly. What does wholeheartedly mean? Jesus told us at two different times during the Last Supper.

After he washed the Apostle;s feet, Jesus instructed:
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn 13:34-35).

Then after the beautiful lesson of the vine and the branches where we are called to abide in him, Jesus reiterated:
This is my commandment: love one another as I love you This I command you: love one another (Jn 15:12, 17).
Pope John Paul the Great goes on to call all the parishes of the third millennium to become schools of prayer and places where training in holiness is given.

Our Christian communities must become genuine schools of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly falls in love. It would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life.4
John Paul was well aware that the supportive culture of Christendom has virtually disappeared. Therefore the Christian life today has to be lived deeply, or else it may not be possible to live it at all. He also points out that in the midst of this worldwide secularization that rejects God, there is still a hunger for meaning, for spirituality. Thus it is important for Christian believers to be able to respond to this hunger and show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead.5
3 NMI 30, 31.
4 NMI 33.
5 MNI 33, 40.
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The lives of the saints demonstrate that this vibrant union with Christ is achieved in prayer.
This great mystical tradition shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart.6
This profound union is open to all Christians. 'This is the lived experience of Christ's promise: He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him (Jn 14:21)7

The Holy Father identifies four principles that are basic to the proper understanding of the spiritual journey to which we are all called.
1. Intimate union with God of this depth is totally unattainable by our own efforts. We are totally dependent on His grace for progress in the spiritual life. It is a gift that only God can give. Jesus made it very clear, Without me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5); and What is impossible for human beings is possible for God (Lk 18:27). Nevertheless, God is eager to transform us. With His help everything is possible (Phil 4:13). Without God, successfully completing the journey is impossible, but with Him, in a sense, we are already there. He is truly both the Way and the destination; and our lives are right now, hidden with Christ, in God (Col 3:3).

2. At the same time our effort is indispensable. Our effort is not sufficient to bring about such union, but it is necessary. The efforts we make help dispose us to receive the gifts of God. If we really desire to achieve something we must be willing to focus on doing those things that will help us reach that goal. And yet without God's grace we cannot even know what's possible, or desire it, or have the strength to make any efforts towards it. It's God's grace that enables us to live this necessary intense spiritual commitment.
You will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut 4:29).

3. Jesus tells us it's important to assess what's required before undertaking a task (before starting to build a tower, or entering into a battle in war) if we want to successfully complete it. Much has to change in us in order to make us capable of deep union with God. The wounds of both original sin and our personal sins are deep. They need to be healed and transformed in a process that has its necessary painful moments. It is important not to be discouraged by these painful moments of our transformation but to accept that theyre a necessary and blessed part of the whole process.
Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22)

4. Finally, we need to know that all the effort and hurting is worth it!
Infinitely worth it. St. Paul wrote, For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:8). The pain of the journey will appear in retrospect to have been infinitesimal, compared to the superabundant happiness for which we were being prepared.
6 MNI 33.
7 MNI 32.
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So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, and our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 3:16-18).
Intimate union with God is possible in this life for everyone who will surrender to it and work toward it with God's grace.

We all probably know in some way that we're called to holiness but perhaps struggle to respond. Feeling the challenge of the call and yet seeing the obstacles, it is easy to rationalize delaying or compromising and avoid a wholehearted and immediate response. After all we may already feel challenged by the difficult demands of our busy life. However, when the kids are grown, or when we retire, or after a business crisis passes, or when we don't have to care for ailing parents, or when we get a better job, or when we get married, or then we will be in a better position to respond.

What really holds us back from a wholehearted response to the call of Jesus and the repeated urging of the Holy Spirit, is not really the external circumstances of our lives, but the interior sluggishness of our hearts. We need to be clear that there will never be a better time or a better set of circumstances than now to respond wholeheartedly to the call to holiness. Who knows how much longer we'll be alive on this earth? We don't know how long we'll live or what the future holds. The very things we falsely judge as obstacles are the very means God gives us to draw us to surrender more deeply on Him.

Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2).
The source of all our unhappiness and misery is sin and its effects. The sooner the purification of sin and its effects can take place in our life, the happier we will be and the better able to authentically love others. Only then will we be able to enter into the purpose God has for our life. Truly, in this case, better sooner than later.

Finally, it's important to realize that there is only one choice; either to undergo complete transformation and enter heaven, or be eternally separated from God in hell. There are only two ultimate destinations. If we want to enter heaven we must be made ready for the awesome sight of God. Holiness isn't an option. There are only saints in heaven. Total transformation is not an option for the few zealots interested in that sort of thing. It is essential for all those who want to spend eternity with God.

Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).
The whole purpose of our creation, the whole purpose of our redemption is so that we may be fully united with God in every aspect of our being. We exist for this union; we were created for this union; we ache for this union; we were redeemed for this eternal union. The sooner we're transformed the happier and the more fulfilled we will be yes, even now.
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In this surrendering process the Holy Spirit aids us to contemplate the face of Jesus,8 so that little by little we are transformed into Jesus. This is how we are prepared for the beatific vision, the ecstatic experience of our eternal dwelling in the knowing and loving of the Blessed Trinity, a participation in Love itself.
8 MNI 15.

Practicing Holiness

Faith, Study and Practice
Bringing forth the word of God in our daily actions.

Practice makes perfect. Old clich's like this hang around so long because they have some real truth in them. Whether baseball or the violin, medicine or auto mechanics, we learn by doing. We practice doing what it is we want to master, and we do so with reasonable expectations that we will gain the skill we seek. A principle behind practicing is that what' at first is very difficult to do will eventually come quite naturally to us. A woman studied piano for many years, and now she can pick up a piece of music and play it with considerable ease. As she has programmed herself to play the piano, being a piano player is almost a part of who she is. Our habits become one of the things that define us, if not to other people, at least to ourselves.

Practice is how we hone most of our skills. Unfortunately, practice can also program certain behaviors into us that we may come to regret. At various points in our lives each of us has freely chosen to sin. But then some of us started practicing our particular sin over and over again. Then after a time, lo and behold, this sin seemed to have become a part of us. Whether our sin was despair, disbelief, lust, greed, anger, drunkenness or any other, if it became habitual, quite likely this was the pattern that we followed. At first the sin was freely chosen, but then by practicing it so many times it became second nature to us.

But here's the good news: For the Christian, whatever the sin might be, no matter how entrenched it has become, no matter how much we feel it has become second nature, it is truly just that--our second nature. For the believer in Jesus Christ, our first nature is that of a son or daughter of the Father, one whose nature has been redeemed, one who can realistically hope to live in righteousness.

At conversion, or returning to Holiness some of us experienced immediate freedom from one or more of our prevailing sins. But for most, if not all of us, certain sins kept us in their grip, Conversion gave us a valid hope for change, and it gave us the means whereby we can change eventually, but for the time being, we find ourselves having to battle certain sins every day. But practice does make us perfect, or at least, it can contribute to our becoming perfect--even in the area of our prevailing sins. Let me pause here and say what I mean by perfect. As I have written before, the word translated as perfect in the New Testament (telios in the Greek) actually means "complete" or "able to accomplish the purpose for which it was created." It doesn't mean flawless. This is the perfection that we can hope to attain through practice.

Overcoming by God's Power and Faith, Study, Practice 

For Christians, there are two elements necessary for us to overcome a habitual sin: First is the power of God moving in us, and second is our practicing the new man, practicing living as God has called us to live.

The power of God can come upon us through a direct healing, a sudden profound understanding of a Biblical truth, the sudden ability to forgive someone from our deepest heart, or a glorious realization of the incredible love that God has for us. These are what God does; we can't make them happen. What we can do is to pursue faithfully the One who makes these things happen. We do this through the normal things of the Christian life: Daily prayer, the study of Scripture, worship, fellowship with other believers and receipt of the sacraments, Do these things and we will be like the wise maidens who brought an extra measure of oil and were ready for the bridegroom when he arrived (Matthew 25:1-13), we will be ready for Jesus when the time comes for Him to move powerfully in us.

And then there is practice. We must practice living as God would have us live if we are to experience real, lasting change. The new nature will be manifested in the new habits we develop, and these are formed by practicing.

Allow me to make an important distinction here. Practicing living as new creatures is quite different from the old familiar "trying harder." Picture yourself saying, "I am trying harder not to lust," and then picture yourself saying, "I am practicing living as a man free from lust." Do you sense a difference? Practicing has several very significant advantages over trying:

1. Practicing acknowledges the new man. We are new creatures and it is appropriate to practice living our lives that way. As Christians we are all "becoming." Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27) should be the theme of all our lives.

2. Practicing avoids the win-fail mentality that comes from trying harder, a mentality that can be a pitfall for strugglers. When we measure our lives by winning, we set ourselves up for further failures when we don't win. And the all or nothing approach of a win-fail attitude does not reflect the true state of a believer. We are all on a journey, and we will win some and lose some. If I were a new golfer practicing my swing, I would not look at every badly hooked shot as a sign of failure. Rather, I would look at the hook as a sign of an adjustment I needed to make as I continued to practice.

3. Practicing focuses on moving towards something good rather than on leaving behind something bad. It recognizes that the Christian life is meant to be one of continuous growth, not one of stationary battles, Implied in "practicing" is the idea that we are doing something. It's true we can practice not doing something--not engaging in sexual fantasy for instance but you will find it far easier to hold onto pursuing the positive than avoiding the negative.

Repentance in action!

Our motive to become sons and daughters who please the Father with our holiness is apt to be a far more effectual goal than simply avoiding sin--and it puts our focus more on Him and less on us.

Substituting Old Habits with New Ones

Using the principle of substitution is one of the most effective strategies we have for practicing new behavior I with such consistency that it actually leads to changes in the inner person. To practice living as the new man, we substitute something specific to replace the negative behavior of the old man,

Here are three applications of practicing the principle of substitution that can help us to live out of the new creature:

1. Identity those situations which have regularly prompted you to engage in the old sinful behavior and then start practicing a new behavior whenever the old situation arises. 

Substituting a prayer in place of yielding to what is wrong . As soon as it presents itself, pray and ask God to help you to protect your mind. By practice, this will become such an ingrained habit that shortly you can't remember the last time you got throght the day and night without praying this way. And this habit has replaced the old ones.

2. Devise a new response to call on whenever you face actual temptation. Usually this will be a prayer or a Scripture that you memorize. You are flipping through the TV channels and suddenly you come across something (that is powerfully enticing to you, call out that prayer or Scripture verse. Do this intentionally over and over again, and eventually it can become automatic.

3. The human mind has a wonderful capacity to fantasize. If you have this ability, try putting it to a godly use. Use your holy imagination to picture yourself as the new man or woman. Do this daily in your prayer times and whenever else you can remember to do it. You might imagine yourself as literally a Son of the King. You are arrayed in princely garments and kneeling before Him or sitting at the table with Him. Another way would be to contemplate Jesus literally living in your heart. Feel the warmth of His presence there. And when temptation arises, think that you would be taking Jesus into that sinful situation. Still another way is to imagine being a totally pure person, spotless, dressed in white. Spiritually, this is a reality for all of us who have been washed in the Blood, but I am suggesting that you picture it being literally and manifestly true. How wonderful it feels to be totally pure and how horrible it would be to soil such purity by engaging in sin.

Years of wrongful practicing have formed certain stimulus-response patterns in our brains. Repetitive behavior can actually alter brain tissue. This has worked against us, but it can work for us. We may never be able to totally undo what our repeated activities have done in Our brains, but by practicing new thoughts and behaviors, we can form new stimulus-response patterns by repetition, and these can start to govern Our first responses when we face certain situations or temptations. Therefore. if anyone is in Christ. he is a new creation. The old has passed away: behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). By practicing we can live as the new creation.

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