Our fear of holiness

Published May 23, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Fr. Rolando V. De La Rosa, OP


Fr. Rolando V. dela Rosa, O.P.

The word “sanctity” seems to have vanished in our vocabulary. We still hear someone tell us: “Napaka banal mo!” But this is followed by a wish to remove us from the world of the living: “Sana kunin kana ni Lord.”

For sure, we all want to be good. But to be a saint? When I told a young man that our vocation as Christians is to be a saint, he said with a smirk:

“That’s not for me. It’s like encouraging God to send me more and more trials to prove my patience and endurance.  I am not made for that. I am too in step with life and the pleasures it brings. I pray to God to keep me away from the temptation to be holy. I am not a Mother Teresa or a Lorenzo Ruiz.” 

Like that young man, we are allergic to holiness because we think that it involves terrible suffering, like a brutal tearing apart of the self. Even venerated saints initially saw sanctity as a frightening possibility. St. Augustine himself bargained with God: “Lord, make me holy, but not now!”

Many people are afraid of holiness because the prospects appear uncertain. Sanctity demands that we turn our back on what is familiar in exchange for what is simply promised. What assurance do we have that we made the right choice.? To gamble our lives on something too uncertain may be considered as madness. St. John Henry Newman writes: “Holiness means risking what we have for what we do not have, completely trusting only in God’s word.”  To venture into holiness is like a “leap in the dark.”

We are also afraid to become saints because God might ask us to give up what we enjoy. C.S. Lewis writes: “I thought that holiness is not possible because of something I could not do. I realized that it was because of something that I cannot stop doing. If only I could leave off, let go, unmake myself, I would be holy.”   It took him a lifetime to muster the courage to stop clinging to things, people, beliefs, and values that gave him only a false sense of security and happiness.

Finally, there is the fear of deception. Even if we loudly proclaim that we love God and want to be like Him, we still hold something back — just in case. Many stories of saints reveal that the last temptation they had to overcome is thinking that they have been deceived by God. Even Jesus faced this temptation, that is why He exclaimed: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles. What we celebrate is the fulfilment of the prophet Ezekiel’s prophecy: “I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols; I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you. I will put my spirit within you and I will make you live by my statutes, observe my laws and put them into practice” (Ezekiel 36:23-27).

 Pentecost reminds us that even if holiness is a difficult task, we are not left to do this work alone. The Holy Spirit is the source of all holiness and our sanctification demands our cooperation with Him. When Joan of Arc was about to be executed, she calmed her fear through prayers and by telling herself: “It is for this that I was born.”  To believe that becoming saints is our destiny is perhaps the strongest motivation to become one.

Pentecost then is also a warning. The fire of holiness that the Spirit bestows on us continues to burn only within our lifetime. Remember the parable of the guest who reluctantly attended the dinner? He came late and found the door closed in his face. Our tenure on earth is not infinite; nor are our choices unlimited. The quest for holiness is like a game. For it to be won, it must also be possible to lose it.