Essay

Holiness in Everyday Life

“Heiligkeit im Alltag.” Geist und Leben, vol. 22, no. 3, 1949, pp. 161–68 (our trans.)

A man goes to work in the morning. He’s not thinking of anything in particular. Suddenly, a popular melody plays somewhere in the street. He hears it, he follows it, and, soon enough, it follows him: He can’t get it out of his head for the rest of the day. Or he accidentally hears malicious words without even knowing whether or not they’re addressed to him. They take hold and he can’t stop thinking about them. Maybe he heard them just when a car door was slamming shut, and now the words come back to his mind whenever he hears a similar noise during the day.

Our psychic life is always somehow defenceless and exposed. External influences and stimuli can shape it, set its mood, even take it prisoner. And most people’s day-to-day jobs aren’t designed to capture or engross their whole attention, but leave room for a lot of unused interior life. The worker can dwell on a melody or a thought without having to interrupt his work at any point during the day. True, he himself may realize that he could be working with greater intensity and dedication, but no one else will be able tell by looking at the finished product that he was distracted and absent, or what sort of mood he was in, or what idea he was obsessed with, when he was doing his day’s work. But when he reflects back on both days – the day of the melody and the day of the malicious words – he might be shocked to realize to what extent his personal inner life has been affected by a chance circumstance. At that point, he will start to wonder: Can a person do better than that? Does one have to let oneself be affected or mastered by such trivialities? Is it possible to nourish one’s life on a hidden, substantial food, to live out of an inner choice and resolution, from a source that invisibly accompanies one throughout one’s day-to-day occupations, and shapes one’s life into something essential, Christian, and holy? If even a petty nothing has such power over us, better: if we have so much power, such unused deep inner spaces, whose sheer emptiness leaves them open to such mundane trivialities, what must a life that offered these possibilities to a true reality – the reality of God – look like?

We are Christians. We have the faith. We fulfill the minimum required by the Church. Yet we might be doing all this like the worker in our example: accurately, loyally, unimpeachably, but with an empty space – bigger, perhaps, than the one claimed by the “precepts of the Church.” A space we’ve reserved for our own private existence, as if settling down in our own isolated selves. What would happen, though, if the Word of God were to take possession of the place now occupied by chance events and peripheral pleasures? The word of God lays claim to this sphere. It wants to live in us as the divine seed lived in Mary, it wants to be an all-ruling and growing thing. We shouldn’t call ourselves believers and Christians if we bolt certain doors of our soul against the coming of the word. If we have reservations. If we place only a part of ourselves at the word’s disposal. Being a believer means being a bearer of the word, which means letting one’s whole self be borne more and more by the word in turn.

Faith isn’t a slow approach to God’s word through a succession of carefully measured steps and stages. It’s not a matter of following some perhaps clever plan for gradual conversion to God’s word. One doesn’t begin by trying out Christ’s seemingly easier words in order to gain time for trying the harder, all-demanding ones at some later date. No, faith means venturing the whole right away, it means taking to heart and seconding even the most unbelievable, most untranslatable words, so that you suddenly, inescapably face the Absolute and – again with no way out – yield this “impossible” reality the place it demands. This place no longer has anything in common with indifferent, lazy openness to every random thing that happens in the street, because it’s from here that all the other places in my soul can be filled and ordered. The kind of word that triggers this might be Jesus’ injunction: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” or God’s command in the Old Testament: “Be holy as I am holy.” What’s at stake, in other words, is the demand to cast the whole of our everyday lives, with all their petty concerns, into God’s beatitude, to let our soul’s misery, the whole carnival of our imperfections, be submerged in the holiness of the Father. In short, it’s about making room for God in us instead of filling it with ourselves.

The one who demands these seeming impossibilities is the Son of God, who knows one and only will: that of the Father. Who did nothing but fulfill this will his whole life long. Who, in becoming man, took the routine of daily life upon himself in order to fill it with the Father’s eternal “today.” Who, descending from above, from his eternity, laid hold of our time, and so converted it into the undiminished, undimmed, and unadulterated vessel of eternal life. This abasement contains God’s entire dignity. He loses nothing by doing this: Even as man he is holy as God the Father is holy. “Who of you can convict me of a sin?” His way of living perfection is also a way of opening it up to us. In accomplishing the unbelievable, he invites us to accomplish it with him, though in reverse: We are to throw ourselves upwards into his holiness, shaped as it is by the sanctity of the Father, so as to live it out according to our personal character and mission.

This upward leap is first and foremost an act of faith. As soon as we try to understand something of the Son’s demand that we be perfect as God is perfect, it’s evident that we can’t make it intelligible in a purely rational, theoretical, and external manner. For the merely rational mind, which knows what to expect of God, the creature, and even the sinner, this demand is downright absurd. If we regard and judge ourselves as we are in light of what the rational mind can grasp, it’s clear beyond any doubt that we can’t fulfill the demand. Of course, we don’t want to accuse the Lord of being a liar, so we have to say that what he asks for is possible. In a movement, an act, which is performed by the Lord’s power and which we take part in by actually letting him do so. This means (among other things) unconditionally renouncing any claim to take as the norm what we ourselves can grasp and measure. No believer will ever be able to see, understand, and assert his own holiness, and yet his faith equally forbids him to claim that God can’t make his word come true in him. He leaves the insight and the comprehension to God.

Holiness is a word the truth of which is in God. In the believer, it lives only in the form of a demand. He can place his life under this demand and take it as a kind of motto: “Be holy! Be perfect!” But he can never consider the demand to have been fulfilled. In the end, he’s not even really free to accept this demand: He must do so. In believing, he places his life under a truth underwritten by the divine initiative – a truth he then declares himself ready to serve. The root of holiness, then, is obedience: an obedience of faith. Indeed, it’s actually a blind faith profoundly saturated with the knowledge that there is nothing here for human power to see, behold, or understand. And yet, it’s not an absurd, despairing faith, which secretly knows better than God. No, it is a humble, open faith that makes the greatest possible room for the hope of becoming. It’s similar to the Lord’s miracles. I have been paralyzed from birth and the Lord says to me: “Stand up!” I will get up. I won’t do it because I’ve gradually raised myself by my own effort to the point of understanding the rightness and rationality of belief. No, I’ll do it because I welcome God’s word into myself, because, obeying its command, I receive the faith – abruptly, without reflecting on whether my faith is sufficient – to do what it says. In an unbroken reception of the gift of faith that the Lord grants me in his commandment. The power to stand up lies in the believed-in word: Stand up! Everything meant by standing up, everything having to do with it, is contained in this word. I won’t stand up only to take two steps and falter again at the third. Or to lie down again. Standing up means – and contains – being able to walk. In standing up, I won’t exhaust my ability to do so; the demand will remain within the achieved act, it will stay there along with the ability. I’ll also be able to stand up tomorrow, stand up whenever it’s required by the demand, which has created a living state of getting up, of remaining in the act of getting up. Even in our ordinary lives, the Lord gives us words no less miraculous or powerful than these. The life they contain is always now, and they enable their receivers to live and to serve the word always now, without any more possibility of gradation, of measuring proximity and distance. The word remains absolute, and the servant has no right to relativize it in himself.

Such relativization would inevitably mean the beginning of unbelief, or would at least place us among those of little faith, who regard the Lord’s demand as exaggerated and impossible to perform. The fact that I’m imperfect – or even the worst sinner – is irrelevant here. The word doesn’t step out of its absoluteness on that account. It doesn’t diminish in power, but remains the living absolute, whose life is absolutely alive. The unbeliever’s refusal can’t rob it of itself. All that’s required of the believer, though, is that he place his life at the disposal of the life of the word in him, so that the word may possess in him the power it possesses in itself.

We have lived a whole day long with the pop song in our ears. We could try to do the same thing with one of the Lord’s words. We could try as intensely as we can to accompany, and even enter into, his holiness – which, after all, is infinitely more powerful than any song. The song may be beautiful, but it eventually starts to wear on us; it becomes banal to the point of unbearability. The Lord’s word, which is ever proceeding in all its freshness from God’s mouth, is always now. And we can receive it in this nearness, this urgency, this eternal, never-used-up vitality and newness. And incomprehensibility. For who could even guess at the perfection of the Father, let alone comprehend it? Only the Son and the Spirit know it. And yet we, too, are to enter into it and have no right to relativize it. If we try to measure the Father’s holiness by the holiness we are capable of attaining and understanding; if we try to picture it to ourselves by adding together all the perfections of the world and then raising them to infinity; if we say “that’s how the Father is!” while adding with a sigh “except much greater!” – if we do that, we’re in constant danger of robbing God’s perfection of its value. For we all too easily represent it according to the measure of our finite knowing, which is to say: as a sort of infinite chain of small human, worldly qualities. In so doing, we deprive it of the one and only thing that really sets it apart: its absoluteness and divinity. And if, on top of this, we sought to act on such a calculation; if we thought that, by adding together a certain limited or unlimited number of small (or petty) acts and virtues, we could gradually work ourselves up to divine perfection and fulfill the Son’s demand, we would have succeeded only in killing the absolute in our lives.

A person who does something good in faith must always make this confession: “So far as this depends on me, it’s nothing, it doesn’t really count.” Wanting to add up such nothings, as if this kind of addition could eventually produce some great result, would not only be unreasonable, it would also be a sin against faith. We’re not meant to grasp the mystery of faith amongst the verifiable facts of this world. The only thing we can do is keep plunging our entire being into God’s absolute demand, keep trying to receive his word with our entire being, and keep awaiting the Lord’s follow-up to his demand: the complete answer he himself is. This waiting occurs in an act of faith that admits of no division or fragmentation. The command to be perfect implicitly does away with any gradation. What we do – to the extent it’s an action accessible to our human experience – is vanishingly small. The decisive thing is the Lord’s demand that we be perfect as the Father is perfect. If we start reflecting on this nullity – or give it a sort of entity – our action becomes an obstacle between us and the Lord’s word. The more of our good deeds we recognize and regard as such, the bigger the obstacle to our ability to receive the Lord’s word in an unfragmented manner, that is: in faith. The good that we think of as such can be no less great an obstacle to coming to God than any evil or sin.

The entire possibility of a leap over the chasm lies in the Son. He came into the world in order to bring it back to the Father by means of his filial love. In becoming man, he didn’t deprive himself of divine being or knowledge, but, just as his whole task was one of love, it remained so, not only in its execution – in action – but also in the moment of beholding – in contemplation. The Son also sees the Father as man, but during his mission this vision isn’t something isolated from it; the vision isn’t some merely personal privilege he uses, say, for his own refreshment. No, the vision finds its measure and its meaning in his mission of love. The Son knows the Father and sees his perfection within the context of filial love. His vision is more a state than an act; it is the clear-sightedness of his love and his obedience.

It’s in his love for the Father, then, that he establishes the measure between God and man and builds the bridge between them. He does not adapt the Father to the world, but shows the world the Father in his absolute character. And in his life he furnishes the proof that men can live as God expects: in love for the absolute Father. He honors the Father by being perfect in his humanity, because he thereby justifies the Father’s creation. But his perfection is an act and achievement of his love for the Father and for men. His love is so great that it includes the ability to live out the Father’s holiness in human form.

Now, the holiness he lives out is not reserved for quiet moments of devotion far from the busyness of everyday life. His holiness is always equal to itself, in every situation of his life. It is always equal to itself because it is always equal to the Father, just as it is always equal to the Father because it always flows out from, and back into, his love. And because he lives out this holiness of the Father as man, even to the point of dying on the Cross in obedience, he can communicate it to men in grace. Every demand he places on human beings is one he himself has fulfilled in advance, and he draws on this fulfillment of the demand to give it the power and possibility of being fulfilled. It’s thus he gives each of his words the greatest proximity to the Father. There’s nowhere man can be closer to the Father than in the word of the Son. And when he goes so far as to demand that we be like the Father, it’s as if at that very moment he threw us immediately into the Father’s arms. He annihilates the distance by becoming the distance bridged in his own person – as the Son who is also the Word.

The Lord’s words were all spoken in historical situations. In most cases, the situations are familiar to us. But the validity of the words transcends them. Its is fully present in every “now,” because an eternal situation shines through their historicity, inasmuch as the Son immemorially pre-contained the words he spoke in them – words expressive of who he was, words absolutely free of any contradiction with the Father’s love. These words are fitted within our historical existence, if you want to put it like that, and we can therefore hear them as the earthly beings we are, but they are not fitted to the laws of our temporality, because they lift our time into eternity, and so do not die away or grow dull in time. They are eternal life because they are the Son’s love for the Father and bring everything back to him.

Scripture, taken as a book, has become a familiar fixture of our everyday world. Through it, we can encounter the Son’s eternal word at any given moment. But we don’t encounter the word only while we are reading. It can lodge in our memory and, through the mediation of the will, remain alive moment by moment. It can become the measure of our action, envelop our existence, and acquire such vitality as to be in some sense more alive than our life itself. It can take us up into its enduring shelter. It does so in the form of a demand, to be sure, but it does so above all as love. If this realization comes to life in us, at a certain point our whole being will strain towards the attempt at full obedience. It’s no longer just a matter of thinking about God often and devoutly, or of keeping his individual commandments, but of holding onto the overwhelming nearness of his absolute being, of keeping it as the steady companion of our lives, and of understanding in love the demand for love. It’s about remaining in our lack of understanding (who, after all, could claim to understand the absolute?), while being ready, precisely because we don’t understand, to remain as God expects us, leaving it in his hands to fashion perfection out of our ready availability.

And then there is the holiness of the saints in the Church. Their holiness consists in the fact that they permanently move – and let themselves be moved – within the absolute. That they don’t know the word “enough.” That they don’t measure out their love. That they are in an uninterrupted conversation with God where they constantly receive their direction from him, a direction that, even when it’s not always entirely clear for us, is at least always ordered to God’s will as its goal. In a certain respect, the saints’ lives represent a continuation of the Lord’s life on earth. You can tell the story of their lives, you can follow their itineraries, which are composed of numerous details and reflect the stamp of their personalities. And yet, all of that is somehow secondary. The primary thing, the only essential thing, is the soul’s ordination to God, the act of letting God work in the soul. Looked at in light of that, everything else appears merely as a requirement of the one thing necessary. Even the saints have their everyday lives, just as God did when he lived on earth. But if they’re really saints, it’s because this ordinary reality became the expression of the most extraordinary thing: the life of the Father and of his will in and through them. The saints burn with the fire of eternal life. And in our dealings with them we shouldn’t dampen this fire. We shouldn’t diminish the stature of the saints. We’re given to look into their everyday lives. We can see what’s happening in the rectory at Ars and the Carmel in Lisieux – to the point that we almost forget the holiness of those who inhabited such an ordinary-seeming context. This danger needs to be avoided. We shouldn’t let the contemporary tendency to “humanize” the saints lead us to ignore the greatness of the divine gift they represent for Church and world. Things look quite different when we put their everyday lives back into the context of their dramatic relationship with God. Suddenly, what looks to us like the quiet course of daily life reveals itself to be a way of receiving, and being surrendered to, God’s working. What we’re looking at, we realize, is no longer the relativity of a saint’s life, or even of a saintly soul or consciousness, but the unmeasurable action of God. Everyday life, along with everything that fills it, shows itself to be nothing more than a framework for the other life – the actual life – of the saints. It shows itself, in other words, as something that enables us to situate this incomprehensible reality in place. Even this placement, though, is important only insofar as it leads us to God’s defiance of all placement. While still on earth, the saints live in eternal life; once they’ve crossed the threshold of true holiness, they’re actually already ready for heaven, so that, strictly speaking, they don’t need to keep living on earth. If they nonetheless continue to do so, they remain on a sort of voluntary basis for the sake of the others, just as the Son voluntarily spent his whole ordinary life on earth. Why? So that with their love, their sacrifices, and their sufferings, they might serve others and give them a way of life (Francis the way of poverty, Ignatius the way of obedience, Therese the Little Way), just as the Son has given us all his divine way.

Even the saints are just an illustration of God’s holiness. We mustn’t for a moment separate their holiness from God’s and treat it as an end in itself. They live by God’s holiness. And because this holiness is always infinite, it is impossible to compare the holiness of the individual saints and assess their relative weight. Holiness is always one and indivisible because it is in God. Just as the word and the love holding us within the embrace of God’s love are always one and indivisible. You have to approach God from above, that is, from God himself. If you try it from below, if you try to string together a series of individual virtue acts you can eventually look back on as some kind of achievement, you would be acting like a child who climbs up onto a chair in order to grasp the sun. Even the saints aren’t so much ladders as signs. Signs that Christ is alive. They exist in an absolute connection with the Incarnation of Christ. They are something revealed, something given up in surrender. For the true saints, life on earth must be a torture: They are consumed by the desire to see God. Yet they remain out of obedience. That’s why they are so close to Christ’s obedience on earth. Together with Christ, they sanctify the everyday world. They sanctify it actively because their everyday existence is passively holy. They sanctify it in an action flowing from contemplation. Their life is an act of love within the Son’s love for the Father.

The Son came to give the world back to the Father, and in this act he proved his infinite love for the Father. But he doesn’t want to furnish this proof alone. He offers it divinely and perfectly, but he also opens it in the manner of an invitation. As if his act weren’t merely his own unique deed, but also an absolute sign of his eucharistic being and willing. His will is that in his redeemed people God the Father might recognize the love of human beings for him, the Father. And so he gives this love of his to everyone who believes. We must never regard this love of the Son as something over and done with, lest we contradict his commandment of love. He loves us in order to teach us love. And in his saints he lives this love with a fire that derives from, and is comparable to, his own. What we understand and grasp of the saints thus becomes for us an ever-renewed understanding and grasp of the love between the Father and the Son. This is an understanding that can never remain an aesthetic contemplation, but is an immediate demand to do one’s part, to get involved, to join the Son in loving our fellow men. The holiness accessible to us in the everyday is this: That we are invited guests called to participate through the Son in the Father’s perfection.