Friday, May 2, 2008

Holiness in the World

Last night, after the kids went to bed, I was babysitting while my wife was out with a friend. I've been reading a Catholic historical novel, The Man on a Donkey, about the English "Reformation," and the armed response in the North, "the pilgrimage of grace". The narrative is a little clunky -- the characters are more historical types than real personalities -- but it does effectively portray the horror of what Henry VIII did to the Church in England.

Last night, in fact, I was quite moved, more inflamed than usual for the truth of the faith, the freedom of the Church, and the conversion of souls, and of society. The Pilgrimage of Grace is quite a challenge: how does one respond to the forcible repression of the true faith? Henry VIII really paints it in stark colors, where heresy is enforced purely to indulge the passions of a secular ruler. It's easy to believe in passive resistance -- and indeed, I mostly believe that in matters of faith, martyrdom is more powerful than arms -- but here, a whole nation was being forced to renounce its faith. It's not easy to condemn the Pilgrimage.

I set down the book to pray, and to pray for my friends and family who still bear the bitter fruits of King Harry. For indeed, Protestantism succeeded almost entirely by the force of Henry's arms. I guess it can sound petty to be anti-Protestant -- but Protestantism has effected my family so deeply, and it really stunts the faith. So many things they are opposed to, so many beautiful expressions of faith that they scorn, and so much grace that they are indoctrinated against. It breaks my heart -- I hope I am not a Pharisee.

But I believe, too, that individuals are not entirely at fault: they believe what has been handed down to them (as indeed should we all), and their inheritance has been shaped by Henry's oppression. It breaks my heart that their faith is stunted because of social forces, because of the social repercussions of heresy.

Inflamed, I set aside Man on a Donkey and picked up St. John of the Cross, for I know that the only solution is holiness. How can I be lukewarm when the faith is so overwhelmingly beautiful, when the Gospel must be proclaimed? And St. John drew me upwards -- but also outwards, for I saw the beauty of holiness, and its necessary connection to true doctrine.

Everytime I read John of the Cross I think of a Protestant student who once came to us, speaking of the frustration of her spiritual life. She was, not to put too fine a point on it, entering the dark night, a place of tremendous spiritual growth. But as John so powerfully points out, too many people believe, and are told, that the darkness is a falling away, instead of a falling into. Bad doctrine makes people turn away from spiritual growth just when they are being called deeper. And in my experience, Protestants have no way of dealing with the mystical depths of the Dark Night. Again, my heart was broken . . . .

Then my nineteen-month-old daughter woke up, and I spent the rest of the night trying to get her back to sleep, and when that failed, trying to keep her laughing so she wouldn't miss Mommy. We played with a flashlight, we put blankets over our heads, we made faces, we played peek-a-boo.

And I saw, more clearly than usual, that it is all one. Where is holiness? In my vocation! How can I be a co-redeemer with Christ? By caring for my little girl!

I've been reading about mortification, both in the Imitation -- my favorite spiritual book of late -- and in John of the Cross. True mortification, true contemptus mundi, is not about rejecting our family for "spiritual" things. It is not hating the world straight out, or killing all our desires straight out. It is, rather, a purification. Last night, mortification meant putting down my spiritual reading to giggle with my daughter.

Mortification is greater love, not lesser -- it is putting to death the lesser loves when and only when they conflict with the greater. For when they do not conflict, they are expressions. The Lord calls me to holiness through my vocation, through the little joys and sorrows and above all loves of my life. He calls me to redeem the world not by turning away from it, but by giving my heart to him within it. This is what it means to be in the world, not of it: not that we don't care about the world, but that we care about the world with divine love, a love that draws us, and everything around us, upward into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

That, may I say, is the point of this blog.