This week Pope Francis has picked up this theme in a new document entitled ‘Gaudete et Exultate’ – ‘Rejoice and Be Glad’. It expands this universal call to holiness and to sainthood. It’s easy to think of saints as extraordinary people and in the Catholic Church one of the criteria of being formally canonised as a saint is evidence of heroic virtue. That’s quite off putting – how do we exercise heroic virtue? All religions have their saints – individuals recognised for their love of God and for their commitment to their spiritual path. In the past for women this often meant breaking out of traditional roles. Saintly women like Mirabai in Hinduism and Rabia in Islam refused marriage to commit exclusively to loving God as did many women within Christianity. Religions team with the stories of saintly people. Growing up as I did in another age, we were told stories of saints. Their goodness and holiness was held us an ideal and example to be followed. No doubt many of us were inspired by such commitment but for most the idea of holiness was beyond them and saints formed a kind of elite within the community.
Pope Francis’ exhortation once again puts the ideal of holiness before Catholics – indeed he even suggests that it’s an antidote to a meaningless and mediocre existence. I’m not too sure many people will resonate with this idea. The very notion of holiness conjures up someone so heavenly minded to be no earthly use, someone cut off from living life to the full. Well that’s not the case. The Pope talks of what he calls a middle class kind of holiness and that is to live life fully, lovingly, honestly wherever we find ourselves. For me there’s an echo of the Bhagavad Gita in that. When Krishna tells Arjuna that it’s better to do your own duty imperfectly than do another’s well he’s suggesting that we all have our own particular paths to follow, our own particular way of life. To try to emulate another’s or copy a way of life that appears more religious or somehow holier is useless. The Pope suggests that although some testimonies of holiness could be helpful and inspirational we are not in fact meant to copy them – “for that could even lead us astray from the one specific path that the Lord has in mind for us” – a bit like Scott Peck’s ‘walking to our own drumbeat’. That’s where we will find happiness and fulfilment, which doesn’t mean the path will be easy or without its challenges and tribulations. But those challenges and tribulations can be what forms our character and proves our commitment to love and service. I often think the holiest and most heroic people are parents of children with disabilities. This is a life-long commitment which is a training in holiness though not many of these parents would call themselves saints.
Holiness is to be found in our ordinary everyday lives. There is, as the Vatican Document says, only one vocation, one basic call but we live it out in different ways. At the heart of it all are loving relationships - and for me these are with self, others, the created world and God, however we understand or name that Ultimate Reality. It’s to understand our interconnectedness with all that lives, has lived, will live so that we see ourselves as part of a great whole, making a small but important contribution to the world around us as best we can. It’s in the ordinary giving and receiving that’s part of daily life that we grow and help others to grow. This is the kind of holiness that our world needs.
It so happens that this week a friend sent me these words of Gus Speth from Vermont Law School : “ I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, apathy …. and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists don’t know how to do that”. Well religions do and the Pope’s newest exhortation is an encouragement to do just that.