At the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception—above your head as you walk in—there is a bas-relief. At its top a dove hovers aloft, and rays emanate from its wings in all directions, drawing men and women heavenward. The dove, of course, represents the Holy Spirit, and the sculpture as a whole portrays the “universal call to holiness.”
The “universal” aspect of the call to holiness might surprise us. Many people tend to think of holiness as something reserved to a corps of religious elite. They envision a two-tiered system in which the few are placed at the top, where they are called to great sanctity and assisted by extraordinary graces, while the great mass of mankind is relegated to the bottom, where they are called to do nothing more than scrape by in mediocrity.
But is holiness just for priests and nuns? Is sanctity reserved only for the “professionals?”
St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), whose memorial the Church celebrates today, didn’t think so. In his work, Introduction to the Devout Life, he addresses any and all Christians who aspire to love God, no matter their state in life. He exhorts them to what he calls “devotion:” a love of God that responds promptly, carefully, and diligently. And he compares devotion to sugar or honey, because it sweetens whatever way of life it touches.
Although devotion befits every form of life, the concrete circumstances of its exercise will vary widely from person to person, from the bishop to the baker. For example, it would be irresponsible for a married man to take up the practices of a Carthusian monk; but just because a married man cannot serve God as a monk does, does not mean he cannot serve God well. Devotion must be practiced according to one’s state in life.
“It is not only erroneous,” he says, “but a heresy, to hold that life in the army, the workshop, the court, or the home is incompatible with devotion.” Devotion makes pleasing whatever form of life it adorns. He adds that “wherever we find ourselves we not only may, but should, seek perfection.”
The great Dominican moral theologian, Fr. Servais Pinckaers, points out that, just as the works of St. Francis de Sales are a shining example of spiritual wisdom for us today, so they were in their own time as well. He observes that St. Francis de Sales “reacted against current opinion, which reserved the spiritual life and the search for perfection to a chosen few belonging to the religious state” and “attempted to show how every Christian, even though living in the world, was called to the interior life.”
Our Lord promised that when He was lifted up on the Cross He would draw all men to Himself. He fulfilled that promise when He poured the Holy Spirit on the world. The document Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council says that Jesus “sent the Holy Spirit upon all men that He might move them inwardly to love God with their whole heart and their whole soul, with all their mind and all their strength and that they might love each other as Christ loves them.” In other words, God not only calls all of us to love Him completely; He also gives us the means to do so. Thus, no Christian can settle for mediocrity in his love of God.
The pursuit of holiness, or Christian perfection, can be a daunting task. It is good, therefore, to have people like St. Francis de Sales remind us that it is precisely in holiness that our entire fulfillment and happiness consists. And, lest we think that the task is too great, let us remember that the Holy Spirit has been sent upon the world to comfort and strengthen men. Even now He sweetens our way and draws us to communion with the blessed Trinity.
Image: National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, The Universal Call to Holiness