Monday, October 15, 2012

This Holiness Is Indeed For Everyone

A friend of mine in the church refers to himself as a “meat-and-potatoes Catholic,” and as I approach my fifth anniversary on this side of the river, I am liking that self-description more and more. Some of my early enthusiasms are dropping away, though not enthusiasm itself. I no longer feel impelled toward every variant of Catholic experience, from retreats and pilgrimages to novenas and ecclesial movements. Today, I enjoy rediscovering my faith in the steady everydayness of prayer, reading, and the sacraments.

So why do I find myself reading about Opus Dei and its founder, St. Josémaria Escrivá? Isn’t that as exotic and mysterious a variant of Catholic experience as can be found?

I guess not.

A priest friend gave me The Way: The Essential Classic of Opus Dei’s Founder last year, and I have dipped into that from time to time. Now, having taken two months to read slowly through St. Josémaria’s book of homilies Christ is Passing By, I just finished Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josémaria Escrivá by Eric Sammons.

The author states that he is not a member of Opus Dei, but the book is introduced by Scott Hahn, who is. I am just clueless enough on the subject not to get whether that makes this book authoritative or not, though I know Sammons as a stand-up Catholic blogger and a convert himself. His credits also state that he is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Venice, Florida.

Anyway, the proof of any book like this is in the reading, and I am convinced. This is a book for every Catholic, every Christian, why not? It’s all meat-and-potatoes stuff, nothing weird, no hint of the recondite or clandestine. 

Sammons begins by putting the charism founded by Escrivá in historical perspective: From the early Middle Ages until the twentieth century, holiness was thought to be the exclusive province of those in the priesthood and religious life. This notion was enforced by the rise of monasticism and not fully dispelled until the mid-20th century, though saints like Thomas More and Francis de Sales demonstrated by deed and word respectively that a lay person could be called to holiness.

The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”) “revolved around the conviction that all members of he Church are called to holiness. . . . The council stated that holiness could be pursued in all honorable walks of life.”

After a short biographical chapter on St. Josémaria, “A Modern-Day Saint,” Sammons lays out the Spanish priest’s pathway to holiness. This short book is written in the clear, well-organized style of a self-help manual. It spoke simply and directly to my own desire to deepen my faith in both contemplation and action.

A central tenet of St. Josémaria’s teaching is divine filiation, the fact that we are all sons and daughters of God, the Father, Abba. “Holiness . . . begins with his realization: God is our Father. . . . Holiness is a living relationship between a loving child who wants to please his father and a father who gives his child everything he needs to succeed.” We must be “like little children” indeed. Everything flows from this. Chapters on freedom and “holy ambition” are followed by chapters on the four building blocks of a saintly life.

These four are:

Be a Contemplative in the Midst of the World—We are called to lives of prayer, constantly recognizing the presence of God in our daily activities; and we are urged to make a plan of daily life in the faith beginning with the “heroic minute,” the first moment of awakening in the morning that can be given over to laziness and proctrastination or to instantly getting up and acknowledging the presence of God. In The Way, St. Josémaria writes, “Here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does not weaken your body.” Our day might also include a “morning offering,” attending Mass, spiritual exercises and reading, mortification (defined beautifully), an examination of conscience, and other regular activities.

Make Your Work a Way to Heaven—Here is the Opus in Opus Dei, the notion that our work in the world, from home to factory, parish to schoolroom, “is the primary battlefield in our quest for holiness.” Offer your work to God, St. Josémaria urges us. Make the secular sacred.

Live in the Family of God—Escrivá chose his first name as a combination of Joseph and Mary, and in the next chapter Sammons explains how a devotion to the Holy Family, what St. Josémaria called the earthly Trinity, can lead to holiness. This devotion begins with following the Pope, the head of the family of Christ in his Church. There is much of value here on “perhaps the most difficult virtue for any person to practice”: obedience.

Proclaim Christ in the World—Here in the final chapter before a short conclusion, Sammons brings the teachings of St. Josémaria up to this very moment, the beginning of a Year of Faith aiming at a new evangelization. Sammons introduces a compelling idea here: the apostolate of friendship. We think of evangelization as shouting from the top of a soap box (or the post in a blog), but we are likely to be more convincing as friends to those around us. Our apostolate, moreover, must be grounded in a solid prayer life. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, who said fifteen decades of the rosary every morning, was asked how she found the time. Her answer was, “How can I not?”

This short book is filled with straightforward advice for the meat-and-potatoes Catholic. Anyone wondering about Opus Dei, pro or con, should give it a quick look. That’s all it will take to convince you.

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