Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

What Is Sanctity?

If personal holiness is thought of as being a name at the top of a list, it is understood wrong. If it is thought of as something which merits a feast in the Church’s calendar, it is understood wrong. If it is thought of as something to which is attached the power of working miracles, it is understood wrong. If it is thought of as mooning about in a state of pious contentment (or sweet ecstasy or noble and aloof virtue), it is understood wrong. There is nothing superior, in the sense of being one up on everybody else, about it.

The way to think of sanctity is as something that, by being generous and faithful to grace, gives back to God the love which he has given to the soul. So it is for God’s sake more than for our own that we should want to be saints. We work away at holiness not because we are ambitious and want to be experts in a particular kind of lofty career but because God wants us to be saints and is praised by our striving after sanctity.

Anyone can be holy, or rather act holy, so long as others are saying “there’s a saint for you,” but sooner or later this sort of holiness wears off. Either the person sees the trap, becomes humble, and goes ahead toward real holiness, or keeping up the act becomes too much of a strain, and there’s a swing towards worldliness and perhaps to a lasting unholiness. The whole secret of sanctity is that it is a thing of grace and so cannot be switched on as a part to be played.

This means that however determined you are to be a saint, you will not become one if you rely on your own strength of mind. The only thing that can get you to sanctity is God’s grace. You will need all the strength of mind you have got just to work together with God’s grace, but if you imagine that making good strong resolutions will carry you the whole way, you are wrong. About the first thing to happen will be that God lets you break some of those good strong resolutions before you get properly started. This will be to put you in your place and show you that you can do nothing without him.

Once you are decently humbled, knowing that left to yourself you cannot even carry out the things that you very much want to carry out, you are getting ready to be used. You are being softened up like a steak. When all the toughness and pride and glamorized ideas of holiness have been beaten out of you by the down-to-earth action of truth, then God has got something on which he can work. Without false notions and fancy plans, you can now begin to fall in with the true notions of holiness and with the plan which God has in mind for you.

It stands to reason that God is not going to reward anyone else’s work but his own. You cannot expect him to recognize a holiness that he has done nothing to bring about. When you get right down to it, there is only one real goodness—one perfection, one sanctity—and that is God’s. When man invents a holiness of his own, God lets him look for it but does not help him find it. Because a holiness of one’s own does not exist, and it is a waste of time searching for it. It is as if someone were to look for moonlight without the moon. Once you admit that all moon-light is bound to come from one particular place, and that it is a thing you cannot make yourself, you have learned something.

Another thing to notice right at the beginning about holiness is that it follows no cut-and-dried pattern. It is what God wants out of you, and, because you are not exactly the same as anyone else, the holiness which is to be yours will not be exactly like anyone else’s. The model of all holiness is our Lord, and unless you grow to be like him you will never get anywhere in holiness. But this does not mean that all who follow him will end up exactly alike. Our Lord appeals to us in his way, and we answer him in our way.

If twenty artists are told to paint a picture of the Crucifixion, they will all show the same thing but in twenty different ways. There will be twenty quite separate pictures, no two alike. This is how God wants our response to be: each one his own. Now, just as it would show a weakness in one of those twenty artists to copy as closely as possible the painting of the artist next to him, so it would be a weakness for one follower of our Lord to copy as closely as possible the particular holiness of another follower. He should make it his first job to follow our Lord.

The ways by which others have followed our Lord can be a tremendous help, just as the ways other people use can be a tremendous help to painting, but our Lord who is himself “the way, the truth, the life” wants something out of you that is your own to give and is not just a copy. The saints produce masterpieces because of each one’s likeness to our Lord, not because of each one’s likeness to another. By all means let us imitate the way in which the saints went about it, but by no means let us copy the results. God wants an original reproduction of himself, not a forgery.

All right then, what is it that the saints do which makes them into saints? The answer is that they do two things: On the one side they keep clear of any-thing that they think is going to get in the way of grace, and on the other they head directly for our Lord. The only thing to be added to this is that they do it for the glory of God and not for what they can get out of it. They are the ones who “seek first the kingdom of God,” and for the King’s sake rather than for their own, and who are ready to wait as long as God likes for the day when “all these things” shall be added to them.

So it is not that the saints do particularly saintly things (like fierce penances, whole nights spent on their knees, miracles, prophecies, raptures in prayer); it is more that they do all things in a particularly saintly way—in exactly the way that they feel God wants. To them the only thing in the world that matters is God’s will. They know that by doing God’s will as perfectly as they can they are imitating our Lord, they are expressing charity, they are being true to the best that is in them.

All this should be a great encouragement to us, because it shows that our service of God does not depend upon how we feel about it but upon how God looks at it; not upon acts that are seen as heroic but upon how ready we are to let God draw heroism out of us; not upon battling our way to a certain point that will give us the title of “saint” but upon following blindly the course which is set by God’s will.

Sanctity, like everything else in life, should be looked at from God’s point of view rather than from man’s. We have come from God, and we exist for him; our holiness must come from God and must exist for him. We believe that the purpose of man, of life, of creation, of everything, is the glory of God. Does this mean anything to us? What is “glory” anyway?

Augustine says that glory is “clear knowledge joined to praise”—which actually tells us more than just what glory is, because it shows what we have to do about it. It shows how we give glory. Praise of God in prayer gives glory, service of one another in charity gives glory, desire to follow our Lord gives glory, willingness to do God’s will gives glory. So the whole point of sanctity is that it gives glory to God.

Our Lord, who is sanctity itself, shows us how while he was on earth he gave glory to the Father. “I have glorified you on earth; I have finished the work which you gave me to do.” What was that “work”? Quite simply, it was the Father’s will. This of course meant doing a lot of particular things—such as preaching, working miracles, founding a Church, suffering the Passion—but all was summed up in faithfully fulfilling the Father’s will. When, right at the end, he said from the cross, “It is finished,” our Lord did not mean only his life was finished but that the work the Father had given him to do, the task of fulfilling the divine will, was now completely rounded off and that there was nothing more to be done.

In being obedient unto death to the Father’s will, our Lord was giving us a lesson in glory. It was the day-to-day obedience in things not noticed by anyone except his mother and the closest of his friends that gave glory to the Father just as much as the miracles, prayers, and teaching gave glory. Now, if our chief duty as Christians is to be reliving our Lord’s life in our own world, it is not going to be in performing the great works of Christ but in performing the little ones. And just as the little ones that he did were not little in the eyes of the Father—because they were being done perfectly by the Son—so the little ones that we do are not little to the Father because we are trying to do them perfectly with the Son.

A quite ordinary duty, like writing a letter of thanks or getting up at the right time in the morning, can give great glory to God. It is answering to his will. The ordinariness of the actual job is raised so that it shares in the obedience of Christ. From the tip of the pen (if we are writing that letter) glory is flowing out to God; from the effort to throw off the sheets (if it is that duty of getting up) there is an immediate output of glory to God. At every instant of the day, doing what we have to do because God wills us to do it, we are handling glory.

Breathing the air of God’s glory, we only have to breathe it in his direction and we are there. As the fishes swimming in the sea and the birds flying in the sky, we are moving about in what might be called glory-space. It is not as though we had to get onto another planet to find sanctity and give glory to God, or even alter the position we are in on this one (provided we are where God wants us to be), because God’s presence is everywhere and all we have to do is to live in it and praise him in it.

God is glorified in all his creation, and not only in human beings who can use their minds to speak his praises. Nature praises him because it gets its existence from him and works according to his laws. It is easy to see how God is glorified by sunsets and roses and snow-capped mountains, because these things reflect something of divine beauty, but he is also glorified by dull things like stones and cabbage and rain. Moving one step higher, we find little difficulty in seeing God glorified in puppies and small chickens and friendly polar bears at the zoo, because these things are lovable and nice, but he is also glorified by snakes and toads and rats. Each separate piece of God’s creation, by existing on the kind of existence God means it to have, gives glory to God.

This idea of everything having on it the glow of God’s look—like the warmth of the sun showing in a haze of heat over the water—seems clear enough when we take the trouble to think about it. To the saints such a view of creation is a settled state of mind. Outward objects are seen and loved as being reflections of him who made them. That is why Paul said that the visible things were there to draw our minds to a knowledge of the invisible Creator. That is why Francis called natural things, like the sky and the sun, by the title of brother and sister. They were all in the family. They all bore on them the Father’s likeness.

You can imagine what a difference it would make to your life if you saw all around you signposts pointing to the presence of God. Not only would nature and human beings proclaim the glory of God, but even in the ordinary happenings from hour to hour and from day to day you would welcome God’s will. You would be drawn at once to show gratitude for the pleasant things that happened, knowing that God had provided them, and the unpleasant ones you would accept as part of your share in the Passion. So it would mean that you could live out your life under what Augustine describes as the canopy or firmament of God’s will.

So that is what sanctity does. First it glorifies God from whom all sanctity comes. And second it discovers more and more material with which to express this glory. Where the ordinary Sunday-Mass-and–nothing-more kind of Catholic sees the service of God as a tiresome duty to be got through somehow, the saint sees the service of God as a marvelous opportunity. To the one there seem to be few signs of God’s love in a world of muddle and unfairness; to the other there are signs of his love on every side, even in confusion and disappointment. To the one there are just people, nice ones and nasty ones; to the other there are souls, all of them somehow lovable and all of them reflecting the love of God. To the one there are earthly needs and trials to worry about; to the other there is nothing to worry about because earthly needs and trials are handed over to God. The one dreads lots of things as evil; the other dreads only one evil—sin.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!