Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom, 1586

What is Holiness?

In solitude she lived,

And in solitude built her nest;

And in solitude, alone

Hath the Beloved guided her,

In solitude also wounded with love.

St John of the Cross (Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom, 1586)

Pope Francis in Gaudete et Exsultate, 147-149 defines holiness as “…consisting in the habitual openness to the transcendent, expressed in prayer and adoration. The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord. I do not believe in holiness without prayer, even though that prayer need not be lengthy or involve intense emotions. Saint John of the Cross tells us: ‘Endeavour to remain always in the presence of God, either real, imaginative, or unitive, insofar as is permitted by your works’. In the end, our desire for God will surely find expression in our daily lives: ‘Try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything, always go to God and attach your heart to him’. For this to happen, however, some moments spent alone with God are also necessary. For St Teresa of Avila, prayer ‘is nothing but friendly intercourse, and frequent solitary converse, with Him who we know loves us’. I would insist that this is true not only for a privileged few, but for all of us, for ‘we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of Him who is adored’. Trust-filled prayer is a response of a heart open to encountering God face to face, where all is peaceful and the quiet voice of the Lord can be heard in the midst of silence. In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us. Otherwise, any decisions we make may only be window-dressing that, rather than exalting the Gospel in our lives, will mask or submerge it. For each disciple, it is essential to spend time with the Master, to listen to His words, and to learn from Him always. Unless we listen, all our words will be nothing but useless chatter…”

From a different perspective Pope Benedict XVI in the book ‘The Apostles’ notes that “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness… Consequently, it is not the fact that we have never erred but our capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness which makes us saints. And we can all learn this way of holiness”.

Holiness therefore is not perfection; holiness is an expanding capacity for love and a daily deepening of our friendship with God – and Yes, we can all learn this way of holiness. How encouraging, and how encouraging is it then that we have the recent lives of Domitilla and Danny Hyams as very worthy exemplars of holiness in today’s materialistic and self-indulgent world.