Franciscan Spirit Blog

Laws, Love, and the Path to Holiness

At the beginning of November, we’re quickly reminded of the importance of holiness by two back-to-back feast days. Both All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day present examples of holiness, whether they be individuals officially recognized by the Church or personal connections to loved ones who left an impression of true Gospel living. It seems fairly obvious that the spiritual destination in life is holiness, a kind of soulful wholeness that not only enriches us internally but also radiates outward to others, spreading God’s light. Authentic holiness, bolstered by good deeds and a sincere commitment to our faith, is ultimately what we hope paves the way to eternal life.

For Christians, the path to holiness is simple on the surface: Live as Jesus taught us, love others as we love ourselves, and love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. However, as we humans are wont to do, rules and regulations were piled onto these basic, easily understood guidelines.

After nearly 2,000 years of writing and rewriting laws, bickering, warring, and splintering, it’s hard to say whether Christians are anywhere closer to living out the Gospel than our ancestors in faith were. And some of the earliest of those ancestors actually heard Jesus speak firsthand! However, we can take heart in the straightforward nature of the Gospel call to holiness—a call that we should view as a joyful invitation, not an oppressive rule.

‘A Rigid Religiosity’

In a general audience at the Vatican on September 1, Pope Francis discussed St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which, in part, addresses adherence to certain laws in light of Christ’s revelation. In reflecting on this epistle, Pope Francis warned against defining holiness simply as strictly following specific laws, since doing so “leads us to a rigid religiosity, a rigidity that eliminates that freedom of the Spirit which Christ’s redemption gives us. Beware of this rigidity that they propose.”

As the leader of the Catholic Church, a complex, massive organization with over 1.3 billion members, the pope knows something about the importance of structure, to be sure. He certainly isn’t advocating for any semblance of anarchy.

What he is saying, though, is that the law alone doesn’t lead to salvation. “The law does not give life; it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise [God’s covenant] because it is not in the position of being able to fulfill it,” Pope Francis said. Later on during the general audience, the pope framed the issue in the form of a question: “Does the love of Christ, crucified and risen, remain at the center of our daily life as the wellspring of salvation, or are we content with a few religious formalities to salve our consciences?” The law of God, then, is contingent upon and flows from the love of God, and not the other way around. God’s grace isn’t transactional; it’s gifted to us because of God’s unbounding love.

‘True Piety’

The temptation to view following religious laws as proof of holiness also exists in secular society and its edification of the “law-abiding citizen.” What if the law being followed is based on something immoral? There were many justifications and legal protections for slavery in the United States, for example, none of which were adequate defenses of the concept of one human owning another. Throughout history, many in positions of power—whether in politics or from the pulpit—have failed miserably to lead by example as models of virtue or holiness. These powerful people may have been praised for following all of the rules of their time and place.

Fortunately, the history of our faith provides a multitude of examples of holy rule breakers to show us a better way, even if it is the road less traveled. Certainly, Francis of Assisi comes to mind as one such model of holiness.

In chapter 17 of his Rule of 1221, he wrote, “A worldly spirit likes to talk a lot and do nothing, striving for exterior signs of holiness that people can see, with no desire for true piety and interior holiness of spirit.” And what better public display of holiness is there than showing off how good we are at following all the laws? St. Francis also didn’t play by the rule book of his family or social class. When he was expected to turn right into a life of wealth acquisition and commerce, he took a hard left into poverty and religious life.

More recently, people such as Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, Servant of God Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. refuted the unjust rules of their times, choosing instead to follow the moral compass of their consciences. Before he was put to death for his refusal to fight for the Nazis, Jägerstätter’s final words were, “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord.” His inward connection with God is reminiscent of St. Francis’ “interior holiness of spirit” and also reinforces the pope’s message of keeping Christ’s love “at the center of our daily life.”

Those in power called some of these individuals enemies of the state—possibly even enemies of the Church. Today, we call many of these rule breakers saints, and they beckon us to follow in their footsteps of faith.

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