Notes from a Friar: The Paradox of Holiness

wooden cross on top of a mountain surrounded by mountains

Our lived faith is filled with paradoxes—events in our lives that may seem to mean one thing but actually mean the opposite. An almost universal tendency is to judge our relationship with the Lord in terms of how we feel or experience that relationship—positive or negative. We know that one of the most accurate descriptions of holiness is union with God. But not only linked: united and in touch with God.

But many people are often discouraged because they don’t feel close to God. Words like distantlukewarm, and unmoved are how many people experience God. We have an almost built-in sense of not being connected to the Lord because we also have a built-in belief that we should feel and experience that closeness. I often use the expression of how God touches us, but I never mean that we feel God’s touch physically even though God leaves fingerprint on our hearts.

A Daily Struggle

The truth is, union with God is a matter of faith and not of feelings or emotions. That doesn’t mean those wonderfully warm and tender feelings are to be rejected. It only means that feelings and emotions will come and go. They should not be used as criteria for judging our union or closeness to God.

In reading the lives of the saints and their own autobiographies, we learn about those who experienced ecstasy and dramatic senses of God’s presence. Those are exceptions to the rule: Most saints struggled with prayer and with sensing the nearness of God. But we think that it should be just the opposite.

One of the most powerful and contemporary examples was that of St. Teresa of Calcutta. Her entire adult life was engaged in two aspects of holiness: one was caring for the lepers and the abandoned on the streets of Calcutta; the second was her heart-wrenching struggle with doubts and fears of being abandoned by God. For most of her life, she experienced nothing of God’s presence.

That’s easy to put in words but imagine the emptiness she experienced in her ministry. She labored and worked with great intensity, but with seemingly no response from God. Nothing! And yet we know she was saintly because of her dedication to the poor. We can only imagine how deeply God was imbedded in her heart and soul.

Signs of God’s Love

Remember the story about the Pharisee in the Bible who was so pleased because he was not like “the rest of men”? He felt so close to God because of all his religious practices. But his feelings were those of pride and self-righteousness. Meanwhile, the tax collector surely felt distant from God. Yet, Jesus said, “He went home justified” even though he felt nothing.

Equally interesting: during the time of the greatest growth in the Church, there were also great persecutions and troubles. If we reflect on the meaning of paradoxes in our lives, we may see some situations we thought were negative at the time, only to realize that those negatives brought about changes in our lives that were signs of God’s love.

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