God saved us and called us to a holy life, not according to our works but according to his own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began. (II Timothy 1:9, NABRE)
God has “called us to a holy life”!
These words from the New Testament were written almost two thousand years ago, and yet they could have been written today — to you, to me, to every person who has ever been baptized into the body of Christ. In the second Vatican Council the Bishops of the Catholic Church described this as the “Universal Call to Holiness.” As a universal call, it’s not just for bishops and priests, for nuns and monks, for people that we may already think of as holy, like Mother Teresa. We are all called to holiness.
The French poet Léon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” Fortunately, for every one of us who still draws breath, we have hope, hope that by the grace of God, we might respond to this call, and truly live a holy life.
Of course, we are called to holiness, not according to our works but according to God’s own design and the grace bestowed upon us in Christ Jesus before time began.
What does the Universal Call to Holiness mean?
The holiness, the sanctity, that you and I are called to, is not something that we can achieve by our own efforts. There is no pulling yourself up by the devotional bootstraps. Holiness is a gift — a gift that God wants to give to each one of us, even though we may not deserve it. God has designed us for holiness, we were created to be living icons of Divine Love, Divine Mercy, and Divine Compassion. And most amazing of all — this design has been in the works since before the beginning of time.
You and I are expressions of God’s love from all of eternity.
It has been said that all of organic matter — all of physical matter — was originally created from the stars. Physicists tell us that matter is simply “trapped energy” — trapped light, if you will. God created the sun and other stars, and sprayed them across the universe, and the light that they have emitted, over billions of years, has illuminated the fullness of God’s creative activity, from the beginning of time to the present moment. The oxygen, the carbon, the hydrogen, all the elements that support life, all came from the stars. You and I are literally made of stardust.
The Bible says we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
And so I invite you to consider with me now, that before God lit the fuse that ignited the big bang — what we might call the first day of creation — before that first day, God already knew us by name, knew that we would be made of stardust, that we would be designed for holiness, and that we would be called to an eternity of every increasing joy welling up in our hearts, through the love that has been given to us through the Holy Spirit.
That’s pretty heady stuff, don’t you think? And if you’re like me, this kind of elevated talk about holiness, and the grace of God, and Divine Compassion, might leave you feeling rather humble. “How can God want or expect me to be holy — I can barely drive to work without losing my temper!”
None of us are perfect — which is the message of this season of Lent, a time when we acknowledge our brokenness, our woundedness, our sinfulness. How can God take somebody as broken and wounded and sinful as me, and say, “I’m calling you to be holy”?
Here’s how: because God made us, God loves us. And therefore, God keeps us. Just like if you noticed a scrape on your new car, you would just take it to the shop to get it repaired; in the same way, God meets our brokenness not with a desire to condemn us, but with a desire to heal us.
Transfigured in Christ
If I may use bold language, God wants to transfigure us, as surely as God transfigured Jesus on the high holy mountain, as today’s gospel so beautifully remind us.
Jesus’s face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. Apparitions of the great Jewish leaders Moses and Elijah came to speak with him in his splendor. Then the voice of God himself proclaimed that Jesus is his beloved, and we are instructed to listen to him.
Now, you and I are not Jesus, we are not the only begotten Son of God. But the Christian faith holds that all who are baptized — even including all who desire baptism — are made members of Christ’s Body. There’s an old term that we don’t hear very often, but I think we should bring it back: “The Mystical Body of Christ.” The word mystical means “hidden,” so that means that Christ is hidden — in you, and me, and everyone who seeks to follow his way. He is hidden in our hearts, present in the love that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. So you and I, as members of his mystical body, are called to be transfigured, just like he was.
So even though we are made of stardust, maybe we’re not going to climb the mountain and shine with radiant white light — at least not in a physical sense. That’s okay. Because we are called to shine forth spiritually, the light that we are called to spread is the light of love, the light of compassion, the light of mercy, and the light of forgiveness.
Once again, you may be asking, “But how am I to do this? I’m not very good at being a saint. I wish I were better, but I just have to be honest. My life is really kind of a mess.”
Well, welcome to the club. And by the Grace of God, on that Mountain of Transfiguration, the voice of God did not say we had to get our act together! What did it say? It told us to listen to Christ. That, my friends, is the key: the key to holiness, the key to sanctification, and the key to the life of prayer. Listening to Christ.
So often, we think of prayer in terms of what we say to God: we pray to ask for forgiveness, to express gratitude and thanksgiving, or to intercede for the needs of others or make petitions for our own needs. All of these are beautiful ways to pray — but prayer is more than just us talking to God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in fact, describes the highest form of prayer, contemplative prayer, as wordless adoration of Christ. It is a way of praying that is based not on the poetry of our language or the cleverness of our thoughts, but simply on the love in our hearts.
In other words, there is a way of praying that invites us to listen to Christ, through the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Listening for the Grace of God
One of the great blessings of contemplative Christianity is that we have a long tradition, two thousand years, countless generations of men and women who answered that call to holiness, and became saints and mystics — they embody God’s goodness, God’s truth, God’s beauty, and God’s love. What’s the difference between a saint and a mystic? A saint teaches us how to relate to each other — how to love our neighbors as ourselves. A mystic, therefore, teaches us how to relate to God — how to respond, through prayer and meditation and contemplation, to the one who created us, who loves, who redeems us, who sustains us, and who sanctifies us.
Of course, many saints are also mystics and many mystics are also saints. Maybe you can’t be one without being the other.
How do we answer the call to holiness? Let’s listen for the grace of God. Let’s reflect on how God has called us into a life of love, compassion, mercy, and service — but also, a life of prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Let us pray together, and reflect together on the wisdom of the great saints and mystics and how they teach us how to pray, and most of all, let us support each other as we seek to truly listen for the whisper of Christ’s call to us — through the love of the Holy Spirit that has been poured into our hearts.
Will we be transfigured, like Christ was on that Holy Mountain so long ago? I can’t make any guarantees! But I do believe that when we take the time to be still, and truly listen for God’s call in our lives, we will be changed, and for the better.
N.B. The above reflection was offered to the community of Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Gainesville, FL, on March 8, 2020, as part of the parish mission. The readings cited include 2 Timothy 1:8-10 and Matthew 17:1-9. It’s been adapted slightly for publication on this blog.