Richard Norman reflects on the path to holiness
‘it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace’
Each Mass ends with an instruction: Go forth / Ite, missa est. Our churches are, by definition, therefore places of departure: here is where a thousand journeys have begun. Here, families and their children have taken their first steps in the bright light of Holy Baptism; here, newlyweds have come together to hit the road; and here, where our loved ones have departed beyond our horizon, the breath of the Spirit has caught their sails and filled them, as they have put out into the immensity of the ocean that is God’s love. This holy place, then, is but a quayside, from which the ships of our lives depart. Here their cargo of grace and faith are safely loaded, before the onward journey begins.
But think, if you will, for a moment, about the nature of the journeys upon which here we embark. Think of the parents and the newlyweds; think of the bereaved, waving loved ones farewell. In each case, we might say, a new life, or at least a new life’s chapter, begins on that momentous occasion. And we start here – in this church – in order to be inspired, to live what is to come as best we’re able to do. Notwithstanding the mistakes and disappointments which may feel inevitable, yet we begin on our new path resolved to do well. No parent of a newborn, brought for baptism, thinks to themselves, I’m content just to be an average mum or dad. No fiancé, looking – before the altar – into the eyes of his beloved, says to himself, I want only to be a mediocre husband to my bride. Nor, bereaved of a friend or family member, do the mourners at a funeral commit simply to paying passable tribute to their loved one, in the ways in which they will, henceforward, live their lives. No, in each case we begin with an aspiration to excellence – to be the best husband, the best father, to live the best legacy to one who has gone before.
Today, we celebrate St George; and the saints can seem so far removed from our existence – a sort of spiritual élite, perhaps grudgingly to be admired, but maybe also almost dangerously single-minded, zealots, fanatics, a Christian faith for others, not for us. Not for us who live with the daily realities of being parents or spouses, who struggle with life’s ordinary challenges such as grief and pain and loss. So often the saints fall back into the realm of fables and fiction: their lives may teach a useful lesson, but seem also so far-fetched.
But here is the rub: if we should not aim at being mediocre parents, or settle happily for being no more simply than an OK spouse, why are we so often content just to be average Christians: where is the spiritual ambition, the spiritual idealism, in our lives? It doesn’t matter that we will likely fall far short of our resolution: to be honest, the same is probably true of our being a parent or a spouse. The point is that we begin by aiming higher – we begin by wanting to do well.
I’ve included in our Mass booklets words of St John Henry Newman, to this effect – ‘Fear not,’ he said, ‘that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning’: what Newman meant was that to be content with a mediocre Christianity, to aspire to nothing more spiritually than simply scraping by, is not even to have begun truly living, because real life is life with God. Real life is aiming for sainthood, even in the knowledge that we will, likely, fall far short. Graham Greene’s whisky priest, in his novel The Power and the Glory, phrases it so memorably, as he stands, awaiting execution, lost in thought:
He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all. It seemed to him at that moment, that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. He would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage. He felt like someone who has missed happiness by seconds at an appointed place. He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted – [and that was] to be a saint.
And so there is but one thing really necessary: Our Lord said something very similar, did he not? But why? Why put the pursuit of Jesus front and centre, above the very many other worthy demands on our attention and our time? Simply for this reason: because God has a better imagination than we do – because God has deeper, richer dreams than we do for our lives.
That contemporary obsession with self-fulfilment is at once so laughably grandiose and so poor. It’s like foregoing the old masters for a page of colouring by numbers, abandoning Michelangelo for join-the-dots. Perhaps the possibility of some measure of self-fulfilment arises only when we set our standards at a disappointingly low level, when we settle for being mediocre – whereas God has infinitely greater dreams. God knows me better than I do, and by adopting me as His child in baptism, He has said that it is thus within me – and within you – to become saints. As our second reading puts it, ‘it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace in which we can boast about looking forward to God’s glory’: faith plants within us a promise, faith pushes forward the frontiers of our lives. And that is why, continues St Paul in this letter to the Roman Christians, ‘we can boast about our sufferings too’. Because the trials which, in this life, we inevitably encounter, are transformed by the power of Christ: they are no longer just the pains and inconveniences which get in the way of self-fulfilment; instead, they are the rungs of a ladder, a ladder which stretches up to heaven, from earth. From suffering we ascend to patience; from patience to perseverance, and thence to hope. And so we are no longer colouring in a picture drawn hurriedly by our pencil; we are completing, on a larger canvas, with a richer pallet, according to a greater imagination, the picture of our lives dreamt of by God. God has dreamt of you: you are not an afterthought, not an incidental detail – your life is an essential characteristic in His magisterial masterpiece of love. And just as no one is inessential in this picture, so no detail of our lives is irrelevant to this work of art. This is a part of what, in the Creed, we will mean when we describe Christianity, and the Church, as catholic – a word which means literally holistic, according to the whole. The Jesuit cardinal Henri de Lubac said that the faith of the Church is catholic because ‘it addresses the whole human being and includes the whole of human nature’: there is therefore no dimension of your being, no corner of your life, in which God does not wish to accomplish His gracious plans. It’s why the most pious among us need to remember that God does not wish us to neglect the non-“religious” aspects of our lives; and why the ‘I don’t go to church, but I’m a good person’ constituency ought to reflect carefully on how man’s spirituality, and the glory we owe to the Almighty, can adequately be served if not by Holy Mass?
Perhaps, like me, you have a book on your coffee table which at some point you started reading, but never seem to have read to its end. In my case, it’s an anthology of poetry, by the seventeenth-century mystic, Thomas Traherne. The book is entitled Happiness and Holiness – and the relationship between these is the poet’s theme. The saints, such as our own St George the glorious, remind us that this relationship is as intimate as they come. There is no happiness without holiness, there is no road to fulfilment which does not pass along the way of the cross; conversely, there is nothing to be afraid of in sanctity, whatever the po-faced plaster-cast models we normally make of the saints. There is nothing to fear in abandoning ourselves wholly, completely, holistically to our heavenly Father: Jesus says, ‘no one who has left [all]… for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel… will not receive a hundredfold now… and in the age to come, eternal life.’ Sanctity, holiness, sainthood – mean simply to live a little of the life of heaven here and now on earth. And that can only be a blessèd experience, not one we should put off for tomorrow, or shy away from embracing today. Our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is, in three ways, really all about our becoming saints: first, it alerts us to the possibility – of living according to God’s dreams, not ours; next, it implants in us a vocation – a calling to respond to this goal; finally, it equips us for the journey – into the boat are loaded all the necessary stores of grace and faith. What a privilege it is to be a Christian; what a privilege to be made capable of reaching this goal.
So, if you are ambitious as concerns good human being, ambitious to lead a life well-lived; if aspiration is true of parenting, and partnering also – let it be true of Christian profession, let it be true of our faith. ‘Fear not that thy life shall come to an end, but rather fear that it shall never have a beginning’; for, ‘at the end there was only one thing that counted – [and that was] to be a saint.’ And, brothers and sisters, ‘it is by faith and through Jesus that we have entered this state of grace.’
Fr Richard Norman was until recently the Vicar of St George’s Bickley. He has been received into the Roman Catholic Church. A frequent contributor to these pages, we offer him our prayers and best wishes. This sermon was preached for the Feast of St George 2021 at St George’s Bickley.