Whenever I write about the Catholic faith, there is a problem: my perspective and writing is largely shaped by my experiences and formation in the faith. This experience includes many tremendous, unique blessings I have received in my life. It also includes many splinters from the cross of Christ. Because lived-experience and growth in the faith is personal and subjective, as a writer, I am tempted to generalize my perspective as I write for others on how to understand the Catholic faith.
But experience of the faith is inherently unique and unrepeatable. It is a personal encounter. For some of us, our Catholic faith moves us to take in everything we can, to imbibe every devotion and event. For many others, however, faith is a liminal experience: we stand at the doorway of many Catholic sanctuaries. We come in, but don't join. We say hello, but don't stay. We wonder if, even though we are doing the right thing, we can bring ourselves to come in again, and touch the mysteries which might seem more reward for good behavior than gift.
This subjective experience of faith stands is part of the path to holiness. But it must be constantly confronted and questioned. Pope Francis speaks to the temptation of using our knowledge to create a universalize understanding of the experience of faith. He sees the the danger as the poisoning of our own souls:
A dangerous confusion can arise. We can think that because we know something, or are able to explain it in certain terms, we are already saints, perfect and better than the “ignorant masses.” Saint John Paul II warned of the temptation on the part of those in the Church who are more highly educated “to feel somehow superior to other members of the faithful.” In point of fact, what we think we know should always motivate us to respond more fully to God’s love. Indeed, “you learn so as to live: theology and holiness are inseparable.” (Gaudete et exsultate, 45)
In order to move beyond merely our own experience, we must link the wisdom of theology with our prudent pursuit of holiness. This exercise will reveal a gap in our understanding and perhaps our perspective. We might come to realize while another's expressing about his experience with the living-God might sound different from us, that expression adds something to our own understanding. Where our faith teaches about all the inestimable qualities of God, it would not surprise us that others encounter Him, within the context of our Catholic faith, in a unique way. This revealed gap is where we encounter the Holy Spirit:
Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, “the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” (34)
Practically, when I write and discuss the Catholic faith, I cannot make my experience and even my commitments as a Catholic (in particular my apostolic and political commitments) the sum total of my communicated experience to others. Those of us who write in the public space about Catholicism must make this charitable commitment.
To avoid this, we do well to keep reminding ourselves that there is a hierarchy of virtues that bids us seek what is essential. The primacy belongs to the theological virtues, which have God as their object and motive. At the centre is charity. Saint Paul says that what truly counts is “faith working through love” (Gal 5:6). We are called to make every effort to preserve charity: “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law… for love is the fulfilment of the law” (Rom 13:8.10). “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14). (60)
One small way we can work to shape our sacramental and moral imagination in this area is not to idealize the saints, to the point we make their lives unrealistic. My beloved Saint Catherine of Siena comes to mind, who experienced tremendous ecstasies, including visions and a mystical marriage. Yet her love was not abstract: she risked her life daily for plague victims and in the 13th century that meant almost certain death.
That's concrete. That's a place where the certainty of faith meets the pain that can be experienced at the cross. My particular pursuit of holiness must continue precisely where the need of the other emerges. It means we cannot have a Catholicism that simply promotes "believe as I do and do as I believe." Holiness can only consist of that particular and specific expression of seeing Christ in an encounter of charity and need.
If I encounter a person sleeping outdoors on a cold night, I can view him or her as an annoyance, an idler, an obstacle in my path, a troubling sight, a problem for politicians to sort out, or even a piece of refuse cluttering a public space. Or I can respond with faith and charity, and see in this person a human being with a dignity identical to my own, a creature infinitely loved by the Father, an image of God, a brother or sister redeemed by Jesus Christ. That is what it is to be a Christian! Can holiness somehow be understood apart from this lively recognition of the dignity of each human being? (98)
The Gospel can never simply be reduced to moralisms and right teaching. For the sake of our holiness it is a lived encounter of love.
Mattias A. Caro is the Executive Editor of Ethika Politika.