Holiness is about so much more
Let’s back up. When you think about holiness, do you fall into bathwater thinking?
Bathwater thinking is when you forget the baby — the living, breathing, vulnerable persons in front of you — and instead, you wallow around in that warm, familiar bathwater of your indisputably worthy cause.
Think about St. Gianna Molla. A good many people believe that this woman’s greatness came in her eager, joyful acceptance of death in order to save her baby. Not so. It is true that she was willing to accept the risk of death when she refused the therapeutic hysterectomy that would have killed her unborn child. And she did end up giving her life so that her baby could live. But the whole time, she prayed and hoped and longed to live. She wasn’t devoted to being pro-life: she was devoted to her baby. And she wanted to live, so that she could be with her baby and her husband and the rest of her beloved children. She was pro-life: she hoped for life in abundance, including her own.
The same is true, in a somewhat different way, for St. Maria Goretti, whose feast is today. Over and over, I’ve heard this saint praised as a holy girl who prized her viginity so highly that she was willing to die to defend it. And she did die as a result of defending her viginity. But when her would-be rapist attacked her, she pleaded with him to stop because he would be committing a mortal sin, and he would go to hell. She didn’t say, “Please, please, spare my virginity!” She begged him to spare himself.
This is what it looks like when someone is close to God: because they love God, they want to spare the person in front of them. They are in love with living human beings, not in love with virtue in the abstract. They are focused not on the idea of morality, but on the person whose life and safety (whether physical or spiritual) are at stake.
In Maria Goretti’s case, she was focused on her rapist — and it was her love for him, and not her blindingly pure devotion to virginity, that converted him and brought him to repentance before he died. That is how conversions happen. That is how people are saved: when other people show love for them. It’s about other people. It’s always about our love for God expressed as love for other people. That’s why, before someone is declared a saint, they have to perform two miracles for people still on earth. Even after death, it’s not about the cause or the system or the virtue in the abstract. It’s always about our love for other people.
Ideas like holiness, chastity, humility, charity, diligence, or any other virtue that springs to mind when you think of a saint? These are bathwater. These are the things that surround and support the “baby” of love in action. A bath without bathwater is no good; but a bath without someone to be bathed is even more pointless. God doesn’t want bathwater saints, ardently devoted to a cause or a principle or a movement or a virtue. God wants us to love and care for each other. Love for each other is how we order our lives. Love for each other is how we serve God.
Love for each other is how we imitate Jesus. He didn’t die for the cause of salvation; He died for us, as billions of individual beloved children.
It’s not an either/or: we don’t have to choose between pursuing virtue and showing love. But virtue doesn’t exist in a vaccuum, and the pursuit of holiness doesn’t mean anything unless it’s manifest in love for each other. It’s always about our love for other people. Otherwise, what’s the point?
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