“The heart of the mystery of holiness is to realize that we are called to be friends with God,” Father Gary Lauenstein, a Redemptorist priest of the order founded by Saint Alphonsus Liguori, writes in The Heart of Holiness: Friendship with God and Others. How can we be friends with God? Why would he want to bother with us anyway? These are some of the things we discuss in an interview.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Can everyone and anyone be holy? What are the prerequisites?
Fr. Gary Lauenstein: The Second Vatican Council and saints like Alphonsus Liguori and Francis de Sales before it have all assured us that God wants all of us to be holy. Holiness is our call from Baptism.
The prerequisites for holiness are already covered by God. The doctrine of “justification” is that God in His goodness and mercy decided simply that we are worth loving. That is half the work of being holy. The other half is that we cooperate with God as God floods our life with opportunities of being loving.
Lopez: “The heart of the mystery of holiness is to realize that we are called to be friends with God.” Can one really have a “friendship” with God? What does that look like? Why would he want to bother? How could he with all of humanity?
Lauenstein: Friendship with someone depends upon having certain elements in the relationship. These would include things like being present to the other, conversing with the other, getting to know the other, sharing with the other and seeking the good of the other, even if this involves self-sacrifice.
When I looked at how Jesus has treated us, I discovered that all of these things are present in his relationship with each of us. I also discovered that each of these things can be present in our response to Jesus.
I felt a need to examine the question of whether a person can truly be a friend of God. Aristotle, for instance, thought that it would not be possible for a human being to be friends with God because of the inequality of the “partners” in such a friendship. Jesus, however, said that he regards us as friends rather than as servants (Jn.15:15).
But the idea that God would want us to be friends with him does sound preposterous. St. Alphonsus said God must be “pazzo” (Italian for “crazy) to want such a thing, and then went on to realize that lovers often are crazy – with love. It simply emphasizes just how loving God is to us.
I had to verify for myself that the concept of being friends with God was an acceptable concept in Catholic Church teaching. I had started the book before the turn of the millennium and I thought it would be fair to examine as much as possible the teaching of the Church in its first two thousand years, especially in the lives and writings of its “doctores.” If it could be corroborated in two thousand years of Church history, then it was a solid concept. And, to my happiness, I discovered that it could. Much of the book is an attempt to show that.
It is not difficult for God to love each of us. After all, God loved each of us into existence. It is an astounding thought when you realize that God could have created a billion people instead of you, but when he thought of you, he felt the need to create you. If you ask the mother of a large family how she can love all her children, she will say because she is their mother.
Lopez: You write that “What is true about human friendships is also true about our friendship with God. And what is holy about our friendship with God is instructive to us about our human friendships.” And that “the experience of human friendship can teach us how to grow in the friendship and love of God.” What if our human friendships aren’t what they should be? Are we doomed on this friendship-with-God front?
Fr. Lauenstein: Every day is an opportunity to learn. I doubt that any of us is extremely good with loving even our friends. We do come into this world with a rather infected ego, even if Baptism offers us the antidote. God’s grace offers us opportunities to learn to be more loving, to grow in our friendship, multiple times a day. I found it helpful to keep a journal over the years. In it I have seen how that grace has worked, though I must admit I have lived my life in lines more crooked than those with which God writes.
Lopez: You are transparent about your own weaknesses from the start — pointing out that you yourself can “vacillate between simple neglect of others and infatuation.” Do we need to do that more? Too many people seem to think holiness is for angels, not humans. Is the first step to holiness humility?
Fr. Lauenstein: I don’t know who first said, “Humility is truth” – maybe Erasmus, maybe St. Vincent de Paul. Anyway, that is the definition of humility that helps me the most. The truth is God loves us and wants us to love him, and the measure of such love lies in our love for one another. So, it doesn’t help me to ignore my faults in this regard.
Lopez: How might one commit oneself to a holiness project this Lent?
Fr. Lauenstein: It would be interesting to re-examine one’s friendships. Am I too busy to really cultivate any special friendships, especially with my own spouse? Would it help me to keep a journal of what I experience in human friendship and to meditate on how that could be applied to my friendship with God? That’s not giving up candy for Lent, but it might be more nourishing.