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Called to holiness? Well, what’s authentic holiness, anyway?

What are you doing in Lent? Some are trying something new, something that will jolt them out of complacency; others have returned to practices that have been meaningful and successful for them in the past, like giving up chocolate or committing to a weekly Holy Hour. There’s nothing wrong with either approach. Lent is Christianity’s annual retreat — a time to reflect, recalibrate and renew our faith in preparation for Easter — a season to focus our attention and our efforts on answering God’s call to holiness.

There it is again: that pesky “universal call to holiness” of Second Vatican Council that we’ve heard about for the past six decades — the one that sounds so good but becomes unwieldy when we attempt to unpack its meaning or respond to it in earnest. Do we even know what “holiness” is? We have a notion it has something to do with being “set apart” from the world, and so we often default into a vision of monasteries and hermitages, religious vows and habits, intense suffering and/or martyrdom.

In other words, what many of us think of as holiness is a mere “venue,” one that is radically different from where most Catholics live.

So, what’s an everyday disciple in the secular world to do? Consider Pope Francis’ most recent apostolic letter, released on the 400th anniversary of the death of St. Francis de Sales. At the time, our attention was focused on the deaths of Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal George Pell, so many of us missed “Totum Amoris Est” (“Everything Pertains to Love”). But the document is worth reading, especially as we cross the threshold into Lent.

We should remember that the first “universal call to holiness” came from Jesus, who exhorted his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

Peter wrote, “But, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘Be holy because I (am) holy'” (1 Pet 1:15-16). The God of the Old Testament continually urges his people to be holy. But how?

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) offered concrete instruction by reflecting on the very nature of God, himself. God is holy; only God is holy. But God also is Love. The call to holiness is not contrary to the call to love. Charity and sanctity converge as they are perfected.

Our concepts of holiness might look considerably different from our concepts of love, but they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, we fractured humans don’t understand or recognize authentic love any better than we do authentic holiness. Too many of us mistake attraction, affirmation, and attention for love — focus on receiving love rather than giving it. Our poor comprehension leads us to counterfeit understandings of both sanctity and charity. They produce a false holiness, one that is distant and harsh rather than intimate and warm. They also yield a false love, one that is aimed at self-fulfillment rather than self-gift.

To grow in holiness is to grow in love. Genuine love has been beautifully defined by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. Perhaps we should try substituting the word “holiness” for “love” in that famous passage and see what happens. Holiness is patient and kind? Not envious, arrogant, or boastful? Not irritable or resentful? Holiness does not insist on its own way?

I’d call that a pretty good litmus test not only for what love is, but for what holiness is — and isn’t.

It’s no coincidence that Francis de Sales has been described as the Doctor of Divine Love. “In Holy Church,” he wrote, “everything pertains to love, lives in love, is done for love and comes from love.” (Preface to “Treatise on the Love of God.”)

So, authentic holiness looks like genuine love. And if it doesn’t, it probably isn’t holiness at all.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a sinner, Catholic convert, freelance writer and editor, musician, speaker, pet-aholic, wife and mom of eight grown children, loving life in New Orleans. “Called to Holiness” appears biweekly at OSV News.

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