"Dearest God, Give Me Holiness"

To the left is a stained glass window in the Shrine of Saint John Neumann. It depicts the day of his first Mass as a priest and the prayer he said that day. His prayer was answered. His canonization as a saint of the Catholic Church declares that.

This prayer, and its realization, are what the call to Christian life is all about. Here you will find material on what it means to be holy, or in other words, what it means to pursue a spiritual life or spirituality. In Q & A form, or conversation form, it deals with what spirituality or holiness is or should be for a Catholic.



















What is spirituality?

Do you really want to know? If you look for “spirituality” on Google , you will get 2,820,000 hits. If you ride a motorcycle on your pilgrimage, tap in “spirituality of motorcycling,” and you will get 3,870 hits. The term has come to mean almost anything and everything.

But for a long, long time in the Christian world, it meant only one thing. As the great teacher, Father Karl Rahner defines it, spirituality is “life from the Spirit.” He means the Holy Spirit.

So you really want to know what spirituality is? It's a dangerous question. For it refers first of all, not to our spirit, whether yours or mine . That tends to be our first focus— me , my spirituality, that which I choose or reject as I live out my life. Yes, spirituality is about my life and person, my deepest life and person. But at that depth I meet Someone and Something Else. St. Paul puts it this way, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me.” Spirituality, your deepest life and self , is life from the Spirit of Christ.

Are you saying that spirituality is about finding myself, the real me?

Yes. But that is not the full meaning, the true passion and excitement of spirituality. As engaging and interesting a person as you are, do you want it all to come down to finding yourself? Sooner or later, even you would get tired of you! The promise of a spiritual life is that you find God, get to know him, have him get to know you, get to like him, and have him like you—no, more than that, fall in love with each other. (Oops! He is already in love with you.)

It comes down to why you are here, why God made you. An old, old catechism lesson said that it was to know, love, and serve God in this life, and be happy with him in the next. Without God, you're lost; your life has no lasting purpose. You can never find out what it's all about. St. Augustine put it up this way: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

I don't think about God much. Maybe when I'm scared. Maybe I'm not cut out for this stuff.

What do you want? What do you really want? What did you really want last year, or last month? Maybe you got it—and soon enough got tired of it. Look to your desires. They are such a powerful sign of life and of seeking. Of seeking what? St. Augustine would say, seeking God. He says that even in our sins we are seeking God.

Not me! When I sin, I'm seeking sin!

Do you really, fully understand what you do and why you do it? There's desire you shouldn't pursue, yes. And you probably don't really understand that, understand why you do the evil   you do. But there's also Someone Else, or Something Else, even in this experience of your life. I said earlier that even in our sins we are seeking God unawares. But he is seeking us, too. He uses our desires, even our worst ones, to drive us to him. Good or bad, our desires never fill us. As the saying goes, you can never be too rich or too thin.

His evil desires led the Prodigal Son to loss, disgrace, and hunger. (Have you read that famous gospel story? It's in Luke's Gospel, chapter 15.) Every day such desires lead to the hangover, to the wreckage of love among lovers or spouses, among friends and family. Then desire may lead us to God, as it led the Prodigal Son. Desire led him home, to food and shelter and a Father who loved him. He found the Father waiting for him.

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You make it sound like I can't get away. Get away from God, I mean.

No, you can't.

Even if I believed you, what would I do? I'm just not a religious person. Some people aren't, you know.

I don't believe you. You mentioned before that maybe you have thought of God when you were scared, or maybe when you were scared for someone else. Maybe you did some praying then.


Talked to God, mumbled something or other?


That's enough. That's all you need.


That's what you do. That's how you start—you pray. There's no one way to do that, to pray. A woman told me once that, when she truly wants to pray, she bakes a cake. Another cleans the house.


Maybe I'll mow the lawn!

Whatever works. The point is that prayer is always there for you. You can always say a prayer. It may not be very pretty. It may even include swear words. God can manage anger and swear words.

When I was very young, an old and holy Teacher said, “The will to pray is to pray.” If you want to say a prayer, you are saying a prayer!


Is there anything I should pray for particularly?

Pray for anything, except something evil. Pray for health, for loved ones. Even pray to win the lottery. At the bottom of all prayer is the prayer of Jesus, as he taught us in the Our Father: Thy will be done.

But here are two important suggestions. Pray to know God and to know yourself. And pray to see the will of God for you, and seeing it, pray to be able to do it.

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Can you bring it all together, what you've said so far?

Spirituality is spiritual life, the life of one's deepest self. This life is from the Holy Spirit. It is also a sharing in the life of God at your very heart. You are not alone. Your very existence depends on this relationship. Even more than it is a seeking your truest self, the spiritual life is a seeking after God. Jesus uses the image of vine and branches: he the vine, we the branches. “Without me, you can do nothing,” he says.

According to an ancient definition, prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God. That covers any kind of prayer.

Prayer is the breath and breathing of the spiritual life. You can always say a prayer. St. Alphonsus Liguori , Doctor of the Church, insists on this: you always have the grace or gift of saying a prayer. Imagine what it would mean to a person with emphysema, gasping for breath, to know that the next breath would always come!

Prayer is deeply, personally yours. God fits the gift or grace to you, whether you pray looking like a Buddha or like someone mowing the lawn.


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To take up spirituality again. At the very beginning we noted that there is a spirituality of just about anything, motorcycling, for instance. But we are limiting ourselves to considering spirituality in the Christian tradition of the Catholic Church. You may know that, in the Catholic Church, there are different styles or traditions of spirituality, many of them quite old. So you hear of Jesuit spirituality, or Carmelite spirituality. The Society of Jesus carries on the first, especially from the writings of St. Ignatius Loyola, and the Carmelite Order brings to us the treasures of the writings of saints like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of the Child Jesus (the Little Flower). These pages are influenced by the tradition and teachings of St. Alphonsus Liguori , the founder of the Redemptorists , a group of missionaries, both priests and brothers.


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Where's the best place to start in learning about the spiritual life?

Start—and end—with Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God. Take the Scriptures as your textbook and Jesus as your teacher. St. Augustine powerfully speaks of the Interior Master, that is, Jesus and his Holy Spirit. He says to his people that he, the bishop, can preach the Word of God to his people, but that they will not get anything out of it, unless this Interior Master instructs them. The same truth applies even to the reading of Scripture. That is why we pray for light as we approach it. We pray that the Spirit of Jesus will explain the Scripture to us, as he often did to his disciples when he walked the earth.

Earlier we noted that spiritual life, or spirituality, is “life from the Spirit.” We can say also that its teaching is light from the Spirit . The spiritual life is God's life and its wisdom is his light.

I guess Jesus is the man, right? The one we learn from?

Right. We can see how simply and powerfully this is so by looking at how the Gospels speak of his life. But it is more than learning from him. It is even more identifying with him. In becoming a human being, he has gone so far as to make his life our life, our life his life. Jesus is the Son of God, who has made each of us, with him, a child of God. Here is how a great spiritual teacher, Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890, has expressed it. Take your time. This is a mouthful.

            “Let us never lose sight of this great and simple view, which the whole of Scripture sets before us. What was actually done by Christ in the flesh eighteen hundred years ago, is in type and resemblance really wrought in us by one even to the end of time. He was born of the Spirit, and we too are born of the Spirit. He was justified by the Spirit, and so are we. He was pronounced the well-beloved Son, when the Holy Ghost descended on Him; and we too cry Abba, Father, through the Spirit sent into our hearts. He was led into the wilderness by the Spirit; He did great works by the Spirit; he offered Himself to death by the Eternal Spirit; He was raised from the dead by the Spirit; He was declared to be the Son of God by the Spirit of holiness on His resurrection: we too are led by the same Spirit into and through this world's temptations; we, too, do our works of obedience by the Spirit; we die from sin, we rise again unto righteousness through the Spirit; and we are declared to be God's sons,--declared, pronounced, dealt with as righteous,--through our resurrection unto holiness in the Spirit. Or, to express the same great truth in other words; Christ Himself vouchsafes to repeat in each of us in figure and mystery all that He did and suffered in the flesh. He is formed in us, born in us, suffers in us, rises again in us, lives in us; and this not by a succession of events, but all at once: for He comes to us as a Spirit, all dying, all rising again, all living. We are ever receiving our birth, our justification, our renewal, ever dying to sin, ever rising to righteousness. His whole economy in all its parts is ever in us all at once; and this divine presence constitutes the title of each of us to heaven; this is what He will acknowledge and accept at the last day. He will acknowledge Himself,--His image in us,--as though we reflected Him, and He, on looking round about, discerned at once who were His; those, namely, who gave back to Him His image. He impresses us with the seal of the Spirit, in order to avouch that we are His. As the king's image appropriates the coin to him, so the likeness of Christ in us separates us from the world and assigns us over to the kingdom of heaven”. [“Righteousness Not of Us, But in Us,” Parochial and Plain Sermons (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 1047-1048.]

I'm not sure I get it. But maybe I do. It's something like “Angels in the Outfield”: Jesus plays the game in our place. Is that it?

Close. But you've latched onto a most important point, that the spiritual life is not something you do. It is God's work. God does it by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. This is what the saints answer when people tell them how wonderful and holy they are. They say that God does it all. And they really mean it, because they know the truth of the matter. This is what we mean when we speak of the grace of God .

By the grace of God, no angel plays the game for you. You play it, not as a robot, but as yourself, now more than yourself, now fully and powerfully yourself, because it is not just you, but Christ living in you.

Let's switch the image to the famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. You have surely identified with that boy; we all have. Now identify him with Jesus, playing out our sinful lives with us and for us. This is what ancient Fathers of the Church have preached to us: that boy is Jesus, or you and me, and the Father is the Father of Jesus and of you and me. Unless Jesus is in the picture, it's just a sentimental story. But with him, it is a most powerful image of how really the Spirit of Jesus enters into the story of our lives.

You make it sound like I'm God's little boy?

Yes, you are. There's only one little boy God has, of course, and that is Jesus, the very Son of God. But he extends this life of his to us and we become adopted children of God, each one his little girl or little boy. For a long time in the Church this has been called divinization or deification . You can hear this teaching prayed out at the Mass, when during the Offertory the priest mixes a drop of water with the wine in the chalice. As he does this, he prays, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

The water gets lost in the wine of divinity. You get taken up into God. As St. Augustine puts it, God is closer to you than you are to yourself.

You said before that I can always say a prayer, if I want to. That's the way I feel, too. It's just that sometimes I just don't want to. But it's always there for me, like a coin in my pocket. I can use it or not.

Yes and no. It can feel to us that it's no big deal to say a prayer, no more than it is to ask someone for driving directions. It seems to be just there all the time, so close to us. But it is the gift of the Spirit. St. Paul insists that we cannot even say out our faith in Jesus except by the power of the Spirit. Nor can we say the Our Father—not as words, but as a real prayer—without the Spirit saying it with us and within us [1 Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 4:6].

This is serious business, making use of the grace to pray. There's a story about St. Alphonsus as an old man. Some very young priests asked him, if he had one sermon to preach, what he would preach on. On praying in trial and temptation, he answered. He is famous for his saying, “If you pray, you will be saved. If you do not pray, you will be lost.” Our salvation is God's work, but we too are responsible for it.

The spiritual life, spirituality, is not a hobby. It is life itself.

I thought you were going to say “a matter of life and death.”

Well, you said it for me. What I say here comes out of the missionary tradition of St. Alphonsus Liguori , the missionary tradition of Christ and the Catholic Church. The issue is one of salvation or loss of one's soul. Aside from the promise of Jesus Christ, there is not only no evidence, but not even a basis to believe and hope, that there is any life for us beyond the one that we see. Spiritual life in Jesus Christ is this life that will never end. This is why I say that spirituality is not a hobby. Sorry to say, it sometimes is made to look like another advertisement   among many exercise programs or self-help programs or diets.

The basic missionary preaching of Jesus was and is: Repent; change your heart. The kingdom of God is right here, among you, within you. This is a proclamation, not a negotiation. We are to fall on our knees before it.

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Can you help me? I can't keep my mind on my prayers.

You are talking about distractions. They are not just a problem with prayer, but even with ordinary attention and conversation. You can be listening to someone and suddenly be a thousand miles away. Something from somewhere can strike you as funny and send you into embarrassed laughter that makes no sense to anyone else. It is a human frailty to suffer distractions. They are not sins, and no problem for prayer.

You are surely not talking about deliberate distraction. Such would be opening a newspaper in front of the face of someone talking with you across the breakfast table. (It is done sometimes!) Deliberately not paying attention in prayer would be wrong and irreverent. But that's usually not the problem.

Should I say my prayers over again, if I finish them and don't know where I was when I was praying?

No. If God wants perfect concentration and prayer, he has the angels, who have no headaches, no trouble getting through traffic, no worry about whether they turned off the car lights. Yours is human prayer. And it is your prayer. The Lord delights in you as you are and your prayer as it comes. Honor his love for you by saying your prayers just once!

I don't worry about what you call distractions. But I get upset at those times when prayer feels like chalk in my mouth. It seems worthless. I wonder if anybody is out there listening. I don't get anything out of it.            

This is what the saints and spiritual writers call dryness or aridity , two words for the same thing. Where once you rode along in prayer like a breeze, now you are pumping along on a bike with two flat tires. You seem to be getting nowhere.

The advice of the saints is this. Check first of all whether you may be keeping something deliberate between you and God. I'm not speaking of weaknesses, even the same old sins. I'm speaking of a willful evil, like an improper relationship or a grudge, that you will not let go of, don't want to let go of. If this is the case, deal with it, and prayer will flow again. But if this is not the problem—and you'll know it if it is—then, say the saints, keep praying. Don't cut back. This is a very important challenge, because the trouble amounts to a purification that will bring you closer to God.

You said something that indicates what's going on, “I don't get anything out of it.” Yes, that's the point. If you don't feel anything in it for you, then you have to focus more and more on this motive: the honor and glory of God. You are being taught to love God more purely. You are being taught to forget about yourself. Don't worry about how it feels. Keep praying. In God's good time, feelings will come again, but more deeply and more quietly.

It's just that I do it all so badly, it seems, the praying and the living, too. I get discouraged.

Did you ever hear this piece of wisdom, “What's worth doing, is worth doing badly ?” What would we ever do, if we waited to do it perfectly, or even well? A little girl was complimented on how she was riding her bicycle. How did she learn to do ride so well, someone asked. “By falling down a lot.”

But often enough we just seem to keep falling! We sin, and it's the same old sins. And we pray so poorly. What we overlook, however, is the great worth of such humble offerings. We all want to offer the best to one we love, to God above all. We overlook the worth of offering all we are and do, for all the faults and failings.

Look at it this way. Which day is easier to offer to God, the good day or the bad day? At the end of the good day, you can say. “Thank you, Lord, for this day. I did pretty well. Kept my temper. Did my job. Remembered you once in a while. Did pretty much what I had lined up to do. Thank you.” Surely God is pleased.

But consider this offering at the end of the day. “Lord, I'm embarrassed by this day. It began well enough, I suppose. But I soon was angry at the whole world. I got so behind so early that by eleven in the morning I quit on everything. I got nothing done. I had no time for anyone, even you, Lord. Here I am now at the end of the day, and it's all I have to offer you. I hope my littleness and sorrow will honor you. I give you my all, pitiful as it is.” Which, tell me, is the more difficult offering to make? The second one, of course. And that is why it so honors God. As a psalm says, “A humble and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise.”

Prayer is the raising of the mind and the heart to God, to God. Prayer is watching God, someone has said. It is not watching myself watching God.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name!