Holiness in Hopelessness
I am reading Pope Francis’ document on holiness, Gaudete et Exsultate (“Rejoice and Be Glad”), which was published earlier this year. But to be honest, I’m finding it really hard to be holy.
Economically, South Africa is struggling and ordinary people are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. It is hard to give to others when we, ourselves, are counting every cent to get to the end of the month, if we’re lucky enough not to be in debt.
Socially, South Africans seem to have regressed. Where a few years ago we were celebrating the diversity of our rainbow nation, now our differences seem to be a cause of conflict.
Racist slurs keep making the news headlines, reminding us that we haven’t yet overcome the scars of our past, but neither do we seem to be interested in finding common ground where we can begin the process of healing.
Add to this the land reform issue, which has to be resolved in a meaningful way if we want to move forward as a nation. But what started as a series of proposals by political parties has become a turf war that is pitting ordinary South Africans against each other, resulting in more race-based politics, land grabs and even the interference of foreign leaders.
As a Church, the abuse scandal, accusations and counter-accusations leave me feeling angry and disappointed in the very people to whom I entrust my spiritual growth.
I know that the wonderful priests and Church members who have accompanied me throughout my life are nothing like the people who committed these terrible crimes. Yet, the seed of doubt is planted: can I trust even the members of my own community?
Against this backdrop, being holy seems much harder than the parochial example Pope Francis gives at the start of his encyclical—to refrain from gossiping, to have patience with one’s children, to say a kind word to a poor person. This simple world of home and community seems so far removed from the chaos I open my eyes to every morning.
Not even the words of St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross quoted in the text are of much comfort: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forward out of the darkest nights.” As I eat my breakfast and scroll through the morning’s news, my first reaction to the day is hopelessness, not holiness.
Hopelessness and holiness. Perhaps this is the place to start
Hopelessness sees no way out of the darkness. Holiness seeks out the good even in darkness.
Hopelessness dwells on past pessimism and transforms it into a pattern for future actions. Holiness trusts in a different future.
Hopelessness holds onto its nothingness. Holiness embraces possibility.
Hopelessness is rich in its futility. Holiness accepts its poverty.
In chapter three of the encyclical, Pope Francis interprets the Beatitudes as an expression of holiness through poverty.
The “poor in spirit” do not have the security of the rich but experience a “holy indifference” that brings “radiant inner freedom”.
The meek are an “expression of the inner poverty of those who put their trust in God alone”. The humility of the meek is holiness.
The poverty of those who mourn lies in their loss, but yet their sorrow gives them the capacity for compassion to share in the suffering of others. Holiness comes from mourning with others.
Pope Francis speaks about those “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, saying that their poverty comes from the absence of justice and calls us to strive for holiness by not standing by watching others suffer injustice, or even worse, give up on the struggle for “real justice and opt to follow the train of the winners”.
These kinds of poverty are what I experience when I read about the killing of another child, racist social media rants, extremist views in the realm of politics and religion. If I am to interpret the Holy Father’s words, then I am called to acknowledge my poverty and powerlessness to do anything about these issues that make me feel hopeless.
The Beatitudes go on to speak about the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and all those who are persecuted.
In my poverty — yes, even in my hopelessness — the call is to be a “mission” by reflecting “a certain aspect of the Gospel”.
Mercy prompts me to action — to forgive, to help and to serve others even if they have wronged me. Being pure of heart is a call to love without measure, to deepen my love even for what cannot be loved — murderers, racists, exploiters of the weak — and to look into my own heart and find what is insincere, deceitful in myself and receive the “new heart” God wants to give me.
To be a peacemaker is to refrain from perpetuating the cause for conflict, choosing rather to “build peace and friendship in society.”
Pope Francis admits that this is difficult, saying that in making peace, we have to “face conflict head on, resolve and make it a link in the chain of a new process”. These actions may subject us to persecution and ridicule but “accepting the path of the Gospel, even though it may cause us problems: that is holiness”.
Read in this light, perhaps the opening example is not as naïve as I thought on my first reading. Refraining from gossiping or practising patience and compassion are merely the starting point for a far greater, far more difficult mission to be holy.
Irrespective of the hopelessness around us, ours is the call of Bl Benedict Daswa who sacrificed his own comfort and ultimately his life to uplift his community and testify to his faith.
Ours is the call of Franz Reinisch, a young German priest who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and lost his life for it.
Ours is the call of St Maria Goretti, the young girl who forgave her rapist and murderer.
Ours is the call of St Thérèse of Lisieux in finding holiness in even the little things.
This holiness is not just for our sanctification, but one that makes a difference in the world, making it a little less angry, a little less conflict-ridden, a little more loving, a little more just, a little more like God’s kingdom on earth.
Even if the nights are dark, we are called to rise above the circumstances. The choice is ours: we can succumb to the hopelessness of our daily struggles or we can transform them into holiness.