“Holiness”, it's one of those words that we hear so often in religious contexts, at Church, in homilies, that it begins to lose its meaningfulness. It's also one of those words, one of those ideas, which just seems to be for someone else. We can look at the example of so many of the saints and think, “holiness is not for me, I couldn't possibly be a saint like those others.” This idea, that holiness is for someone else, is not a new one, it has been a part of our consciousness for a long time, in fact if you ask someone of an older generation, particularly a priest who was ordained before the Second Vatican Council, they could tell you that there used to be different levels of holiness, or so it was thought.
It used to be understood that there were three levels of holiness, at the top of the list were the monks and nuns, the ones who lived in the monasteries and convents, cloistered away from the rest of the world, who spent their entire day praying and working, it was just assumed that they were automatically at the top of the holiness list. Second came the secular or diocesan priests, they live and work in the world, but because they are in close contact with holy things, the Sacraments, and were schooled in prayer and theology, they were thought to be second on the holiness list. Finally at the bottom of the list came everyone else, who couldn’t possibly ascend to the levels of holiness occupied by those at the top of the list.
This idea that “holiness is for someone else” has been challenged in the last few decades by a teaching, often called the “Universal Call to Holiness”, it teaches that holiness is for everyone, not just a select few, that we are all called to be saints, and not just after we die, but right here and right now. This teaching is a very ancient one, if we look to many of the writings of St. Paul, we find that he refers to the Christians in the communities to which he is writing as “Saints”. Of course someone could raise the objection, “but what about all the Canonized Saints, they’re all priests and religious, where are all the laypeople?” Well, certainly there are many laypeople among the list of Canonized Saints, though sadly we don’t hear too much about them.
Then there’s the second argument, “of course there are more priests and religious who are saints, it’s easier for them. Priests and religious don’t have the same cares and concerns as everyone else. The monks in the monastery have a place to live, their meals are provided for them, they have their habits to wear, and even their days is worked out for them, they have time to work, and lots of time to pray. The priests may be working in the world looking after the parish and the needs of the people, but they still have their rectory provided, bills are paid, and they don’t even have to worry about what to wear in the morning, they just wear the same uniform every day. For the rest of us, we just don’t have time to pray.” This, my friends, is what our gospel is all about today.
In our gospel today, our Lord challenges us about where our priorities should be. He says to “first seek the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” and all of our other needs will be cared for by our Father in heaven. It’s an invitation to examine our priorities, to see if God occupies the first place in our life, and a challenge to grow in our faith, if we don’t believe that God will provide for our needs. As we begin our examination, it might we worthwhile first, to look at our cares and concerns and worries, and see which ones are real concerns, because so often we simply manufacture cares and concerns for ourselves.
Perhaps I could offer a practical example, though a bit of an absurd one. Not all that long ago there was a commercial on television; I believe it was for a laundry detergent. The commercial featured a girl, who spent the length of the commercial complaining about the fact that she had to wear her older sister’s hand-me-down jeans, instead of the nice new pair. Is this a real concern, or a manufactured one? I’m sure we could come up with many other examples to illustrate the point, but it is worth it to look at all of the things about which we spend time worrying, and see just how many of them are manufactured worries, ones that we create for ourselves.
Then of course, what about those genuine worries, the real needs, putting food on the table, mortgage payments, car payments; the authentic necessities. Our Lord invites us to lay them at his feet, and don’t worry about them. Allow me to offer another short story to illustrate this point. There was a young man who was a couple of years behind me in the seminary. He realized that he was not going to be able to cover his costs to continue his studies (as we progressed in the seminary the diocese would cover more and more of our costs, but at the beginning we would have to pay our entire tuition and some other fees). He could have started worrying, fretted about finding a second or third job over the summer in order to pay for his studies, but what did he do? He prayed, he essentially said, “God, if you want me to be a priest, I need to study in the seminary, but I can’t afford to study in the seminary, so if you want me to be a priest, you need to handle this situation.” Low and behold, a donation came in which covered his costs and he was able to continue.
Naturally, we must be ready to accept that from time to time, we may pray for something, and not get it, God may be telling us that what we think is a need, isn’t one, it’s a want, but if we rely on him, he will always give us what we truly need.
Our Lord invites us, through our gospel today to focus on what is truly necessary, to make God, his kingdom, and his righteousness to be our first priority. He invites us to place our needs at his feet and know that he will take care of them. If we do so, if we make prayer and holiness our first priority and leave the rest to God, then we will begin to see saints among us, we will begin to see holiness all around us. Holiness will no longer be for someone else, somewhere else, it will no longer be only for those who have “the time” to pray, but it will be for each and every one of us, right here, and right now.