February 6, 2023

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By Casey Bassett

Imagine standing at the foothills of a beautiful mountain whose peak rises above in unimaginable beauty. You need only to approach and scale the mountain to reach that wondrous refuge at the top. This is the Christian life. A life of difficult climbs, slips and doubts. But also a life of beautiful resting spots, well-springs of revitalizing graces, and deep treasuries of maps that offer guidance. And the journey is the ordering and maintenance of a well-ordered life.

In his exhortations and messages to the clergy and lay faithful, Bishop Donald DeGrood often uses the phrase “healthy, happy, holy” to describe the state of a well-ordered Christian life. These three terms summarize, in a beautifully interconnected way, what a well-ordered life consists of. We find both the meaning and interconnectedness of these words within the rich history and tradition of the Catholic Church.

The climb toward holiness

Fundamental to this interconnectedness is holiness, which St. Thomas Aquinas defines as separation and firmness.

“On one way it denotes purity; and this signification fits in with the Greek, for hagios means ‘unsoiled.’ On another way it denotes firmness, wherefore in olden times the term ‘sancta’ was applied to such things as were upheld by law and were not to be violated” (“Summa Theologiae” II-II:81:8).

A holy person is one who has separated themselves from the world (pure) and fixed their attention on God. St.Thomas says this must be a firm separation, not one that goes back and forth from immersion to separation. The extent to which we firmly separate from the world, we increase our nearness to God.

With this definition, holiness can seem impossible for anyone other than a monk or nun to attain. And while holiness can indeed mean cloistering oneself from the world for a lifetime of prayer, God calls all people from every vocation to lead holy lives. The key is the notion of separation as detachment. Let me explain what that looks like in real life.

Many people have jobs or responsibilities in the world to which God has called them. God doesn’t ask us to throw off these responsibilities to attain holiness, but rather to recognize them as ways in which he uses our unique talents to lead us and those around us to become more holy. When we recognize these responsibilities as a means to God and salvation rather than an end in themselves, we can achieve a level of detachment from them that fits our vocation in life.

Working at this detachment can be a difficult task, and it is never done outside of God’s grace.

“If we are going to arise from any slumber or rationalizations, we will need to rely on grace and cooperate with God’s help by safeguarding our mind, imagination, memory, body, soul and will from falling into temptation, especially in those areas we are most vulnerable,” Bishop DeGrood says.

It starts with prayer and introspection. This introspection is not self-absorbed. Instead, it is a viewing of ourselves as God sees us. We should enter into this by asking our Lord to give us the grace to see ourselves through his divine lens so we can receive the further grace of growing closer to him and knowing ourselves.

“Explore useful ways to ‘know oneself’ and how to thrive by learning more about our natural and supernatural giftedness, temperaments and areas of vulnerability,” Bishop DeGrood says.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with experiencing feelings, desires, fears, etc. St. Thomas maintains that these actually help us overcome evil or obstacles and steer us toward the good. What St. Thomas warns us of is areas of excess: we should be looking for areas where we are allowing these things to overwhelm our use of reason and thereby cloud our judgment.

But not only do we need clear judgment, we also need to consistently exercise correct judgment (the virtue of prudence) if we’re going to grow in holiness. If holiness is about growing in proximity to God and the fullness of truth and goodness, it follows that we have a duty to seek out truth and goodness on our journey. This is summed up in the following passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):

“Man tends by nature toward the truth. He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it: ‘It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons . . . are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth’” (CCC 2467).

Correct judgment is based on how well we grasp what is objectively true and good.

“It’s important to be attentive to the intellectual life in a general way: good fiction, history, sound news sources, etc. But above all, foster good thinking skills, which are so lacking in our culture today,” Bishop DeGrood says. “Commitment to continual study of the Church’s teachings, especially as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in other documents of the Magisterium.”

If we’re going to attain holiness, we need to work not only toward unclouding our judgment (moderation) but also toward learning the truth. The Church is the manifestation of the fullness of truth. If we’re inclined to know what is objectively true and good so that we can order our passions accordingly, we need to journey into the eternal truths she manifests. Just like Bishop DeGrood says, this journey takes many forms: spiritual reading, catechesis, listening to sermons, and prayer.

It is during this pursuit of truth that the climb toward holiness can become difficult. We might realize that due to involuntary or willful ignorance, our own intellectual conception of what is true or good isn’t correct. It’s difficult to accept when we’re wrong, and it’s even more difficult to manage our feelings and actions in regard to it.

“We ought never venture into this task alone. Instead, we must rely on the grace of God and on each other,” Bishop DeGrood says.

If we open ourselves up to God’s grace, he will supply what is needed for us to accomplish mindset or lifestyle changes. This supply of grace is especially present in the sacraments of the Church. That’s why the path of holiness, along with prayer and intellectual development, is especially marked by a deepening of the sacramental life.

“Go to confession on a regular basis for mercy, grace to avoid sin, and growth in faith, hope, charity and the other supernatural gifts and virtues,” Bishop DeGrood says.

The riches of grace that flow from the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, are innumerable. When we’re looking deep within ourselves, we should especially look at our feelings toward the sacraments. Do we view them as an errand or even a nuisance or nicety? This is a sign that we haven’t recognized them as a good—in fact, the highest good on earth due to their proximity to God. Is this lack of recognition due to a lack of knowledge or information, or due to a refusal on our part to accept the truth?

A poor sacramental life can create a cyclical problem when it comes to increasing our state of holiness. If we don’t frequent the sacraments due to a poor understanding or stubbornness, we might miss out on the grace God is ready to give us so that we can overcome that poor understanding or stubborn will.

Healthy union of soul and body

It’s clear that there is an element of health involved in this discussion on holiness. In fact, we can speak about the journey of holiness as maintaining and increasing our spiritual health or the health of our soul. But remember, we are the union of body and soul. It is because of this union that the health aspect of holiness goes beyond merely the soul.

To a certain extent, bodily health can be a manifestation of the health of the soul. Detachment from worldly things and recognition of them as a means to God will produce moderation (the virtue of temperance) in the use of those things. This moderation can curb the tendency to overindulge in food, drink, etc., all of which directly affect the health of the body.

Similarly, developing our sense of the objective good will affect what sort of lifestyle choices we make, including leisure. The more we develop this sense, the more we’ll want to choose those activities that elevate us toward God.

“Be intentional about fostering and choosing healthy and holy leisure time,” Bishop DeGrood says.

Slothful and stagnate activities that don’t elevate our mind toward God and are detrimental to bodily health will become less and less attractive to a soul growing in holiness.

Just as the health and state of the soul can affect the health and state of the body, the reverse is true as well. When the body is in a weakened state, such as hungry or tired, it can have negative effects on the soul. Sometimes the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) is used to describe states of our physical body that make us more susceptible to disorder, cloudy judgment, temptation and ultimately sin. Through our prayerful introspection on our climb toward holiness, being aware of when we’re in these physical states and our reaction to them will allow us to fix our eyes firmly on God during those times.

Contrarily, taking part in physical fitness activities helps build up the habit of persevering through difficulties and failures (the virtue of fortitude) and also the understanding of work and reward (the virtue of justice). Beyond physical fitness, there are many activities of the body that move our soul toward holiness. This is one of the reasons we kneel, genuflect, bow, etc. The Church recognizes that we are a union, not a dichotomy, of soul and body, and for our own benefit asks us for both our spiritual and physical participation in order to successfully scale the mountainside of holiness.

This isn’t to directly equate the ability to participate in physical activities with holiness, but simply to show that the health of the body and soul work together on the climb toward holiness.

We know there are many areas of our health that may be beyond our control, but these areas are sometimes an even stronger call to holiness. God may ask us to resign ourselves to his divine will, persevere and offer up suffering, all the while using the talents he has given to others (doctors, nurses, etc.) as prudence demands. Many saints had terrible afflictions of their bodies, and they used these afflictions and sufferings to grow profoundly in holiness.

The summit of happiness

But what of happiness?

“Perfect happiness, such as the angels have, includes the aggregate of all good things, by being united to the universal source of all good; not that it requires each individual good. But in this imperfect happiness, we need the aggregate of those goods that suffice for the most perfect operation of this life” (“Summa Theologiae” II-I:3:3).

St. Thomas makes a distinction between imperfect happiness and perfect happiness. He says perfect happiness is union with God in the beatific vision, which we can only experience in heaven.

Take a look at yourself. What do you desire? What do you make time for above all else? What things make you angry or sad? What things do you dislike and like? Then ask God to show you why these particular things arouse these passions and feelings in you, and why they are aroused to the extent they are.

While perfect happiness isn’t attainable in this life, he says that imperfect happiness is.

Happiness in this life comes from our proximity to the not yet attainable but approachable perfect happiness found in the beatific vision. In other words, we find the highest attainable happiness in this life when we draw closer to God.

But wait. Isn’t that what holiness is all about?

The beautiful interconnectedness that underpins this trifecta of healthy, happy, holy constituting a well-ordered life can finally be brought to fruition. Health—good, or even poor when God calls us to it—is conducive to holiness and to be holy is to be truly happy in this life.

Left at the foothills

For many people, and even a great many secular philosophers who have tried to define happiness throughout history, this definition seems counterintuitive. The journey of holiness seems painful, stale and unrewarding from their perspective.

This mind-set is an illustration of the cyclical problem we’ve touched on already with the sacramental life and the building of virtue. If we haven’t responded to God’s grace to detach from worldly things and fix our eyes on him, we’re still just a hamster running on a wheel not able to see anything else beyond the wheel in front of us. The wheel might be satisfying in some ways, and since we don’t know anything outside of the wheel, the thought of jumping off seems like it would make that satisfaction come to a halt.

When we’re forced off the wheel in the end, however, we’ll find ourselves at the foothills of that beautiful mountain. We’ll see that throughout our lives, God called us to take the journey to the peak with an abundance of grace ready for us for those difficult moments during the climb. We’ll see that he provided us the Church and his priests who were yearning to help confer that grace when we slipped or wanted to turn back to the false comfort of the wheel.

For all of this, we’ll find we went nowhere on our wheel. We’ll find the seeming happiness and satiation of mundane desires we fed ourselves with over and over again were absolutely nothing compared to the happiness and joy that waited for us on the climb and, ultimately, at the peak. It will be clear that Satan and his army of demons desired nothing more than to keep us on our wheels where we fed ourselves with false notions of happiness, where we reveled in excess, and where we didn’t care to pursue what was objectively true and good.

Answer the call, scale the mountain

But before we reach that fateful day, God is always ready and calling.

“As soon as you are personally ready to receive and respond to this call—understanding that we all face different challenges as to how we achieve living as healthy, happy and holy individuals—take the initiative to act upon it,” Bishop DeGrood says.

Simply turn to him in prayer in complete abandon without seeking self-validation but opening up and asking him for the grace to see yourself and the world as he sees them. In this abandonment, start to detach from a fixation on worldly things and focus on God. In your journey, delve into the caves on the mountainside that hold the treasuries of truth the Church offers to guide your climb toward the peak.

Stop often at the well-springs of grace that make up the sacraments. Here such graces will be an ever-present force invigorating you on your climb and protecting you from being pulled down or looking back. Employ your body to build virtues that will provide a rope to hang onto when the path of holiness becomes difficult.

Finally, in the end, God and his saints will welcome you at the peak where you will melt in joyous and victorious tears when you hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.”