Holier Than Thou?

One of our readers recently complained to me, with considerable dismay, about the way St. Faustina, in her Diary, writes of the superiority of the "religious" way to holiness, in contrast to the way of ordinary, lay Christians.

For example, in Diary entry 1702, St. Faustina records Jesus' words to her as follows: "The great sins of the world are superficial wounds on My Heart, but the sins of a chosen soul pierce my Heart through and through." In Diary entry 580, Jesus said to her: "I am more deeply wounded by the small imperfections of chosen souls than by the sins of those living in the world. ... These little imperfections are not all. I will reveal to you a secret of my Heart; what I suffer from chosen souls. Ingratitude in return for so many graces is my Heart's constant food, on the part of such a chosen soul. Their love is lukewarm..."

In Diary entry 424, Christ compares for her the light of the moon and the stars in the night sky: "Do you see how great is the difference? ... Such is the difference in heaven between the soul of a religious and the soul of a faithful Christian."

The complaint I received summed up the matter like this:


Many passages in the Diary make dismissive comparisons between "religious" and "souls in the world." I teach RCIA, and one of the fundamental things I try to get across - as taught in scripture, the Church Fathers, the documents of Vatican II, and such recent letters as Pope John Paul II's "The Lay Members of Christ's Faithful" - is that Baptism calls each and every Christian to a life of great holiness. All of us are "religious" in that sense. ... Maybe, like St. Peter, I'm just a little bit jealous. God forgive me, but this message [from the Diary] is unbearable, that those of us who are not vowed religious are second-class Christians automatically destined for a lesser degree of grace. ... I mind very much that my life can never be as loving or bear as much fruit as that of a religious. God, who has saved us at a great price, deserves more than a "lesser choice" from each one of us. Each state in life has particular difficulties and particular advantages, but all states in life are unique opportunities for a sacrifice of praise ... such was the great wisdom of St. Therese of Lisieux.

So is your point that all vocations and callings and states in life are equal paths to holiness?

To say that every state in life is unique and can be a path to sanctity is one thing - of course that is right, and it is the teaching of Vatican II - but to argue that every state in life is, therefore, an equal pathway to the very heights of holiness is surely not true!

We can disprove it in an instant. The singular vocation to be the Mother of God Incarnate was a calling in the Church that involved an unparalleled intimacy with Jesus, the Son of God, an unparalleled participation in His redemptive work, and an unparalleled original grace to carry it out: the grace of the Immaculate Conception. All the saints are holy, but they are not equal. Mary is the Queen of all the saints!

And as you have referred to St. Therese of Lisieux, a Doctor of the Church, so I will refer to her as well. She writes in chapter one of her autobiography, The Story of a Soul: "I understood that there were many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of our Lord, to do little or much for him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking."

Then, in chapter two, she writes:

It was [my sister] Pauline, too, who received all my intimate confidences and cleared up all my doubts. Once I was surprised that God didn't give equal glory to all the Elect in heaven, and I was afraid all would not be perfectly happy. Then Pauline told me to fetch Papa's large tumbler and set it alongside my thimble and filled both to the brim with water. She asked me which one was fuller. I told her each was as full as the other and that it was impossible to put in more water than they could contain. My dear Mother helped me to understand that in heaven God will grant His Elect as much glory as they can take, the last having nothing to envy in the first.

Although St. Therese is not discussing the different states of life in this passage, she is telling us something important about the process of sanctification. Many of us are religious "communists" at heart: We want equal outcomes for everyone in heaven, or at least an equal opportunity for us all to reach the heights of holiness. But God is not a socialist! He has a plan for each one of us as unique individuals, a plan for us to serve Him, and to be sanctified in serving Him, according to the natural capacities He gave us, through the different states in life to which He calls us.

Moreover, looking at those states in life in the abstract - that is, apart from particular individual and extraordinary circumstances, which is the only way we can fairly compare them - they are not equal paths to the heights of sanctity. When we live them out, with the help of grace, some of them are more likely to develop us into spiritual "thimbles" and some of them more likely to make us into "Papa's large tumbler" (as was the case of the vocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary), needing to receive and able to respond to extraordinary measures of grace. In general and in the abstract, therefore, some vocations and states in life really are objectively "higher" than others.

Of course, that does not mean that just because one has been called to a special state in life, one is therefore, automatically more "holy" than anyone else. If one thoroughly surrenders to the grace of God in such a state, then the heights of sanctity are indeed open. But if one fails to live out that special vocation properly, then one may very well be in an even worse state than others. As Jesus said: "Every one to whom much is given, of him much will be required" (Lk 12:48). And Shakespeare sums it up well, too: "Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

That is surely the reason why Jesus told St. Faustina that even the "little imperfections" of chosen souls (that is, souls in the religious life) wound his heart more than the sins of those living in the world. By the way, Jesus did not say "more than the greatest sins of those living in the world." I do not think Jesus meant to say to Sr. Faustina that the worst mortal sins of those living in the world that you can think of, like murder or rape or child abuse, are less painful to His Heart than the little imperfections of irritability and selfishness committed by monks and nuns.

A careful reading of each of the Diary passages quoted above shows that He is merely saying, in general, that a lesser sin by a religious wounds his Heart more than a greater sin of a layperson living in the world. And doesn't this stand to reason? Those who have taken religious vows have promised to be dedicated to Him in a special way; how much He must be grieved by their betrayal and ingratitude above all others: "Even My bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of My bread, has lifted his heel against Me" (Ps 41:9).

As for Christian faithfulness, when we get to heaven, some will be like full tumblers and some like full thimbles, but all will be as full as they can be with love and joy, for they have been fashioned by our Lord into receptacles of grace of different capacities, and therefore no one will have any cause to envy anyone else, as St. Therese so aptly puts it.

This brings us to another important point - about objectively comparing "states in life" and seeing that some are objectively "higher" than others. But subjectively, for me as an individual, the highest state in life is simply the one that I am called to.

Our Lord who made me has suited me for a calling or vocation to a particular state in life. To try to live out any other state, whether it be "higher" or "lower" in the abstract, is to try to fit "a square peg into a round hole." It magnifies the difficulties on your path to holiness considerably to aspire to a vocation to which God has never suited you, and to which He never really called you. Again, the easiest path to sanctity for you as an individual is simply the one to which you are called: to live in the world or in the religious life, lay or ordained, married or single. In this sense, too, the states of life are certainly not equal paths to holiness. The highest one for you is simply your own.

FINAL NOTE: My questioner assumes that the official teaching of the Church, at least since Vatican II, is that the lay state is an equal path to holiness - indeed to the heights of holiness - to that of consecrated virginity.

This is simply not true. Vatican II taught that there is a universal, baptismal call to holiness; the Council did not teach that the paths to holiness are universally equal in every respect. The special status of consecrated virginity had already been taught by an ecumenical Council of the Church, the Council of Trent in the 16th century:

If anyone says that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity or celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity or in celibacy than to be in matrimony, let him be anathema.

Pope Pius XII taught the same thing in his encyclical Sacra Virginitas, saying "it is solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith ... and explained in the same sense by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church." Pope John Paul II repeated the same teaching again in his apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, where he reminds us of its scriptural basis: "In the first letter to the Corinthians (7:38) Saint Paul proclaims the superiority of virginity over marriage which is a constant teaching of the Church, in accordance with Christ's words recorded in the gospel of Matthew (19:10-12)."

There are many reasons why the celibate state, undertaken for the sake of the Kingdom, can be so fruitful for attaining sanctity. First, it is a way of life in the most literal imitation of Jesus, who Himself lived out a celibate vocation.

Secondly, for those who are called to it, and who cooperate with God's grace, it opens their lives to a greater freedom and availability to serve the needs of others. As Pope John Paul puts it: "celibacy is a sign of the freedom that exists for the sake of service."

Third, for those who are called to it, the extended times of solitude and silence often available to the celibate can become deep wellsprings of contemplative prayer, which is why contemplative religious communities are sometimes called "the praying heart of the Church."

Fourth, within the Church as a whole, those in celibate vocations and communities stand as special signs or icons, pointing to our future state in the world to come, where we shall "neither marry nor be given in marriage, but are like the angels" (Mt 22:30), united in one communion of praise and fellowship. Finally, one of the things that makes the life of consecrated virginity a special way to holiness is that it involves the voluntary embrace of three extra crosses that many of us are not asked to bear: the crosses of poverty, chastity (celibacy) and obedience.

Every human life is filled with suffering and sorrows of all kinds, but these three, after our Lord's example, if fully embraced out of love for Him, can help make the others a refiners fire of love. How many of the greatest saints of the Church have found the heights of sanctity this way: St. Francis and St. Dominic, St. Anthony and St. Theresa, St. Benedict and St. Catherine of Siena, St. Pio and St. Faustina!

But remember, when you as an individual have discerned what state in life you are called to, then for YOU there is no higher possible state than that one, and no more direct road to heaven!

And one more thing: I would argue that after consecrated virginity, the next highest vocation in the Church is that of motherhood. Again, the proof is seen in Mary. The Queen of all the saints was not only a consecrated virgin, but a Mother, too!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

Got a question ? E-mail me at questions@thedivinemercy.org.


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