Thank you, Father John, for your clarification. On the same topic, I find that some of the Christians around me seem to resent my “zeal”. They would rather I be less intense in my pursuit of holiness and living the Gospel; I make them uncomfortable. Sometimes I am tempted to dial this “divine obsession” back, just to accommodate others. But I don’t think that is what God wants me to do. I think He would prefer that I am “sold out” to Him, totally giving all that I am, all that I have to Him. Do you have any thoughts about this?
Thank you for this encouraging note, and this incisive question, which I am sure is on the minds of more than a few of our readers. I do have some thoughts about it – two thoughts, in fact.
First, sometimes the people around us can help identify imbalances in our lives to which we ourselves are oblivious. We have all experienced this. Just think about friends who make unfortunate dating choices: they put themselves in relationships that wear them down instead of build them up, but they don’t seem to see it. So, if you are consistently receiving this message (that you have gone overboard in your piety) from people you know and respect (and who know and respect you), your first reaction should be to do some self-reflection: “Is my life of piety somehow turning people away from Christ?” In this context, I offer a few possible self-examination questions:
Am I able to carry on a friendly and interesting conversation with people – friends, acquaintances, strangers – about non-religious topics?
The answer should be “yes.” A mature Christian should have a lively interest in simply being human. Think about Pope John Paul II and how he so easily met people where they were at. He enjoyed skiing and soccer; he enjoyed movies and art… Pope Benedict XVI plays Mozart to relax. St. John Bosco did magic tricks for kids. St. Gianna Beretta Molla kept up on fashion trends… We too should have healthy interests and hobbies that are simply human, that aren’t directly related to our piety (though they must never interfere with our friendship with Christ). Christians should be interesting people, enjoyable to be around, welcome in any kind of setting, able to connect with people where they are at.
Do I regularly have a “hidden agenda” in my conversations with other people?
We have to be really careful here. As Christ’s ambassadors, it is up to us to bear witness to his truth and love, especially to those who do not know or accept God’s truth and love. But as we grow in our own love for God and his Church, a subtle temptation to pride can seep into our relationships. We can start thinking that we know exactly what other people need, and so we start manipulating them – saying one thing and meaning another, or trying to pressure them (instead of motivating them) into doing what’s right. This is a false kind of charity. Only God knows the whole story of a human heart. We are not Saviors; we are not Providence; we are just witnesses and messengers.
Certainly we can be creative and energetic in finding ways to communicate Christ’s message, but we need to have an absolute respect for every person, treating them like people, not like pet projects. Otherwise, we end up seeking our own glory (“success” stories) instead of God’s glory. This balance can sometimes be hard to maintain. It takes a lot of prayer and a lot of humility. We are just instruments of the Holy Spirit, junior partners: He is the one in charge. As a rule of thumb: we should make a decent and responsible effort to share with others what God has given to us, but not force it down their throats. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, respecting them, helping them, and building them up, not belittling them or riding roughshod over them.
Do I lead a balanced life-style, in accordance with the duties of my state in life?
The touchstone of our walk with Christ is God’s will. Jesus’ own rule of life was: “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). We find God’s will in the commandments of the Bible and the Church, in the example of Christ, in the duties of our state in life, and in the inspirations of the Holy Spirit (which will never contradict the first three).
If you are a single professional, for example, you should work hard, be engaged in your parish, pursue healthy hobbies, participate in a healthy social life, and, most importantly, have a regular and substantial prayer life. If you are married with children, the commitment to your husband and kids will necessarily diminish the amount of time and energy you can dedicate to your profession, your hobbies, and your social life, but those aspects of normal human-hood should not disappear. If your life of piety consistently crowds everything else out, it may be a sign that you have a religious vocation – but not if you’re already married! Jesus was clear that “your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). If you are spending all of your time in church, how can that happen?
Do I still cling to friendships or hobbies that habitually put me in occasions of sin?
This is a key point. We can sometimes use the “let your light shine” commandment as an excuse to stay too heavily involved in fashionable or pleasurable social circles that are actually riddled with sinful behavior. I remember guy friends in college who used to engage in what they called “missionary dating.” They would date girls who did not share a Christian world view or Christian morals, telling themselves that by dating these girls they would help convert them. The opposite always happened.
As adults, we can fall into the same mistake. The businessman or lawyer who convinces himself that he has to go to the strip club after work in order to build a relationship with a potential client is not “letting his light shine”; he is exposing it to a wind that may blow it out. The socially active Catholic woman who keeps on lunching at the country club with groups of friends who regularly spend the whole lunch gossiping and detracting is impeding her spiritual progress and giving sin a foothold. We have to invest quality time in friendships that are healthy, and at least in some friendships in which our core Christian values (the pursuit of holiness) are shared.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean that we are supposed to isolate ourselves from all contact with secular people. Avoiding habitual gossip sessions at the country club doesn’t mean you can’t have lunch or tennis with a friend or two who don’t share your faith or worldview. Not at all! Answering Christ’s call to be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) requires being in the world. But we have to avoid being of the world; when socializing starts causing our salt to “lose its taste,” we are doing no one a favor.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, but reflecting on these may help you identify if your friends’ impatience with your piety has any merit. If you are out of balance, then you may indeed be turning people away from Christ. But if you are pretty much balanced (we are never perfectly balanced, and we constantly have to adjust in order to keep even our imperfect balance), then you simply need to keep forging ahead, trusting that your “sign of contradiction” (see Luke 2:34) will be used by God, somehow, to draw them closer to Him.
In the Face of Opposition
Second, we need to remember that whenever we are truly seeking to follow Christ, we will inevitably face misunderstanding, opposition, and even persecution. This is just the way it is. Jesus was really clear about it: “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you do not belong to the world, because my choice of you has drawn you out of the world, that is why the world hates you” (John 15:19).
This opposition can be painful and confusing. It is more painful when it comes from those closest to us – a disdainful spouse, for example, or a fellow Catholic parishioner who resents the call to conscience that our example makes to them. We must not let this kind of opposition interfere with our quest for holiness. Rather, we have to refrain from judging these critics (we can’t see their whole heart), and keep our eye on the ball: loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbor as yourself.
Yours in Christ, Fr John Bartunek, LC, ThD