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The Universal Calling

This is the will of God, your holiness (1 Thessalonians 4:3a).

The Hebrew Scripture or Old Testament is the first instance wherein we are introduced to the concept of holiness. Since, as St. Paul asserts in our first reading for today's liturgy, holiness is God's will for us, it would be a good idea if we really understood to what God is calling us. I fear that many of us have a false notion of what holiness really is. The word in Hebrew which we translate as "holy" simply means "other." In calling us to be holy, God is calling us to be completely other than. We are supposed to be different or set apart. We are called to conform to something other than the ways of this world.

For some people, this becomes an unattractive, pietistic, sanctimonious kind of attitude. They express their holiness in ritualistic behaviors that pull them away from ordinary human exchanges. Interestingly enough, most spiritual writers down through the ages have counseled just the opposite. We are to express our "otherness" in ordinary human activities. Holiness means bring the life of virtue to our daily and ordinary lifestyle. However, the ordinary things we should do must be done in such a way as to set us apart from the world. By our behavior we join the realm of God to the realm of the world.

A story from the life of St. Francis of Assisi illustrates what I mean. One day, St. Francis invited Brother Leo to accompany him as he was going to go into town to preach. Brother Leo followed St. Francis as he made his way through the streets and byways of his native city. As they made their way to the piazza, St. Francis greeted the people of the town and wished them peace and goodness. He promised to pray for them and with them. He greeted even those who called him names and threw rotten vegetables at him. He walked peacefully through the city without any thoughts of retribution or recrimination. When they reached the piazza, Brother Leo expected that St. Francis would stop and preach penance to the people. However, St. Francis just continued to walk until they came to the other side of the city walls. Brother Leo turned to St. Francis and said, "I thought you said we were going to preach today." St. Francis responded, "That is exactly what we have been doing."

One of the sayings sometimes attributed to St. Francis is: "Preach always; if necessary, use words." The saying is apocryphal; he never said it. Rather, it is the moral that has been attached to this particular story from one of the many different biographies of St. Francis. Another moral that can be drawn from the story is, however, that true holiness is not a matter of words but of actions.

We have been born into a world that is fraught with sin. The original sin of Adam has infected our world. However, when God created us, God said, "This is very good." Holiness is accomplished by being "other" than sinful, by being the antibiotic that conquers the infection, by affirming God's statement. This is our universal vocation. This is, as St. Paul points out, God's will for us.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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