“The sound of the word ‘heartless'” is nothing less than “horrible,” in Benedictine Father Benoit Standaert’s view.
There is a striking difference between living “with or without heart.” It “is as great as the difference between heaven and hell, life and death, light and dark,” the Belgian priest asserts.
It is vital, he suggests in “Spirituality, an Art of Living: A Monk’s Alphabet of Spiritual Practices,” that the key to unlocking the heart be found.
Most people know instinctively what “heartlessness” implies. Christians tend to grasp, moreover, that a heartless life leads away from the values of the Gospel. They sense that heartlessness results in a somewhat cold, methodical approach to the surrounding world, an approach that rests too comfortably on the surface of things.
But Christian spirituality focuses the eye, the mind and imagination on all the richness found below the surface of whatever is most readily visible to us.
A transformation of human hearts that have grown stony is what God’s promise of renewal entails, according to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Thus, God says:
“I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you” (Ez 36:26-27).
The Spirit’s promise that life always can be renewed is the promise of Pentecost. The church’s Pentecost Sunday prayer — “Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love” — is heard during Masses celebrated this day around the world.
Father Standaert thinks that this process of renewal involves getting “back in touch with the promptings of our heart.” He writes: “Our humanity is at stake here: Do you have a heart or are you heartless?”
This means that the Spirit’s coming sets in motion a journey into holiness. For the Spirit is “the foundational principle of new life, holy life,” Father Standaert says.
Pope Francis’ just-released apostolic exhortation on the call to holiness today, titled “Rejoice and Be Glad” (“Gaudete et Exsultate”), reproposes “the call to holiness in a practical way for our time, with all its risks, challenges and opportunities.” He situates holiness in the very heart of the actual lives people live.
The Holy Spirit is the nurturer of whatever holiness characterizes our lives, the pope affirms. “Holiness, in the end,” he writes, “is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life.”
He dispels the notion “that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer.” Instead, “we are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness … wherever we find ourselves.”
Many Christians may indeed suspect that holiness is for others, for people with some special talent or aptitude for following the patient, kind, hospitable and healing ways of Christ that holiness implies.
There can be a tendency, moreover, to think that we know holiness when we see it and to surmise that those who appear holy must be greatly different from us.
But Pope Francis is at pains in his new apostolic exhortation to assure people like you or me that our lives and activities fit well within the panorama of holy lifestyles. The challenge is to broaden our sense of holiness, he indicates.
“We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission,” he states.
Pope Francis confesses that he likes “to contemplate the holiness present in the patience of God’s people: in those parents who raise their children with immense love, in those men and women who work hard to support their families, in the sick” and in elderly religious-order members “who never lose their smile.”
Does smiling, then, constitute a sign of the Spirit’s work? A smile can become a gift to others, even when we feel we have nothing else to give to them, St. Teresa of Kolkata believed.
Father Standaert remarks that “nobody can smile and grit his teeth at the same time.” He fears, though, that smiling has become very difficult for many. Yet, he says, anyone “who receives your smile understands perfectly: This is pure blessing, pure gift.”
The Belgian monk’s best advice is to “make smiling an intentional practice.” Then “it will nourish us for the rest of our lives.”
Similarly, Pope Francis finds that “ill humor is no sign of holiness.” In fact, he points out, “Christian joy is usually accompanied by a sense of humor.”
True enough, conversations about spirituality — all the ways of acting upon the Spirit’s prompting in prayer, reflection or service to others, for example — at times assume a serious, earnest tone. But joy and good humor are not foreign to saints’ lives, the pope insists.
The holiness the Spirit gives, Pope Francis is convinced, “will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy.”
Gibson served on Catholic News Service’s editorial staff for 37 years.
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