What does holiness look like? That’s the question Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ asked after reading a listener e-mail on a recent St. Joseph’s Workshop. The listener wrote:
I’m recently returned to the Church. I had been away for a long time, and I went back to Confession, back to the sacraments, have been going to Mass. But I’m having a hard time because I show up and I’m all joyful at Mass, and a lot of other people seem so somber, seem so straight-faced, it seems like they’re at a funeral every Sunday!
Father Matthew responded:
“I do see that. A lot of people come to Mass and are grim. It looks like they are just not happy to be there. So let me ask you something. If you were playing Win, Lose or Draw on TV or with your family, and you had to draw holiness, what would it look like?
Would you draw an angel with a little halo? Would you draw someone with folded hands, kneeling down in prayer with a very straight, serious, dour face? Because that’s what a lot of people think being holy is, that’s what a lot of people think being a saint is.
Just talking about the faith doesn’t mean we have to have a serious, somber attitude all the time. And in my opinion, it’s turning a lot of people away from the Faith. Because that’s not how they feel in their relationship to God. A lot of people feel like God loves them, and they have joy in their hearts, and when they come to Mass, can’t they express that joy?
Yes, you can. But there’s this kind of balance. Some people think that to express that joy means I need to be playing drums, or playing a tambourine, or clapping my hands, or be whistling, or doing these different expressions of happiness or joy that correspond to what I think is happiness or joy. But there’s a balance there, because the Church asks us to express our worship in a certain way in Mass.
We need to be joyful, and I’m sorry that people aren’t joyful around you at Mass. But on the other hand, we don’t need to have these smiles on our face, grinning from ear to ear every time, as if there’s this fake sense of joy. There’s a balance that we need to find. Joy in and of itself doesn’t mean having a perfect happiness on our face. It means this deep, abiding realization that God loves us.
So back to my question: How would you draw holiness? Now God has blessed me with many gifts, but drawing is not one of them, so I couldn’t draw an accurate depiction of Mother Teresa, but that’s kind of what I think of when I think of holiness. I think of her face and just that complete joy, especially knowing what was going on in her life underneath that face. She was joyful in spite of all the challenges that she had.
I’m thinking of John Paul II and that subtle smile that he had, that knowing smile. He would look as if he knew something you didn’t. And he wouldn’t be up there with a grave look on his face. No, he would be celebrating Mass with this very knowing, penetrating, kind of subtle look. Looking out at you as if he could see something more, as if there was more to reality than he was able to communicate.
I think this is how we need to think about it as Christians. If you go to Mass and you’re not giving people a joyful expression, if you go and you’re trying to avoid people, or trying to miss people, not expressing that joy, and you’re making people feel like being Catholic is all about being grave and somber all the time, maybe we need to be more joyful.”
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