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When facing a quandary it can be hard to find revolutionary new advice on how to be holy. What is there to say but this: pray more; think of yourself less in order to love God and others better; fulfil your responsibilities with diligence and love; care for God’s truth more than any fashion, honor, or pleasure of this world; do good tirelessly; avoid sin; repent; when you are weary, rest in the Lord. There is a sense in which living righteously is the simplest thing in the world.
Of course it isn’t. God may be simple, but the world is complicated; we are complicated. If we could be simple in what we wanted and single-minded in achieving it perhaps we wouldn’t tie ourselves in knots trying to work out what to do. Holiness is hard not because we don’t desire to be holy, but because we desire a lot of other things as well.
Last year, seeking clarity on a Major Life Decision, I consulted a priest whose advice I often seek. Patiently, he listened to me outline all the possible courses of action I could take. Then I asked him to render a verdict. What is God asking me to do? Father shrugged.
“When we are discerning we can become obsessed with knowing the mind of God. How could you ever know that? How can you know something that is so completely beyond you as what is in God’s mind? Choose something that allows you to live a holy life, and stop worrying about ruining God’s plans. You can never spoil God’s plan by choosing to be holy.”
Of course I wanted to argue. Doesn’t God speak to us in prayer? Aren’t there all sorts of stories of great saints having orations? But that brings up the question: do I want to be St Joan of Arc, for example? Truth be told, most days I am grateful not to be Joan. This whole mission from God notion seemed romantic for about thirty seconds, but then I remembered what I read about her testimony during her trial: really she just wanted to stay home spinning wool with her mother; and she wasn’t cross-dressing as such, but wearing men’s clothes to try to protect herself from being raped. And then they burned her to death. Then they burned her body twice more to prevent her admirers from retrieving relics from the ashes. Yes, unless the good Lord decides otherwise, I will pass on divine orations, thank you.
God doesn’t always read us in at a higher level.
There is a lot of talk about how God has a special plan for each of us, and I am sure he does, but that doesn’t mean that we have to figure it out in order to make any decision. Preoccupation with our own specialness and anxiety ruining it with one bad choice can be paralyzing. Of course we can’t live holy lives without giving some thought to doing the will of God, or developing some sensitivity to his voice in our lives, but when we can’t fathom the particulars, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves, ordinary holiness will never steer us wrong. That is the plan. Whether or not we know where it is leading isn’t the point.
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In October, 1936 a 20 year old German man named Gereon Goldmann entered a Franciscan seminary to answer a vocation he had felt since he was a young boy. Few Germans’ lives were going according to plan at that point in history, and just as Geroen completed his studies in philosophy and was set to begin learning the theology necessary to be ordained, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht and commissioned an officer. In 1942 he was moved to the notorious Waffen SS. This was an unexpected—and unwanted—turn of events for a man who was forthright in his contempt for Nazism and had spent a portion of his younger years brawling with the Hitler Youth alongside his friends in the Jesuit-run Catholic youth association, the Bund Neudeutschland.
Despite the seemingly impossible nature of the situation, Gereon simply continued to put God first, refusing to take false oaths, continuing to pray, finding ways to attend Mass, and protesting loudly any restrictions placed on the free practice of the faith. These actions should have been enough to get him executed, and indeed Gereon’s steady witness led him to be court martialed for treason. To his very great surprise, despite testimony against him from hundreds of witnesses, instead of condemning him to death, the court freed him, and he was dismissed from the SS and sent back to the Wehrmacht. He continued as he had before: simple holiness in all he did.
Following his miraculous acquittal, Gereon had a day’s leave to visit his mother’s grave. He stopped to pray in the local church and there found Sr. Solana May, the sacristan who had taught him to serve Mass as a boy. She asked him if he prayed devoutly to be ordained a priest the next year. Gereon laughed: he hadn’t studied the required theology yet. He had four years in seminary remaining. Sr. Solana May told him that she and her 208 religious sisters had begun praying nineteen years earlier that he would be ordained a priest in twenty years. That meant he would be ordained in a year. Gereon pointed out there was ‘an unholy war’ on.
Shaking her head, she replied with great assurance, “War? The Bible says nothing of war. It does not say ‘All these things are true except in event of war, in which case the Bible has no validity.’ It says our prayers are heard and will be answered. The answer to our prayers does not hinge on a foolish thing like war.”
Do we cheer or laugh at Sr Solana May’s simple faith? Gereon laughed, but he still became Fr Gereon Goldmann, OFM a year later. How this happened is utterly remarkable, and if you want proof of how persistent, everyday holiness can serve the ends of God’s providence, you can read the full account in Fr Goldmann’s gripping autobiography The Shadow of His Wings (reprinted by Ignatius Press, 2000). There is also a graphic novel version of the story illustrated by Max Temesou (Ignatius Press & Augustine Institute 2016).
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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