By Jonathan Lynch
Holy Cow! I say it all the time – I mean, it’s really a useful expression. It can be inserted into almost any context and still make sense. At least as an expression it’s pretty benign. But it does raise an interesting question. Can a cow really be holy? Why or why not?
It is definitely possible to have a perfect cow: one that is completely healthy, produces lots of high quality milk, and doesn’t kick, gore, or squash the farmer. I know some farmers with cows that fit the bill. But I in no way expect any one of them to sport a halo, levitate, or fast from alfalfa on Fridays in Lent. But that’s because cows lack some things which are vital to holiness, things that are not the lot of any mortal creature besides man: free intellect and free will. We can come to know things in a way that animals never will, and we can come to choose things in a way that animals never could. That is why a cow can be perfect but not holy; they can fulfill everything that a cow was meant to be, and still be completely and
udderly utterly removed from everything that constitutes sanctity.
In the words of the Venerable Fulton Sheen: “To do God’s Will until death, that is the inner heart of all holiness.”
And in the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta: “Holiness does not consist in doing extraordinary things. It consists in accepting, with a smile, what Jesus sends us. It consists in accepting and following the will of God.”
Holiness, then, is contingent upon us knowing and choosing what God wants above what we want- the proper use of our free intellect and free will. I would say that there are three main aspects to understanding and living out this concept of holiness, and these three aspects relate very closely to the three Theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love. First is the desire for God’s will- to believe that our happiness and fulfilment can indeed be found in God’s will. This is related to the virtue of Faith. Second is coming to know and choose God’s will. This is something that can really throw people for a loop- how can you actually know what God’s will is when he doesn’t speak out of a cloud to you like he did to Moses and Elijah? This aspect is related to Hope: trusting even when you can’t see. Finally, we have the choice and the courage to act upon our belief in and knowledge of God’s will. This is fired by Love.
The first step to sanctity probably needs the least explanation of the three. It is extremely simple to understand and is disproportionally difficult to do. If we can accept that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving, then it follows that He knows what is best for us, wants what is best for us, and is perfectly capable of working all things for our good. But even today, we hear the same old whispering that plagued our first parents in the Garden of Eden: “Are you sure that God can be trusted? Can you possibly believe that he really wants your good? I mean, look at what he’s holding back from you! If he really loved you, he would give you a new Mercedes, or some cool friends, or a job that pays decent, or, hey, maybe one of those shiny apples from that off-limits tree over there.”
If you’re ever tempted to doubt whether God loves you, take a quick look at a crucifix. Jesus Christ is the most eloquent proof of His love that the Eternal Father could ever have sent. If he did not hold back even His own Son, can we really believe that He desires anything but our good? Whatever may come, if God is for us, who can be against us? Come hell or high water, nothing can ultimately harm us if God is at our side, for He has already conquered death and sin, and He holds us in the palm of His hand. Now it’s one thing to know it in your head- to say the prayers, perform the actions, and profess belief. It’s pretty easy- I can affirm by experience. It’s another thing to know it in our hearts- to believe it so strongly that it actually affects the way we live our lives, and changes the way we see things. May we be able to pray with all our heart: “Lord, my one desire is to do the will of Him who sent me.”
When we come to knowing the will of God, much more could be said. If God wants us to follow His will, why doesn’t He reveal it outright? This is something that I have very much struggled with. Wouldn’t there be more holy people if God would just be a little more straightforward with us? The answer lies in the heart of another dilemma which I will only touch on briefly here. The dilemma is this: God made us for a relationship of love, and if he was to reveal himself in all his wisdom and splendor, we would serve him out of fear. If we saw God as He is, and ourselves as we are, our freedom to love would be gone. Likewise, if we saw God’s wisdom as it really is, compared to our own puny smarts, our capacity to freely trust God would be utterly gone. We would be slaves serving a master, not children trustfully following their father.
This places us in an interesting predicament. We must know God’s will to follow it, yet at the same time, we all thirst for the knowledge that will free us from the fear of the unknown. None of us want to walk on water, we want to plant our feet on dry land, and to see the path before us, not a flurry of wind and waves, with Jesus’ voice calling us onward into the storm.
I believe that this is the reason that God rarely (if ever) shows us everything at once. He wants to lead us, and He wants us to trust Him, and follow him. And he leaves it up to us- to trust him one step at a time, or to make our own path straight down into Davy Jones’s locker. You will be much more peaceful if you just follow His call for the next step, instead of trying to get the blueprint all at once- or trying to give it to Him. Following one step at a time allows us to see what’s next, but keeps us from thinking we’re in control of the situation because we know everything. But what about the times that we’re seeking for God’s will, and don’t hear anything, not even a little light on what the next step is? What if you know you’re not where you’re supposed to be yet, but you don’t have any idea where to go? Just go somewhere. Try something. If you’re honestly seeking God’s will, and you don’t hear Him talking, you can safely assume that He’s fine giving you the reins and seeing where you go. He’s not so concerned about where you are as a person that He needs to micromanage you or knock you upside the head with a two by four to get your attention. He’s giving you an opportunity to have an adventure. If you’re pliable to God’s direction, you’ll hear him when he needs to tell you something. That said, there are some ways to know God’s will with certainty, as regards some matters. First and most obvious: avoid sin. God never wants you to sin. Period. Second, obey those that God has placed in authority over you. So long as they do not command you to sin, it is God’s will that you follow their directives. Once you’ve learned to do these two things, it will be much easier to hear God’s voice when He speaks more subtly.
So how does all this relate to Hope? Hope is the desire of something, with the expectation of receiving it. Now hope as a Theological Virtue has God as its object: The desire of possessing God, with the expectation of receiving Him. So how do we come to the fulfillment of this desire? In much the same way as we come to the possession of any other person. Not by having him in your room, or in your pocket, like any thing that you possess, but by having a relationship with him. By becoming more and more like Him. By becoming holy. By surrendering our will to His will. By severing our unhealthy attachments to things of this world so that our desire for Him is more pure, and our certainty of attaining Him in heaven is more sure.
But there is something greater than Hope. Stronger than Hope. Purer than hope. Something that will pull you through when you can’t see the reward at the end of your struggle: Love. St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, said, “To love God is something greater than to know Him.” I might even go so far as to state that just as there is perfect and imperfect contrition, so there is also perfect and imperfect holiness. In perfect contrition, you are sorry because you have offended the all-good God, while imperfect contrition arises from fear of punishment. Likewise, perfect holiness means choosing God’s will above all else because you love Him, while imperfect holiness is fired by hope of reward in heaven. And just as imperfect contrition is not bad, neither is imperfect holiness, but they are lesser goods. It is good to choose God’s will, but it is best to choose it because you love Him.
Now, for how this relates to following God’s will as opposed to just knowing and desiring it. Take for example a McDonald’s-chomping 400 pound man who knows that his lifestyle is unhealthy, and desires to change. Or perhaps a person addicted to heavy smoking, who experiences the same thing. They know what their life could be like. They know what it would take to change, but it is ridiculously difficult for people to cast aside concrete, present pleasures for the promise of future good. That is why many such people do not change, at least not permanently. That is why many people do not exercise, overcome bad habits, or keep their New Year’s resolutions. That is why many people do not become saints.
So what has the power to change them? I would argue that it is love. Perhaps it is as simple and natural as realizing: “I love my life, and if I don’t change something quick, I’m going to lose it.” Perhaps it is something deeper: “The woman I’m marrying gets sick when she smells tobacco smoke, so that’s the end of that.” In the same way, if we do not love God, we will eventually lose sight of our goal when it becomes tarnished over time, and has not the original luster and shine that we saw in the beginning. And of these three virtues, Love alone will remain in heaven, when Faith is replaced with sight, and Hope with attainment, and all our joy is found in the possession and beholding of the beloved.
All for Thee, Sweet Jesus
Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary
For the glory of God
and the salvation of souls!
P.S. Kudos to my kid brother for his portrait of St. Bessie the Heifer, pictured above.