By Joshua Pippert, Benedictine College
Having read the second chapter of The Enduring Faith and Timeless Truths of Fulton Sheen on Fulton Sheen’s teachings, I have to mention that these truths seem to have struck me just as well as the last, and I suspect that as I move forward in the text, Sheen will not stop delivering. From one chapter to the next, Sheen shifts from the issues of education to the forgetting of our call to holiness in this culture. We as an American people have allowed the true meaning of goodness and virtuousness to dissolve over the centuries, leaving mass exclusion of God from many lives. The chapter perks up after the first half, however, as it begins to address the ways in which to reach our holy redemption rather than the story of how our Divine grace was lost.
Our guide to “The Universal Call to Holiness” (Zia, 15) begins with the story of Adam and Eve. One where the first two of us to walk this Earth, a man and a woman, allow themselves to be convinced by some voice from a tree that they must break away from God in order to be like him. After the fall of man, Adam and Eve had forfeited their gift of sanctifying grace, but the Lord had offered a solution to original sin for this fallen world by sending His Son to take on the full burden of our sins and die so that we may be free of them. God calls every human being to grow in holiness and live forever in communion with Him, as it’s written, “The universal call to holiness is nothing less than God’s summons to all of humanity to a life of eternal beatitude” (Zia, 17).
How have we lost sight of this then? Why have we neglected our call to holiness? Sheen identifies two distinct culprits. The first is the ever-growing tendency in our culture to void our thinking of God’s influence in any aspect of how we live, taking what we know and removing God from the equation. The second is the abandonment of God in order to seek out worldly pleasures, finite things that are scant to fulfill our infinite desires, but rarely fail to convince us that they will; a direct byproduct of the first, no doubt. After these results of the fall, however, we’re then told about a person’s conscience: a moral compass that serves as a sort of internal guide to the laws of God. Through our consciences, we’re able to distinguish the good from the bad when it comes to our decisions. If we can do this, we can figure out how to live a virtuous life and become like God, then act accordingly. Finally, it’s taught that we can help others in their pursuit of holiness through prayer and sacrifice.
Three sections that stood out to me in particular were the sections on reduction of God from our daily lives, the pursuit of earthly pleasures, and the engagement of grace through conscience. Starting with reduction, I’d like to point out that I’ve noticed something odd about human nature that shows when we let God fade from our lives, or what Sheen would call “emptying the God-idea of all traditional content and identifying it with anything” (Zia, 18). It’s that many people tend to maintain their subscriptions to God’s laws (kindness, virtue, etc.), but reject God as they do so. They feel an inclination to perform acts of kindness and act in ways that a Christian would call holy, but they’d ignore God in the process, doing these kind deeds simply because “it’s the right thing to do.” It seems to me that lots of people appreciate the idea of virtue when it’s presented as a simple way to live well, but not when it’s presented as a set of rules created by someone greater than themself. Our tendency to refuse to acknowledge that these are God’s laws, I believe, may be a part of the subtle traces of Adam and Eve still lingering within us. Virtue for the sake of virtue isn’t the only thing that the denial of God has led to, which leads me to my next reflection on the pursuit of finite pleasures.
We as human beings find our identities through Christ Himself, so if we forget Christ, we forget who we are. When we forget who we are, and even forget that our identities can be found in Christ, we tend to search for it in other things, things that don’t last. We may agree “with Marx that man is essentially economic, or with Darwin that he is essentially animal, or with Freud that he is essentially sexual, or with Hitler that he is essentially political” (Zia, 20), and when we do, we tend to see God’s gifts as the object of our fulfillment rather than God himself. Take someone who agrees with Freud for instance: they’ll have an insatiable desire for sexual activity and as such, they’ll see sexual pleasure as their own god, not knowing that they’ve only made a wrong turn in their unaware pursuit of God.
As Bruce Marshall once said through the teachings of Father Smith, “I […] believe that sex is a substitute for religion and that the young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God” (Marshall, 108). Indeed, we do look for some underlying notion in the pursuit of all these worldly things. Happiness, joy, and pleasure are all things of God. The issue is that while these things can aid us in our discovery of Him, the pursuit of these things alone will always cut our journeys short and leave us unfulfilled. Now, moving on from the things that keep us from holiness so that I can end this on a more positive note, Sheen talks about conscience as our guide for engaging grace, or “an interior government” (Zia, 22) as he puts it. The conscience gives us a clear distinction of the right from the wrong, and allows us to know, without any direct lessons, what will make us holy and what will move us away from holiness. I, for one, always knew it was there, but never truly thought about it in this much depth. The way Sheen described the conscience makes perfect sense, and things have started to click for me in terms of why it’s there. I’d even argue that this is a proof that the call to holiness is universal. Each human being for at least some duration of their life has this guide on how to be holy, and therefore it’s clear that God calls each human being to holiness, for, if He didn’t want you to become holy, then why would He show you how?
This whole concept of a call to holiness is one of the most crucial building blocks of an authentic Christian. Whether intelligent, athletic, or charismatic, the end goal for the journey of human life is holiness. Quite frankly, an unholy Christian would be an oxymoron because holiness is what’s required for eternal communion with God, and each authentic Christian has (or should have) that goal in mind. Therefore, to know how we’ve lost our holiness and to have a moral compass that can show us how to get it back is instrumental. We can always grow in holiness regardless of how far we’ve fallen as well for, as an anonymous friend once told me, “If a potato can be made into vodka, then you can be made into a saint.”
Marshall, Bruce. The World, the Flesh, and Father Smith. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945.
Zia, Mark J. The Enduring Faith and Timeless Truths of Fulton Sheen. Servant, 2015. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&dbc=cat01299a&AN=bc2598820.