Hearing the word “holiness” might put a certain image in your mind. Maybe it’s a priest or a nun, Pope Francis or Mother Teresa, or someone with a halo in a stained glass window.
Growing up, I had a book of saints that had a painting of Teresa of Ávila on the cover. When I think of “holiness,” I think of St. Teresa in that picture: deep in prayer, glowing inside and out, gazing on some amazing vision outside the frame.
Sometimes I feel a distance between myself and these images. I think, holy people are totally different from me. They do (or did) astonishing feats of self-sacrifice. They are always excited to pray, and, invariably, feel close to God when they do.
After college I took part in a service program in which I lived and worked with Dominican sisters in California. If you have never met a nun, you may think of them as an example of those lofty, saintly folks, the “star athletes” of Christian faith. But what I learned from my time in the convent is this: if you want to be holy, start small. Start with the person right in front of you.
Holiness is not a destination. It’s a choice of how you do the things you do every day. It’s not something that happens faraway, “out there” in the world. It’s a change of heart that happens at home, with the people around you. And it’s something we will continue to work toward for the rest of our lives.
Holiness starts at home
In the convent, I saw the sisters taking care of each other with the basics: having conversations and listening to each other, cooking, cleaning, doing the dishes, praying for each other. These may not sound like extraordinary accomplishments, but the sisters taught me that seemingly ordinary tasks can become the way to holiness.
Holiness means doing what you do with joy and love.
Jesus said that the world would know his disciples by their love for one another. In all of the Gospels, the stories about Jesus show that he took care of the people that he met, giving them what they needed, whether that was a teaching or a miraculous healing, or simply his friendship and acceptance.
This can be a challenge. Joy is rarely my first reaction when I have a chore to do, when I see a dish in the sink, or when I have laundry to fold. But thankfully we have help, because Jesus is with us when we do things that imitate him, like paying attention to the people around us and treating them with love.
Nowadays, I live in a house with several roommates. Unlike living in a convent, there are no formal requirements or vows. It would be easy to disconnect from my roommates and focus only on my work and my social life away from home. But if I did that, I would miss almost all of my opportunities to grow in holiness. Holiness means loving others and doing that with kindness to the people you see every day.
The “little way” inspired by St. Thérèse
There is a Catholic saint who shaped her whole life around the insight that holiness comes from “starting small.” St. Thérèse of Lisieux is famous for her “little way” to sainthood.
“Jesus does not demand great deeds,” Thérèse writes in Story of a Soul. “All he wants is self-surrender and gratitude.”
For Thérèse, this meant accepting all of her chores and tasks with joy and showing her love for each person that she encountered. It was her attitude of charity and humility toward others that made her life extraordinary.
Having lived a short and humble life, and written only one slim book, she was named a Doctor of the Church by St. John Paul II. Thérèse has become a favorite saint of many Catholics, and she has been an inspiration to many holy people, including other canonized saints. This goes to show how much we can benefit from her simple but profound message.
Choosing the path to holiness today
If holiness means a change of mindset, an attitude of joy and love, then there is no need to wait. There are many small choices we can make today to grow in holiness:
- Ask yourself a few questions: Who are the people that I see every day? How do I treat them, and what do I do for them? Is there room for a change?
- Start a conversation with God. Prayer can happen anytime — on your morning drive or bus ride, at your desk, or waiting in line at the grocery store.
- Read more about an inspirational saint. Getting to know a bit more about them will show you the struggles that they went through. Their stories prove that holiness is possible for everyone.
It is tempting to think that “great deeds” make someone a saint, but all holy people — like Thérèse — are holy simply because they make a daily choice to love others. With small changes and a new focus, we can all follow this path to holiness. Need some inspiration? Check out some Little Ways people are making a difference in their communities.