A few years ago I was making a presentation on Thérèse of Lisieux at a nearby spirituality center. It was surprising to hear a participant share her feelings about sainthood. She said she was reluctant – maybe even unwilling – to strive for holiness because she feared the suffering that would inevitably follow. What gave her this idea was her reading the lives of saints who had suffered severely, even to the point of martyrdom.
Taken off-guard as I was at the time, I couldn’t think up a good answer. In fact, I still can’t, but at least would be able to point out that holy people aren’t the only ones who suffer on this earth. Suffering is a staple of the human condition; no one is exempt.
Since that first time, I’ve heard the same fear expressed again. What will God do to me if I tell him I want to grow closer to him, and even want to devote my life to him? Look what happened to the saints. What is more, look what happened to Jesus Christ. And even at the strictly human level, giving myself to another requires great trust. Will my love and trust be returned, or will it be exploited?
It seems to me that when Jesus invites or promises us entry into the “kingdom of heaven,” he is inviting us not to a place, of course, but to a state of being: union with God on God’s terms as he originally planned for us when he put us in the Garden of Eden. Christ is inviting us to nothing less than holiness.
In parables, Jesus describes the kingdom as treasures, such as the one hidden in a field. The person who discovers it considers it of such value that he sells everything he has to purchase the field. Then there’s the pearl merchant who travels far and wide to find just one pearl of extraordinary value. In these two stories, the reward is so desirable that the seekers consider the high price as nothing compared to what they’ll gain. St Paul repeats this more prosaically when he writes in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”
And again, in his passionate devotion to Christ, he writes the same thought in Philippians 3:8:
“I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)
Sometimes the loss of everything is intentional, as when a person enters religious life making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, willingly giving up natural comforts in exchange for the spiritual. Sometimes the loss is unintentional, as in the patient acceptance of poverty, ill-health or loneliness, as Jesus lists in the Beatitudes where a series of ills transforms us and leads us into the kingdom of heaven.
The Gospels repeatedly tell us how generously God wants to reward our efforts. By the time we muster the courage (and wisdom) to desire holiness, we really don’t have to worry or fear the results. We’ll be given all we need, and much more.