I have been asked to address the topic of holiness, and the problem is that I only know one way to attain it. Not because I have not read of other alternatives, but because I once tried them and they did not work for me. But there is one that does work, and about which I want to speak to you from my own experience and with my own style.
A guy was asked one day, “What do you think God is like?” And the guy answered, “God is a fellow who spends his time spying on us to see if we are having fun and to prevent it at all costs.” If I had been asked a few years ago, I would probably have answered the same. Adults have a more mature view, but there are many friends of mine who still go around wondering, “Why is it that everything I like is either expensive, fattening, or sinful?”
We Christians know better – of course. We know that the law and the moral principles that the Lord has given us are not intended to spoil all the fun in life and have us spend the worst possible time in this world so that we will someday receive an eternal prize, but, quite the opposite, that they are like the manufacturer’s instruction manual, written by the one who made us and knows how we operate, so that we may perform in the best possible way as persons and as a human community, always seeking what is best for us and what he knows will make us happiest. Right?
I would say that the answer is yes… and no.
If what we are saying is that God has given us a law for us to be happy and not to screw us, the answer is yes.
If what we are saying is that a world that turns its back on God will soon turn into a hell, the answer is also yes, and we only need to look around us to see how true that is.
If what we are saying is that I am much more likely to be happy if I abide by the law than if I break the commandments, that’s something we know only too well from our own experience.
But if what we are saying is that those of us who try to abide by the law at all costs are having the best time ever, then that’s not so clear.
And if what we are saying is that by obeying the law in every detail, I, Chale Mántica, such as I am, am experiencing utter happiness, then I’m being a hypocrite… and all of you are too.
In this presentation we’re going to speak openly, and we’re going to try to see where the gist of the whole thing is. Why is it that the answer is sometimes “yes,” and other times “who knows”? So please be very attentive, because we are going to be treading very difficult ground.
Mixed desires and inclinations
I think that an ordinary person functions more or less like this: We first discover inside ourselves a multitude of desires, passions, ambitions and inclinations, good and bad. Then at some point we discover and accept that there is something called morality, or ethics, or good habits, or the law of God, to which we must subordinate those desires and inclinations. If we succeed in subordinating them, we are good. And then people will say, “What a good man Mr. So-and-so is!”
Well, according to that law, morality, ethics and good habits, some of the things we would like to do are wrong and therefore we are not supposed to do them. And if we do them, then people will say, “This Mr. So-and-so is a rotter.”
But it turns out that, in addition, there are other things which we would rather not do, because they require a big effort, or because they are dull or very difficult, or simply because we do not like them, but they happen to be good and therefore we ought to do them.
When we do these things, then people say again, “How good Mr. So-and-so is”, even if he also does some of the wrong things. Maybe that’s the origin of our saying that, “If you sin and pray, you get even.”
And so we move along, among things that we would like to do but should not, and things we would not like to do but should, and as the list becomes longer, what we are left with is the hope that, when we finish doing all the things we do not like, such as feeding the hungry, dressing the naked, visiting the sick, forgiving enemies, and so on, or when we finally stop doing all those things that are wrong but that we love to do (and this other list is longer), then there might still be a chance for us to do one day what we feel like.
We are somewhat like that man who earns a salary and who, after deducing the income tax, the Social Security, the fee for the union or for the party, the pension for the abandoned ex-wife and the money for the new wife that takes away from him for everyday expenses, plus the bills for electricity and water and rent, still hopes to have some surplus to be able to buy a pack of cigarettes.
When we continue to live this way, one of the following things happens to us:
1) Either we give up completely in our effort at being good and we accept that good opportunity, or the offer you cannot refuse, or at least we take a vacation and indulge in being bad in our leisure time.
2) Or else we become bitter, whining saints with a martyr complex.
And there is one thing that makes all of this worse, namely, that the more we listen to our conscience and heed its voice, we discover more evil things inside ourselves which call us on to a greater holiness and righteousness. That reminds me of an old pick-up that one of the brothers in our community used to have. One day it occurred to him to tighten all of its screws and nuts. When he did, many noises disappeared – the strongest ones. But with the new silence, he began to notice other noises he had never heard before, and it took him much longer to eliminate those.
A saint will never feel that he is a saint, but the more progress he makes in holiness, the more he is aware of his sinfulness, because in his new silence he can now listen to many noises that earlier on, bewildered by his sins, he could not listen to.
The flesh, deprived of the things it claims and accused by the conscience at every step, revolts and rebels, and then, as I said before, it either gives up or becomes proud thinking, “How holy I am!” That is, the flesh thinks the opposite from the real saint, but always with a martyr complex. Or is always trying to figure out how much God owes him for being so good, and how grateful God ought to be to have such an exemplary follower.
Brothers and sisters, that is the normal person. Unfortunately, that normal person also includes the majority of Christians.
“Come on,” you will probably say, “then what is it that Chale Mántica wants now? I don’t think he’s telling us to do away with God’s law, or that he’s saying that it makes no sense to continue struggling to become saints.”
Is holiness attainable for ordinary Christians?
Brothers and sisters, what I have just said is nothing else than a brief summary of Pauline theology – an exegesis of the letter to the Romans, where St. Paul says exactly the same thing, except he does so in a more elegant manner.
What we need now is an answer. If in following the law, doing what we do not like and refraining from doing what we love, what we can expect is a purer conscience which will show us more sins every day and all the noises our pick-up still makes, demanding from us more holiness every day to the point of exasperating the flesh, which will then become more rebellious day by day, as can be seen in the lives of all those who have tried to become holy by the mere obedience to the law, where then is the solution?
The only solution is in Christ. So pay a lot of attention, because I am not sure if I will be able to explain this well.
What Christ is proposing us is at once something infinitely easier and infinitely more difficult than what I just described.
What Christ tells us is very simple: I have not come to torment you… I have come to kill you [“to put to death the old man within you”]. This is something all the ascetics in the Church have always known. You are the ones who do not want to understand. I am not interested, either, in having you improve. What I want is to make you anew. That’s what I told Nicodemus and what I explained to Paul, but you are not paying attention.
I am not interested in having you live, but in living in you myself. But you think I’m speaking in images and that I don’t actually mean it.
I do not want some of your time or your money or your tastes, your surplus time and dollars. What I want is you, your bad taste included, and I don’t have you.. yet.
When I have you, I will give you a new way of being – my way of being, my way of thinking, of feeling and of acting, and then everything will be easy.
“My yoke is easy and my burden is light”
But unless you die, it will be very difficult for you to follow me. I assure you that my yoke is easy and my burden is light. You can choose between dying under the weight of an enormous burden, and taking my yoke. If you allow me to live in you, I will change you into the kind of person who can bear any yoke, and in addition I will be with you always to the close of the age, bearing the yoke together with you. Or have you ever seen an oxcart with just one ox yoked?
And that’s the key, brothers and sisters! There is no other. I know it is almost impossible to hand over everything to the Lord – all of our desires, inclinations, ambitions, with no cautions or misgivings. And yet this is much easier than what we have been trying to do up to now, which is to continue to be ourselves and at the same time being good. In fact, Scripture says: God alone is good.
We want to continue being ourselves, attached to a mind and a will that, only five minutes later, will run after money, ambition or pleasure, and at the same time we want to be good, chaste, humble, generous, and so on. That’s like wanting to go to Cuba on a train. If you don’t want to go to Cuba, don’t go. If you like the train, stay on the train. What you cannot do is going to Cuba on a train.
Well, living as a Christian is impossible too… unless you are like Christ. If we are like Christ, or if we become more like Christ, every day, then being a Christian is the easiest thing in the world.
I have said many times that being a Christian is difficult only when you are not. That is, when you do not have Christ’s way of being.
Is it easy to perform an appendicitis surgery? For a surgeon it is.
Is it easy to calibrate a carburetor? For a mechanic it is.
Is it easy to make a chair? For a carpenter it is.
What you are able to do depends on what you are.
Is it easy to show generosity when you are not generous? No!
Is it easy to forgive when you are arrogant? No way!
Is it easy to turn the other cheek when you are not humble? Never!
Is it easy to forgive those who offend us? Only if I love them.
Is it easy to love? Loving those who love us is.
And loving those who hate us? Absolutely no!
So what can I do to love my enemies? Impossible, brother! – Unless you have Christ’s way of being, and God’s way of loving, for he delivered up his Son to death in order to save his friends and his enemies, and he makes the sun rise over the good and the evil. That’s where the difference lies!
The answer to all these questions is that we can do none of these except inasmuch as we acquire Christ’s way of being.
God’s plan is that we should be able to live out Christianity in joy and peace, doing what we please, in the line of St. Augustine’s maxim, “Love, and do what you will” – living like that, because that’s what you are like. And you are like that because you are God’s son or daughter, and you have inherited your father’s own way of being, as part of your inheritance. In fact, it is very easy to live the way God wants us to, when we are such as God is.
There are two ways we Christians can follow. One is the way of the Old Covenant, walking in the law, regarding Christianity as the observance of a series of precepts or norms of behavior that we will try to obey through the exercise of our own effort, even though our fallen nature rebels and drags us towards a way of acting that is quite often against the law of God. The other way is walking in the Spirit, waiting on God, asking God and collaborating with God (that’s for sure) in order to allow him to give us his own way of being, so that our behavior will then be free, spontaneous and joyous.
The opposite to this is trying to fly like an eagle without being one, and thus spending your life fluttering like a beetle, or taking small jumps like one of those little birds that will never soar in their flight.
From egghood to birdhood – either hatch or rot
Talking about birds, here is another example that can be helpful: an egg can become a bird. Isn’t that right? In fact, if we think a little about it, for an egg to become a bird is almost a miracle that seems impossible to us, while in real life any egg can become a bird… supposing it’s a bird’s egg, of course! And as for us, we are children of God.
What you cannot do is trying to fly while you are still an egg. You’ve got to become a bird first. Go from egghood to birdhood.
But there is something else, which is part of today’s lesson – You cannot remain an egg all your life. Either you hatch or you rot. And that’s why sometimes our souls stink.
So that’s what could be happening to us: that one day we became children of God, but we have not finally become Christ, and we want to fly like him without being like him.
From conversion to transformation in Christ
Let’s think about our own situation. All of us here have experienced conversion. One day we had an encounter with Christ and were converted to Christ, like many people. They heard the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, they understood that God loves them in a personal and infinite way, they heard what Christ did for all of us, and they decided to correspond to such a great love by re-directing their lives and their behavior in accordance with God’s law. And they started walking…
They experienced conversion to him, but they did not undergo conversion into him. They did not become Christ, they do not have his way of being. And that’s where trouble began. They wanted to walk in a different way without being different, to do works of generosity without being generous, to love as Christ without being as Christ, to act like new people while remaining the old people they had always been. They changed their attitude, but not their way of being. And brothers and sisters, I believe that being converted means above all turning into something else, becoming something else, a different person. The frog that becomes a prince, the TV character who becomes an animal have not simply changed their attitudes. They have been transformed into something different. Either you are transformed or you will be in trouble.
And the Lord, who knows that, wants to transform you. Maybe what is really happening to us is this. Scripture says we are living temples of the Holy Spirit. But leaving aside the image of a temple, that can seem to us a little presumptuous, let’s imagine for an instant that we are “living houses”, a small hut in some barrio of the Kingdom.
And the Lord comes to us in order to rebuild this house. Maybe at first we like what he is doing, and we even find it amusing, because it looks like he has repaired all the plumbing, that he has fixed all the leaks in the ceiling, because he has fixed a few doors that would not open, and now there’s a whole lot of doors and windows open that used to be closed for us… We understand these are things that needed being done, that could not stay the way they were, that were harmful for us and made life unbearable. So we rejoice.
But all of a sudden the Lord starts shaking the whole house. We feel a real earthquake inside ourselves, a tremendous shock, and that scares us. What’s the Lord doing? Some will even say, “Who does he think he is? He’s taking advantage of me!”
The explanation is quite simple. The Lord is building a very different house because he intends to dwell inside you, and the house he wants to live in is very different from what it used to be and even from what you thought it would be. He has now added a whole new wing to your old shed. He has replaced the floor, and you feel as if the floor you were standing on has been removed, as if all the things you used to rely on and find support on have been removed and you have been given a whole new footing. He has erected defense towers, he has set gardens in your backyard that now looks more beautiful, and he has even replaced your very foundations. You are now built on a rock.
And you thought that the Lord had just come to do some repair work in your little house, to do some renovation of your quarters. You now think there is no need to exaggerate; you think it would have been enough for him to plaster your walls, so full of old cracks. It would have been enough to add one good coat of paint and hang a few ornaments that would make you more pleasant in your own eyes and in those of others.
But it turns out that the Lord is building a palace, or a cathedral, or a basilica, because his plan is to come and dwell in you and stay there.
Christ makes all things new
“Behold, I make all things new”, says the Lord (Revelation 21:5). He does not say: Behold I repair, I sew, I vulcanize, I mend, I reinforce, or I decorate all things, but, “Behold I make all things new.”
He wants new creatures, born again from on high, who have put on the new man. And since he is the owner he can do it, and no one can challenge him.
What I am trying to say is that you’d better not mess with God, unless you are willing to allow him turn you inside out like a pair of socks. God is no seamstress and he’s not going to mend you. Even if you are still full of patches, his plan is much larger and you should place yourself completely in his hands and let him act.
You’ve already got inside you the genes of your father. Since the day of your baptism, you have the Spirit of God dwelling within you, and he is God’s way of being, God’s dynamis and omnipotence. He is the same who, on the day of creation, was hovering over the waters, and with whose power all things were made. Changing you, converting you, is going to be much, much easier than creating a universe out of nothing.
And this is, brothers and sisters, the most important point of our talk. Are you willing to allow the Lord turn you inside out like a pair of socks, to let yourselves be rebuilt, knowing that in order to do that he will have to demolish many things inside you, and even ravage you completely if necessary?
I’m asking you because, if you are not willing, then you are wasting your time, because the first step is desiring to be transformed and allowing him to kill [the “old man” in] us.
“A new heart I will give you”
I always say that Christians, [who are being changed and transformed by God], are people who do whatever they desire to do, because the Spirit of Christ who dwells inside them gives them his desires. What we need to do is allow him to do with us whatever he wills, to turn us inside out till the image of God’s Son is formed in us.
The only problem with this theology is that it usually seems too good to be true. People finds it’s too simple to allow themselves to be transformed by God. They prefer to walk by the law – rather than walk by the Spirit, even though receiving from God this new heart is the quintessence of the New Covenant promised by God and inaugurated in Jesus Christ.
God gave Israel the law as a gift. In fact, the law is good and, as Paul says, it takes us by our hand when we are young children in the Lord. But God also makes Israel a promise: that one day everything would be as at the beginning, as it was before the fall of Adam, and that the law would no longer be written on stones but he would give them a new heart, that is, a new way of being, and that he would write his law in their hearts. And this is the New Covenant.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean… A new heart I will give you, …and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statues and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:17-18)
It is in order to make all of this a reality that the Lord sent the Holy Spirit upon us. In the work of the Spirit in us the New Covenant is fulfilled… and most people are not even aware! That’s why they continue walking in the law and not in the free grace of God’s Gift, in the Kingdom of God, where everything that is not grace is sin, as Paul says, and is sin because it falls short of God’s actual plan. They thus spend their lives kicking against the goads, and regarding discipleship as an unbearable burden and an uphill walk from one fall to another, without ever finding rest.
33 years ago I had an encounter with Christ and wanted to be conformed to his love. I then made the firm decision to live in accordance with his commands. But his law was merely a mirror that would accuse me every day by showing my blemishes that that reflected the ugliness of my sins and defects. And there was nothing in the mirror that was able to save me – the mirror did not include the power to change me.
Tired of kicking against the goads, I fell at his feet in full surrender one day. I acknowledged my powerlessness, and I admitted that everything is grace, and I accepted his invitation to die with him in order to rise again with him as a new man who, having been born again from above, from water and the Spirit, is able to walk every day from one degree of amazement to another, discovering that the Lord is faithful to his promises, and today I am a witness of his new covenant.
I do not boast about what I am, but about what God has done in me. I am now determined not to place limits on his perfect plan, because “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, [is] what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Let me end with a comparison that can be helpful. John Paul II’s encyclical Dominum et vivificantem speaks about the work of the Spirit in our “inner man”. A famous sculptor was once asked how he had made such a beautiful statue. He said he hadn’t actually made the statue – the statue was already inside the block of marble, and the only thing he had done was to take away the unnecessary parts of marble. To me, that’s the inner man.
A masterpiece made by God
We are not what we seem to be. Each one of us is much more beautiful and perfect than people can see. We are in fact a master copy of God, of his own Son. But we have a lot of unnecessary parts, the dirt we have gradually collected from the world, the rust of our sins. Only the Divine Sculptor knows what there truly is inside us, and is determined to gradually remove the rust that we have in excess. Sometimes he does so with hard blows of his hammer, and that hurts. But more usually he just melts it with the fire of his Spirit and his love.
With the power of the Spirit he gradually removes the sin that is inside us, that is, our old fallen nature, and he transforms us into his image and likeness, thus giving us his own way of being, so that we can think the way he thinks, feel the way he feels, love the way he loves, act the way he acts. As this work progresses, it stops hurting. There is no more violent break inside us, but joy and peace.Every once in a while the statue becomes dirty. That’s true. The fact is we are in the world. Statues in the parks will also become dirty. Some of them spend more time dirty than clean. Let us seek to be clean. Let us allow him to cleanse us once and again, every day if necessary. But let us not be content with just being clean. Above all, let us pray that the Sculptor would finish his work in us, that he would remove each day one more of the unnecessary parts, until the face of Christ which is inside us can be seen in all its clarity and purity.
This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 by Carlos Mantica. Used with permission.
Top photo credit: Potter modeling ceramic pot from clay, photo by © Gladkov at Bigstock.com, Stock Photo ID: 296903161
The following chapters from Egghood to Birdhood by Carlos Mantica have been adapted as articles in Living Bulwark. Reprinted with permission of the author.
See links below to the archived articles / chapters:
- How come they never told me…
- From Evidence to Faith
- From Egghood to Birdhood
- The True God
- Good Teacher
- He Is Risen!
- The Day God Went Crazy
- Magnificent Stranger
- The Kingdom of God
- Extending the Kingdom
- Chosen by God
- Men of Little Faith
- Whose Side Are You On?
- Forgiveness and Reconciliation
- The Seven Stones
- Making the Most of the Present Time
- My Favorite Heresies
- A Reconnaissance Flight Peter’s Principle
- Termite Sins
- The World and Its Myths – The Myth of Tolerance
- Youth Culture
- Why Young People Lose Their Faith
- On Falling in Love and Other Such Ailments
This article is adapted from the book, From Egghead to Birdhood (hatch or rot as a Christian), (c) copyright 2001 by Carlos Mantica.
Carlos Mantica was a founder of The City of God community (La Cuidad de Dios) in Managua, Nicaragua, and a founding leader of the Sword of the Spirit. He served as president of the Sword of the Spirit between 1991 and 1995.
- See Tribute to Chale Mantica by Jean Barbara, President of the Sword of the Spirit