The Fire of Faith: Living in Christian freedom and becoming Saints

Jared Staudt

God’s grace flows through us like a river, washing us and nourishing his divine life in us. His grace flows freely when we let go of the attachments that dam us up, blocking grace’s entry points. If we are distracted by technology and do not make time to pray, are stuck in impurity, or consumed by work, we will miss what’s most important. Those dams not only block the grace from working within us, but they also block it from flowing out to others and becoming a source of light and strength to them.  

I used the common image of water, while the great mystic, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80), preferred the images of fire and blood. Catherine lived in a tumultuous time, to say the least — the time of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Avignon Papacy that led to the Great Western Schism. She was an unlikely candidate for God to use as his agent for change in the Church and society: a young woman, still living at home and having spent years in secluded prayer.  Father Paul Murray, O.P., lays out the power of Catherine’s response to God, which opened her to true freedom, in his book, Saint Catherine of Siena: Mystic of Fire, Preacher of Freedom (Word on Fire, 2020).  

The call of St. Catherine shows us life’s first priority, creating a genuine freedom in the soul so it can receive the gifts of God. God becomes present to the soul as a refining fire, consuming what does not belong and enflaming real holiness and freedom. Catherine, writing to Stefano Maconi, shows that God wants us to become our true selves in him: “If you would be the person you are meant to be, you could set fire to the whole of Italy” (161). This is precisely what happened to Catherine. She experienced the fire of God in her soul and sparked it in others — criminals, merchants, mothers, monks, bishops, and even the pope.  

Catherine encouraged a deep knowledge of self, truly owning up to our own sinful weakness, coupled by a firm trust in God’s mercy. Embracing God, the One Who Is, overcomes the nothingness that we embrace through sin. To those facing discouragement from habitual sin, Catherine advised them to “live in the blood,” to trust God’s mercy that flows from the blood of Jesus. “In the blood we discover the fountain of mercy. In the blood we discover clemency. In the blood we discover devotedness. In the blood our sins are brought to justice. In the blood mercy is satisfied. In the blood our hardness is melted. In the blood bitter things become sweet and heavy burdens light” (“Letter to Don Pietro,” 166).  Father Murray paints a beautiful and compelling picture of what it means to live in genuine Christian freedom, with Catherine as a model of receptivity, set on fire with the love of God.  

Becoming a saint is not easy in any age, but in ours it has become increasingly difficult due to the rise of an anti-Christian culture throughout the world. The 20th century witnessed enormous oppression from Communism, with over 100 million victims; however, even in the midst of it, great lights emerged. When St. John Paul II returned to Warsaw after his election, he urged his countryman to live in the truth and to reject the lies of the Communist state, trying to pit family members, neighbors, and co-workers against one another. Rod Dreher has looked at the noble response of Christians under Communist regimes as a model for how to respond to a new kind of oppression that uses the media, consumerism, and identity politics to control the way people think and live in the West. It is a new and subtle form of control, a “soft totalitarianism,” as Dreher explains in Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (Sentinel, 2020), by positioning itself at the service of oppressed groups and personal satisfaction.  

Dreher explains, “This totalitarianism is therapeutic. It masks hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing” (7). It is akin to older forms of oppression in that it “seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control,” aspiring “to nothing less than defining and controlling reality” (7-8). Passive acceptance of a new way of thinking has happened through the distraction of technology and the ever-increasing desires fostered by consumerism. Individualism has led to loss of shared purpose and weakening of community that in turn has exposed Americans to the subtle manipulation of technology and social media (33, 76). “This technology and the culture that has emerged from it is reproducing the atomization and radical loneliness that totalitarian communist governments used to impose on their captive peoples to make them easier to control. … We are being conditioned to surrender privacy and political liberties for the sake of comfort, convenience, and artificially imposed social harmony” (92-93).  

Thankfully, the second half of the book looks at strategies for “how to live in truth” (95). Dreher tells amazing stories of Christians in Eastern Europe, who despite attempts at brainwashing and social control, were able to “see, judge, act” in order to resist pervasive lies and evil.  First of all, despite any social pressure, even torture, one can never accept lies as the truth, because a Christian has to live in accordance with reality. Second, we have to preserve a vital memory of tradition: “To perceive the critical importance of memory and the role culture plays in preserving and transmitting it is critically important for Christianity’s survival” (126). Third, we have to protect the family, the true bedrock of society, against constant attack. Dreher rightly recognizes it as the key “resistance cell” that teaches children how to think and live in accord with the truth and to create real community. He also recognizes the vital importance of faith to keep us focused on the true good (151) and to help us to stand in genuine solidarity with others, forming communities of support (ch. 9). Finally, Dreher exhorts us to be willing to suffer for the truth, the ultimate witness to a freedom that transcends raw power and the therapeutic.  

What is holding you back from being a saint? We face so many obstacles, both within and without. When we open ourselves to God’s grace, he makes crooked ways straight in us, turning us into conduits of his grace for our culture. The saints provide witness to the reality of God’s grace — that it is possible to be holy. St. Catherine witnesses to the true freedom that comes from the blood and the fire of God’s presence. Rod Dreher exhorts us to live within that presence, and the truth that it brings, no matter the obstacle. If we cling to God above all else, his divine life will flow through us, not only cleansing us but bringing God’s fire to the world.  

COMING UP: What We Talk About When We Talk About Loving Our Enemies

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Every Sunday, we pray a dangerous prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It’s dangerous because we’re asking God to judge us as we judge others, creating our own measuring stick for God to use: “The measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2). There is good news here as well. If we need forgiveness from God, he promises it to us so long as we ourselves show mercy. We are not judged, however, by how we treat our friends, but how we treat our enemies. 

Dirk Willems provides one of the most radical examples of loving an enemy. He was born a Catholic in the Netherlands, though he renounced his baptism as an infant and joined the Anabaptist movement that held only to adult baptism. For this he was arrested, as heresy was a capital crime according to civil law. While in prison, he escaped through the window using a rope of tied rags. While crossing a marshy pond to safety, a pursuing guard fell through the ice. Willems specifically thought of Jesus’ words “love your enemies,” and turned back to help the guard, saving his life. In turn, Willems was arrested again, and in 1569 was burned at the stake. Even if we would not admire his theology, Willems shows us practically what it means to love you enemy and to “do good to those who persecute you” (Lk 6:27).

Who is my enemy? This in the inverse of the question, “who is my neighbor?” that a Pharisee asked Jesus, leading to the parable of the Good Samaritan. We find our neighbor in those people we directly meet who are in need. Our enemies, likewise, are those who directly do us harm. It’s tempting to think of our enemies as abstract and distant figures, like terrorists in another country or a foreign dictator. Loving our enemies, however, is much more concrete, consisting in doing good to those who harm us in our daily lives. 

What are some examples? Your boss who unfairly passes you over for a promotion. Your neighbor who keeps you up with a loud party. Someone on the road who cuts you off. And most often, your own family. Think how many times we have either experienced or heard of family members who refuse to talk to each other for years. “Yes,” we could respond, “but do you know what my aunt said to me and how hurtful it was?” Or, “Did I tell you what my Dad did to me when I was little? How could I forgive him for that?” It is true, we all have been hurt by those closest to us (and we also have hurt them). But, do we respond with love? Love is recognizing that someone has trespassed against us and still willing and working for their good. It means letting go of a self-focus that seeks vindication and retribution.  

God does not ask to love people because they deserve it. He asks us to love them because He loves and forgives us and loves the person who hurt us as well. If we hold onto grudges and refuse to forgive, we will become weighted down and unable to grow in holiness. If we accept injustices with love, this willing burden will make us more like Christ. I think of the example of St. Germaine, who lived in 16th century France. Born with a crippled arm and diseased skin, her stepmother beat her and left her to sleep in the stable. She returned only kindness to her and, even in her neglect, served others generously. 

God looks carefully at how we respond to those who harm us, because we ourselves were once his own enemies, as St. Paul says (Rom 5:10). Nevertheless, he came to us in love and died for us so that we could be friends with him. In return, he asks that we do the same to others. In fact, Jesus says that if we love our enemies, we will become like God himself: “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:35-36).

This mercy should flow out to others. Christians are called to be people of peace and to overcome division. As Catholics, we are beginning to be persecuted more and more in our own country. What should our response be? Paul tells us, “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate” (1 Cor 4:12-13). Paul is telling us what it means to turn to the other cheek. When we are wronged, rather than seeking revenge, we patiently and lovingly endure and seek reconciliation. This does not mean that we cannot defend ourselves. If we are in a position of responsibility, we have a particular obligation to care for those under our watch and keep them safe. There is just self-defense, but, even then, we must do so by praying for the aggressor and even doing good for him as much as we can. Even in those situations, we are called to be generous, forgiving, and humble.

Christians have a litmus test. Forgiving those who have wronged us comprises an essential act of the Christian faith and one that calls us to God’s mercy. If we are holding on to any grudges, let’s let them go. If we just cannot forgive someone, ask the Lord for help. When we are put down for our faith, respond with charity. When politics divides, seek peace. When we are faced with lies, patiently and humbly bear witness to the truth. Jesus gives us a path to holiness: imitating his own humility and self-sacrificing love. If we love our enemies and work for their good, we will become a source of healing within our families, the Church, and our country.