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: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!