The most important point of Christian life
What’s the most important thing in the Christian life? Until recently, I got this dead wrong. I thought being Christian meant doing things like attending Mass on Sunday, praying, following the moral teachings of the Church, practicing virtues like kindness and forgiveness, and trying not to sin…at least, trying not to sin too much. And, I thought doing more of those good things made me a better Christian.
But I found out I was missing the point…the most important point. The Christian life is not about doing a lot of things, even though they’re good things. It’s about doing one thing–opening myself to the work of the Holy Spirit in me. That’s the foundation and everything flows from there. It’s not that those things are bad. However, they are not the point. In what does the Christian life consist? Not in doing things, but letting things be done–letting God work in us and act through us.
That’s what Jesus is telling us in this week’s gospel, John 14:23-29. It takes place at the Last Supper. Jesus tells the apostles he must leave them. However, they won’t be abandoned. He will send the Counselor, the “Spirit of truth,” the Holy Spirit. The passage starts off with the key verse, “’If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). The Christian’s greatest asset is not external…it’s internal. It’s the indwelling of the Holy Spirit through Baptism. That’s what Jesus means in saying “make our home with him.”
Throughout the Old Testament, God promised to dwell among his people. This is foreshadowed in the Tabernacle, the mobile tent where Israel kept the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 29:45). God manifested his presence there in the glory cloud, the Shekinah. It was a huge pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The Shekinah guided Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land. God was also present in the Temple (Ezek 37:26-27). When Solomon finished building it and placed the Ark of the Covenant in the sanctuary, the glory cloud filled the Temple with God’s presence (1 Kings 8:10-13).
In the Old Testament, God was present but inaccessible. No one could enter the sanctuary except the High Priest and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. However, in the New Testament Jesus tells us God is within each of us. After Baptism, we are living tabernacles, so to speak. St. Paul says each baptized Christian is a Temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 6:16-17). He’s referring to the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Fr. Jacques Philippe says in Fire and Light: Learning to Receive the Gift of God, “The most fundamental question of Christian life is this: How should we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit? How can we keep ourselves ever open to his action?” St. Therese of Lisieux said, “The merit doesn’t consist in doing nor in giving a lot, but rather in receiving, in loving a lot.” You must learn to receive and be led by the Holy Spirit. This is the most essential thing for living the Christian life. It’s also the most difficult because it’s not intuitive.
It’s difficult because we fear not being in control. At the heart of it, we are prideful creatures totally dependent on our Creator’s mercy. Spiritually, we can’t save ourselves, but we don’t like to admit that. The truth is, most of us would be perfectly fine taking God’s place as the origin of who we are and what we achieve. That’s what we want, but what we need is exactly opposite—to embrace receptivity. Perhaps for some of us it should even be closer to passivity. You must receive everything, even your own self, from God. It’s only then that you can give others the best of what you have.
This seems like bad news, but truly it’s good. You don’t have to do this all on your own. You don’t have to be upstanding, moral, virtuous, and holy by your own strength, willpower, or ingenuity. In fact, you can’t! It’s humanly impossible. That’s why you need divine help to fully live the Christian life and receive all its benefits. You need the action of the Holy Spirit.
So how do you embrace receptivity? Despite what I said about passivity, there is something you need to do. Earlier, I slightly mislead you. Remember my list of good things? Even though those aren’t the point, there is one of them that leads you there—prayer. To be receptive to the Holy Spirit, you must pray. Prayer gets you in touch with where the Spirit is moving and opens you to moving along with him. God still desires to lead his people, just like he did with the Shekinah in the wilderness. When you can take your ego out of the equation and move where the Holy Spirit leads, you find the purpose God has for you…and there you find freedom and happiness.
That brings me to the benefits of receptivity. Jesus tells the apostles, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Peace is the fruit of receptivity. Not a worldly peace that depends on your material comfort or lack of conflict, but a supernatural peace that can thrive in the midst of conflict. This is a peace that isn’t taken away by external circumstances. You can live unafraid. Let the Spirit move, and He will bring peace.
Marc Cardaronella is Director of the Office of Catechesis and Faith Formation.