Life is an Onion
by Jeff Montgomery
Is it possible to exist in the world and be holy? Are the only true holy people in the world those who are living the religious life in some way?
Thomas Merton refers to our kind of life as the 'active life', as opposed to the contemplative life of the religious. He holds that those of us living the active life have holiness equally available to us, but that we face certain challenges the contemplatives don't.
If we're not cloistered away in a monastery or convent, I'm sure we know what those distractions are. Life is very noisy these days for those of us living in the 'world'. We've got email and cell phones and computers and televisions and newspapers - the list could go on. We all have our own things that could be added to the list.
While I certainly struggle with these frustrations just about everyday, I believe that we can reach the goal of living a holy life. It's not easy, but with some priority setting and self-discipline we can all take a few steps closer to holiness. Scripture and Tradition are filled with stories of people making sacrifices and working hard to live their faith, often sacrificing even their lives. While most of us won't have to go that far, it will take work and sacrifice.
We can gain some hope from Jesus. In Matthew 5:48 He admonishes us to 'be perfect, as the Father in Heaven is perfect.' Surely He wouldn't have given us a goal that was unattainable?
So the question becomes, how do we strive for perfection? How do we eliminate all that is unnecessary from our lives so we can focus on living with more holiness? I think the answer lies with the onion.
As most of us know, an onion has layer upon layer of skin. We have to peel those layers away to get to the central core. Our lives are the same way. We have to peel away the 'skins' of distractions and unnecessary activities we burden ourselves with in order to get to our core purpose - living a holy life.
And what do we mean by a holy life? For our religious brothers and sisters, this involves a life of prayer, service, and contemplation. For the rest of us it means being attentive to the gifts and responsibilities that God has given us. We need to be good stewards of these gifts and responsibilities in order to give glory to God.
The good thing is, we don't have to do this alone. God is ready and willing to help us slough away the outer layers of our lives. He wants us to find our central purpose so that we can fulfill the mission he has created for us. So we start with prayer and reflection, and ask for God's guidance.
I think it helps to first define what you value the most. And that doesn't mean worldly possessions even though we may have a few things we're very attached to. For most of us living the 'active life', our core values probably revolve around our faith, our family, and being a productive member of our community.
Once those core values are defined, we can now start peeling away those layers of onion skin that represent the things that distract us from those values. This is where it gets tough. It may not be easy to simply peel away a layer and toss it away. We're sometimes quite attached to our distractions.
So we need to eliminate as many of the distractions from our lives as possible. Spend less time on the computer. Turn off the TV. Put down the newspaper. Cut down on your wanderings through the shopping mall. Turn off your cell phone (gasp!) when you really don't need it to be on. Everyone reading this could probably add several things to this list. The point is, determine what the time-consuming, non-productive activities are in your life and either eliminate them or cut back to a reasonable level.
Tougher still are those hobbies or pursuits we engage in. To be sure, some hobbies can involve the whole family and build good memories. But if we have one that takes us away from what we value the most, perhaps it is another layer of onionskin to toss away.
Sometimes our lives are filled with things that appear on the surface to be perfectly fitting with living a holy life - volunteering to work at a food pantry, serving on committees in our parish, helping out at local charities. The trick question in this case is - are we over-committed? This over-commitment can be as much of a distraction as anything mentioned above. Learn to say 'no'.
For those of us who are trying to be holy 'in the world', I think it's important to know that being holy doesn't mean that we have to be thinking directly about God every moment of the day. It is through our actions and the example that we set that we live out the faith that we profess. Through concentration and focus we exercise our skills in a Godly way, and our very lives become an example of Christian living.
Sometimes it's the things we can't control that distract us the most. And things will happen that we are totally unprepared for. We just have to ask God to guide us through the situation. But we can't lose site of our mission of holiness.
Living as a Christian in the world today is a tough deal. While we have plenty of examples of biblical figures committing sins and not living up to their faith, in our day and age we seem to be inundated in ways that the ancients could never have experienced.
In order to achieve a holy life 'in the world' we need to ask God daily for guidance. Let us first of all focus on God, and ask Him for strength and guidance in living our lives. Finally, let us be sure that our lives are structured in a way that we are moving toward holiness and away from sin. Let us all ask for that strength.
E-mail this article to a friend