Today our Lord tells us; Be holy, Be perfect, Be a temple of God. And what ties them all together is charity. Love your neighbor as yourself, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. To be holy is to love. Holiness is measured by charity. This is the basic ingredient of the spiritual life.
In 1943 there was a nineteen year old man who had spent his whole life spiritually asleep, totally unaware of God. He did not love. His name was Claude Newman, he lived in Mississippi. When Claude was nineteen, in a fit of rage, he murdered a man. Claude was quickly apprehended; he was tried in court, and sentenced to death. Sitting on death row he found himself in a cell with three other men. That very first night they talked and got to know each other. Now one of the men in that cell was wearing a religious medal around his neck, Claude asked about it, but the man couldn’t really explain it. He couldn’t explain who the figure was on the medal or even why he wore it. In a fit of frustration the man took the medal from around his neck and threw it at Claude’s feet. Claude picked it up and put it around his neck. That medal was a miraculous medal. A medal with an image of The Blessed Virgin Mary on it.
That night Claude had a dream, and in that dream a beautiful woman whom he didn’t know told him to call for a Catholic priest. Claude was about to wake up from his deep spiritual sleep. God’s grace was going to bring him out of his spiritual coma. He was going to learn how to love. So a priest was called. The next day Fr. Robert O’Leary entered the cell to speak with Claude. Fr. O’Leary was skeptical of the dream, but he was impressed with Claude’s sincerity and so he agreed to give him lessons in the Catholic faith. In fact all the men of that cell joined in the studies. Over the next few months, even though he could neither read nor write, Claude made remarkable progress in his knowledge and understanding of the faith. It is said that the BVM helped him in his studies. On January 16, 1944, Claude Newman was baptized into the Catholic Church along with all his cellmates. His execution was to take place at Midnight four days later. On the eve of the execution the sheriff asked Claude if he had any last requests. To the sheriff’s surprise Claude asked if he could celebrate a Holy Hour of prayer. He didn’t want dessert or a steak he only wanted a holy hour of prayer. And that’s what they did, along with his cellmates and prison guards they prayed for an hour before his scheduled execution. The hour ended with Claude receiving Holy Communion.
Now about fifteen minutes before he was about to sit down into the electric chair the sheriff received a call from the Governor, Claude was given a stay of execution for two weeks. He was allowed to live for two more weeks. No one knew why he was given two extra weeks to live. At first Claude was disappointed; he had so looked forward to heaven. But at the suggestion of Fr. O’Leary he used the two weeks to pray for the conversion of prisoners, but most especially to pray for the prisoner occupying the cell next to his. He prayed for a man named James Hughes, a convicted murderer, who though he had been raised a Catholic had led a highly immoral life. James hated everyone but most especially he hated the ever so pious Claude. He taunted Claude every day, calling him the vilest names, spitting on him whenever he got the chance. If he could have, he would’ve killed Claude.
So Claude prayed; and at the end of the two weeks he went to his death. The reporter for the newspaper wrote that he’d never seen anyone go to his death as joyfully and happily. Now three months later James was scheduled for his execution, and for those last three months he remained unrepentant. He remained spiritually asleep and it seemed impervious to God’s grace. And it was only as he sat down in the electric chair that he finally asked for a priest to hear his confession. Claude’s prayers had been answered.
Claude Newman spent most of his life spiritually asleep, he was not holy, he was not perfect, he was not a temple, and he didn’t love. But he woke up and he ended his life spiritually wide awake loving his enemy.
What about us? Do we love our enemy, do we love the person who’s maybe not an enemy but just irks us to no end. Love is not always a feeling, love is not always a warm sentiment of the heart, and love is not just about being kind. Love wants the good of the other; love wills the good of the other, and love does this without expecting anything in return. That’s the way that God loves, he loves everyone, even the ones who don’t love him back. Love is all he knows how to do. To be holy is to love the good and bad alike. And the good news is you can love someone without liking them.
I have three questions for you to consider. But first picture someone who is troubling to you, someone who maybe irks you. First question: do you want to see this person get to heaven? Second question: do you pray for this person, praying especially when tempted to despise him, gossip about him, dismiss him, or hold a grudge? Third question: would you help this person if he needed your help and you were the only one around to assist him? If you answered yes to all three questions, then you love, you may not like him, but you love him.
Claude ended his life by loving his enemies, the people he committed crimes against, the man he murdered, and James Hughes the prisoner next door to him. And in loving them he became holy.
Holiness is simple.
Holiness cannot be manufactured.
Holiness grows simply and quietly.
Holiness is not argument, and it’s not philosophy.
Debate does not lead to conversion, the witness of holiness does.
Holiness does not isolate.
Holiness is found in my encounter with the other although it may not be immediately apparent.
Holiness is not on a mountaintop somewhere but in the Gospel, the sacraments, and community.
Holiness is beautiful and I need beauty – a child playing peek-a-boo, friends laughing, feet being washed.
Holiness is living in friendship with God.
By Fr. Michael Cummins
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley