Review: Holiness, a Guide for Beginners.
by Cornelius Conwell


Only the most blinkered partisan could present the last forty years of the Church’s history as an unqualified Age of Improvement. In many parts of the world, to be sure, the Catholic faith is growing, even amid hardships and persecutions. Where the Church’s proclamation of the gospel meets the human thirst for God the result is often a great deepening of faith, undeterred by obstacles.
Closer to home the picture, as we know, is less inspiring. Within the Catholic community in Britain the level of religious consciousness is low and practice correspondingly lax. The impact of secularisation is all-too evident in the woolly beliefs and values, the self-involved religiosity, the empty, bustling activism of the typical parish congregation. A retrieval of vital perspectives lost during the years of post-conciliar disorientation remains an urgent priority.
Foremost among the elements of the new evangelisation proclaimed by the late Pope John Paul is a sense of the universal call to holiness – the rediscovery by each believer of his or her vocation to live in communion with God. This is the basic premise of Hubert Van Zeller’s short book, Holiness, A Guide for Beginners, originally published in the early 1960’s as Sanctity in Other Words and made available again under this new title by the American Sophia Institute Press.
Van Zeller was born exactly a hundred years ago (1905) of English parents living in Alexandria in Egypt, then a British protectorate. As a young man he entered the Benedictine Abbey at Downside near Bath, where he had attended school. During the 1940’s and ‘50’s he became a prolific author of spiritual books and belonged to the circle of influential Catholic writers active at that time, including Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox, the Jesuits C.C. Martindale and Martin D’Arcy, Gerald Vann, O.P. and others.
In all Van Zeller’s books devotion to God is a robust, demanding affair. He detected early signs of the shift in the understanding of spirituality - away from the worship of God and towards the quest for personal satisfaction – and sought to resist it. He considered a purely secular view of life to be unnatural and ultimately self-destructive, and as he lived until 1984 he survived long enough to witness the logical outcome of the tendencies he had decried decades before.
“God wants you to be holy,” he tells his readers in this short work, ”gives you the grace to be holy and does not want to listen to your objections about not wanting to be holier than anyone else.” (p.72) What distinguishes the saints from the rest of us is (1) that they resolutely “keep clear of anything they think is going to get in the way of grace” and (2) that “they head directly for the Lord”. (p.8).
There are separate chapters on the role of the theological virtues – faith, hope, charity – in the spiritual life of the Christian.
Faith for Van Zeller is an all-encompassing mentality which “looks beyond outward appearances for a reality and a truth that a worldly view denies” (p.38). Faith in Christ enables the follower of Christ to discern the purpose of suffering and other apparently negative experiences where the unbeliever finds only meaninglessness or absurdity.
Hope is mainly a matter of trust in God’s providential oversight, guiding us through difficult times even when we have no sense of his presence:
“One of the chief differences between the saints and ourselves,” Van Zeller says, “is that when things go wrong (and they never go absolutely right for very long), the saints take it for granted that God is treating them lovingly and wisely; we, on the other hand, jump at once to the conclusion that God either does not mind what happens to us or is handing out a punishment” (p.48).
The content of holiness, of course, is love – the sympathy, long-suffering, consideration, patience, compassion and self-forgetfulness which can only become our consistent practice through close and deepening contact with God. If charity is the material of holiness, Van Zeller argues, “it follows that the nearer we get to becoming saints, the less critical we shall be of others and the more welcoming.”
“We shall want to forgive, we shall want to share, and we shall want to bring others into the circle of God’s love. And all this we shall do because we want to please our Lord. In showing charity we cannot miss. In almost everything else, we can make fools of ourselves by greed and selfishness, but in the matter of charity, we are giving out God himself.” (p.60).
Two threads run through the whole book. First we cannot make ourselves holy, but have to rely completely on God. The more we can admit our own weakness and insufficiency the better our chances of becoming saints.
Second, as we journey into closer communion with God we find that our motivations are transformed: the desire to give God glory and praise replace our natural self-centred desire to obtain happiness or pleasure for ourselves. At a time when “spirituality” is viewed as a sort of lifestyle accessory and an expression of individual personality, the traditional conviction that each of us has been created to glorify God rather than to pursue our own freely-chosen goals may comes as a shock even to many ordinary churchgoers.
Catholics in Britain have become used to the plans and projections of church leaders and their managerial minions: the endless meetings, the streams of chatter, the meagre fruits. Van Zeller’s short, accessible book reminds us that “unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour” (Psalm 127:1). When all is said and done the only thing that will ever revitalise the Church is the witness of lives filled with God. Holiness, A Guide for Beginners encourages us to take the first steps in that direction.
Holiness, A Guide for Beginners by Dom Hubert Van Zeller, Sophia Institute Press, ISBN: 0-918477-45-X.