You Can’t Buy Holiness

July 10, 2018

I don’t have a book problem, I tell my wife, I have a bookshelf problem. Our home is overflowing with books on every conceivable topic, with nearly every bookshelf double stacked. Yet, despite this superabundance of tomes, my wishlist remains filled with hundreds more books I would like to buy in the future. No matter how many I seem to collect, there are countless more that pique my interest. Perhaps I do have a book problem after all.

Many of the titles on my shelves are related to faith and spirituality. I have titles from spiritual giants like St. Teresa of Avila, St. Augustine, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and St. Thomas Aquinas. I have books on prayer, meditation, Church history, mysticism, marriage and family, seasons of the liturgical year, apologetics, and more. If reading could make one holy, I would undoubtedly be a great saint.

Holiness Isn’t For Sale

But there is a hidden danger in all this copious collecting of books. One can easily fall prey to the idea that knowledge is equivalent to sanctity, or perhaps even worse, that holiness can be purchased from a store.

We live in a consumeristic society. We are programmed from a very young age to see shopping as the summum bonum of human existence. Our supermarkets and online stores offer infinite variety, presenting us daily with things we didn’t know we wanted until we see them. Thousands of advertisements bombard us with the promise that happiness is as near as the next purchase. Whatever you desire, from eternal youth to lasting love, is attainable—for the right price.

As Catholics, it is all too easy to bring our consumeristic mentality to the faith, albeit unconsciously. We can come to believe that holiness, like happiness, is attainable with just one more purchase.

We feel a desire growing within us for prayer. But rather than praying, we go buy a book about a better prayer life. We feel like we should be more charitable, so we buy a biography of Mother Teresa or a theological study of the corporal works of mercy. We feel the call to be a better spouse and parent, so we purchase the latest parenting handbook from a popular teacher. We desire to grow closer to our Blessed Mother, so we acquire a beautiful rosary or finely made statue. Yet, for all this, we do not change.

Holiness is Hard

Purchasing Catholic goods is by no means wrong. We need tangible reminders of our faith, just as we need guidance from those wiser and more experienced than ourselves. I have bought many Catholic books and devotional items, and I am sure I will continue to do so in the future. My point is simply that we cannot substitute buying things for the real hard work of holiness.

Reading about prayer is always easier than the uncomfortable and often terrifying act of facing your own abyss of sinfulness and the fearsome holiness of God. Listening to a podcast is certainly easier than mental prayer bathed in a profound silence. Watching a documentary that creates the atmosphere of piety is easier than the daily actions of repentance, forgiveness, and love. And so we unconsciously substitute knowledge for the imitation of Christ. It is a mistake.

The call to holiness is the call to follow Christ to the cross. It is always difficult and demanding, for the “old man” of which scripture speaks must die to give way to the New Man created in the image of Jesus Christ. There are no shortcuts or hacks on the arduous path of holiness. There are no quick fixes cheaply purchased. There is only the daily choice to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ.

What God Rewards

What is the conclusion of the matter? Rosaries, medals, devotional books, and biographies can be great aids on the road to heaven. But they are no substitute for spiritual labor and striving after holiness. Thomas à Kempis put it well when he said, “A humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning. But because many endeavor rather to get knowledge than to live well, therefore they are often deceived, and reap little or no fruit.”

God rewards patient struggle, not the size of one’s library. On the great day of our judgement, we will not be weighed on how many notable authors we have read, nor how many pithy quotes we have memorized. Many saints of ages past owned not a single book. We will rather be judged on the measure of our love alone. Let us then hear the word of God and keep it, and we will be truly blessed. 


Sam Guzman


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Reader Interactions


  1. Eben says

    Man, this article hit me.
    I am guilty as charged. Tons of books and studying, but in the final analysis a mediocre catholic.

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