“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
I don’t know whether Margery Williams intended to teach us all a great spiritual lesson through her beloved children’s story, but she certainly did. Sometimes it hurts to let yourself be loved for real.It takes a long time, and you won’t look the same anymore. But once you’ve been loved that way, you don’t mind being hurt or looking shabby.
Such is the process of holiness for us. We’re not supposed to be satisfied to merely believe; we are to pursue holiness. We were never meant to hold private beliefs that are for our own good only. If we will begin to practice devotion, we’ll soon find out what it means to be loved and to be real.
Over four hundred years ago, a very gentle, very wise priest gifted the world with the radical and liberating knowledge that a devout life is for every person, in every state of life. Holiness is not only for those in religious life, he said, but for the married, the king or queen, the servant, the worker, the single person, the politician, the doctor, and so on. St. Francis de Sales opened the door for every soul to learn devotion, to practice it and live it, and so make great strides toward holiness, whatever the vocation.
It begins with love, because love, of course, is the heart of devotion. Love for God and for His will above our own. To freely love God, to be free to follow Jesus in humble obedience, there is first the matter of God’s love for us. As the wise old Skin Horse said, sometimes real love hurts. Jesus simply refuses to love me or you in any way other than for real, and this consuming love warms and burns and purifies; it comes with pain.
The first stab we must endure is the pain of being completely revealed. With no more pretense of hiding anything, we lock eyes with Him and know that He sees all and knows all. A rather intimidating thought, yes? The idea of having no secrets at all, not the smallest bit of knowledge about your self that’s yours alone would be downright terrifying; it would be unbearable if not for the way He loves us.
Yet with everything laid bare before Him, listen to what He says: “I have loved you with an everlasting love… I have called you by name and you are Mine.”
Immediately the anguish of being revealed dissolves in merciful love and a spot of fear is rubbed away. He loved us first, last and always. Despite our weakness and sinfulness, God loves us so much He became one of us and died for us. Settle the matter in your heart once and for all and then firmly resolve to live a holy life. Now it’s time, as they say, to get real.
One of my favorite lessons from St. Francis is this beautifully simple directive: “Let us be who we are, and be that well, so as to honor the Master Worker, whose handiwork we are.” Devotion to God will lead me to my real self, the “me” that God has always intended me to become. The Skin Horse was right about that part, too. We do become. It takes a long time.
Every day that I give myself intentionally to His service out of love, I become more myself. Each time I choose to act quickly to do that thing God asks of me, my devotion grows. Each time I get up after I have failed and do not wallow in discouragement, fear diminishes and love increases. When I decide to practice patience, humility, honesty, gentleness and mercy, my soul makes progress in holiness.
It’s not great or extraordinary things that push us on toward holiness. It is the ordinary, unseen, simple acts of our normal, everyday lives that accomplish this when we perform them willingly, eagerly, simply because He asks. And make no mistake – those everyday actions particular to our state in life, our vocation today, are exactly what He asks of you and me. I can stop looking for a more glamorous or grandiose way of serving Him, because what He asks is that I care for my family and keep my house in order.
St. Francis also reminds us that the pursuit of holiness must be practical. It must transform our thoughts, our attitudes, our actions, and our attributes. Love must change us. It’s the way we become real… and it hurts a little. But once again, the old Skin Horse was right. You don’t mind being hurt when Love is making you real. The hurt becomes sweet to us because as our devotion grows, we only desire more of Him, more of what He wills for us. And spots begin to fade, stitches come loose, sharp edges are softened, and we who would have been easily broken are made strong by Love.
I’ll leave you with these words from St. Francis: “Don’t waste your time dreaming of being someone else. Don’t try to be someone else. Work and pray at being yourself. Be who you are, where you are. Concentrate on the little everyday problems and pains that beset you. Reserve your best efforts; expend your spiritual energy on what is right before you. This is what God asks of you. Listen closely. This is very important – and very misunderstood – for we all prefer to do what is to our personal liking. Very few of us choose duty first, or the will of God. Don’t cultivate someone else’s garden. Grow where you are planted.”
I think St. Francis would have loved The Velveteen Rabbit.
Jennifer Hartline is a Catholic Army wife and stay-at-home mother of three precious kids who writes frequently on topics of Catholic faith and daily living. She is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.
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