The good news: We're all invited. The bad news: It takes effort.
By William J. O’Malley | JULY 30, 2007
T he seniors I teach would cringe at being called holy. The very word secretes poisons like “uninteresting,” “sexless,” “goody-goody,” “unsophisticated”—hardly the path to popularity. Nor does the idea appeal much to older people either. They feel unworthy of a term justified only by a visible halo. Popes can canonize a married couple, but only after 13 children and late-life vows of celibacy.
Our ideas of holiness are so stringent that even aspiring to it seems presumptuous. Jesus faced that, too: “‘What is this wisdom that has been given him? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?’” (Matt 13:55). Even slight contact with the less-than-sacred sullies any suggestion of sanctity: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” (Luke 15:3). But here is the key: Jesus loves imperfect people. On that score, all of us qualify. We can, therefore, consider holiness without the distancing, antiseptic “requirements” that make the subject, and pursuit of the reality, inaccessible to ordinary mortals.
Ease the Qualifications for Holiness
Easing the qualifications seems justified, since the Scriptures abound with exhortations not just to the few but to the many to strive for holiness. “Be holy” (Lev 20:7; Num 15:40; 1 Pet 1:15, 16.); “Without holiness no one shall see the Lord” (Heb 12:14); “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). St. Paul’s Greek term for ordinary believers is hagioi, “saints, holy ones”—not just meticulously purified souls, but all believers, made holy. It is not we who qualify as holy, but Christ’s generous acceptance of us that negates our unworthiness.
All religious traditions emphasize the separateness of the holy from the everyday. Whatever they call the ultimate reality is totally apart from anything common, profane, unclean, evil. Jews and Muslims tolerate no pictures of God, lest these devolve into idols. The Reformation ransacked cathedrals and village chapels to purge them of statues and crucifixes; even the consecrated elements of the Eucharist were de-sanctified. Eastern faiths go so far as to insist no predicate is appropriate for the Deity, not even “loving” or “intelligent.” Indeed, not even “is.” Thus, whatever we assert about God seems closer to falsehood than truth.
In the Abrahamic tradition, God is utterly other than anything created: “I am God and no man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:9). Yet God still walked companionably in Eden with Adam and Eve. There was separateness but also an easygoing connection—until the fateful moment the creatures said, “Who needs you?” And every human since has, in infinitely varied ways, shared that severing arrogance. Seeking holiness means trying to heal that separation and regain that person-to-Person friendship that makes us holy once again. The very word “religion,” in fact, means connection.
Incarnation Is Key
A constitutive element of Christianity (in contrast to all other faiths) is the incarnation. Uniquely, the Christian God became completely enmeshed in the material world: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Jesus did not think himself defiled by what his co-religionists judged unclean—neglecting ritual washing or consorting with people considered corruptive (prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans). It is also a basic Christian assertion that except for sin, God became in Christ fully human. That means Jesus underwent bodily demands some would consider too degrading for God.
It would also follow that since of all species, only humans suffer doubt, Jesus had to face the insecurity of commitment to choices without certitude. If not, the temptations in the desert could not have been truly seductive, with no possibility of choosing wrongly. Further, the agony in the garden, where he sweated blood in terror, would have been impossible with full access to a divine intelligence that suffers no uncertainty. On the cross, when he shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46), he could only have been quoting a psalm, not gripped by genuine temptation to despair. Without experiencing authentic uncertainty, Jesus could not have shared that most difficult burden of being human.
There is at least an explanation, though it might not convince all. St. Paul writes that at the incarnation, the son “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). He did not stop being God, but though he remained fully divine, he surrendered all divine perquisites, like omniscience and omnipotence, in order to face life’s challenges just like the rest of us.
Jesus’ Invitation to All
Jesus’ invitation to the kingdom—to a personal relationship with God here and now—was in no way restricted to the special few. In the parable, when the original guests declined, the host ordered: “Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23). The invitation was not restricted to the already righteous: “It is not the healthy who need a physician but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12). Nor was it confined to the chosen people: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19), nor limited to the ordained Twelve. Jesus loved the rich man who lived the Commandments but could not leave everything (Mark 10:21). Paul—and finally Peter—flung open the doors indiscriminately: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female; you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
If all that is true, one has ample justification to examine holiness with less stringent requirements than conventional wisdom might call for. To be judged holy—or at least trying to achieve some semblance of it—one need not be flawless, destitute or virginal. True, to declare publicly that someone is a saint, the church must scrutinize that life meticulously. But one need not be a World Series Most Valued Player.
St. Irenaeus said in Against Heresies, “The glory of God is humanity, fully alive” (Lib. 4, 20, 5-7; S.C. 644-48). It is permissible to suggest then that “supernatural” life is not “supranatural,” not beyond the limits of human nature, but rather humanity itself superbly fulfilled. What separates humans from other animals is the potential to learn and to love. Other animals know facts; a stag pursued by hunters knows that danger is behind him, but so far as we know he does not ask why: “What did I do to those guys?” We have at least the capacity (if we use it) to understand. Other animals can give their lives for their young. But we can give our lives (often without dying) for people we do not even like at the moment. Ask any parent or teacher. Can we entertain the possibility that our God-given purpose is to prepare a fully realized recipient for the gift of holiness? Nor is that role limited to purging defects, as so many were taught, but more importantly to amplify those potentials of knowing and loving. “Let your light shine before people in such a way they may see your good works, and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:16).
As the book of Job shows clearly, the architect of the universe has no need to check his plans with anyone beforehand, not even any official religious body. If God is content that an individual is trying his or her best (for the moment) to fulfill God’s hopes in raising humans above animals, that person qualifies as a saint, even if the Vatican has not gotten around to ratifying God’s judgment. That person does not need the external, ritual bestowal of baptism or any other symbolic sign of acceptance (cf. Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.). A moment’s reflection should make God’s unchallengeable assessment obvious, since no intelligent creature would accept a God less kind than he or she is.
We all know unchurched people who are the salt of the earth, as Jesus hoped his disciples would be (Matt 5:13). You can call them when you are stalled on the freeway at 2 a.m. They will tell you when you are too pushy or flirtatious or tipsy, and not hesitate because you might stop liking them. It is difficult to imagine them excluded from a kingdom that welcomes Magdalene and the good thief.
Nevertheless, it is easier for ordinarily self-doubting people if some outside authority validates their inner sense that they are trying their best. Baptism and confirmation are incalculably precious assurances of inclusion in a second family that will welcome us back, no matter what. Reconciliation gives a concrete pledge that we can never make ourselves so unworthy that we negate what Jesus did for us.
Inadequacies No Barrier
If God so generously offers the merits of Christ to make up for our inadequacies and indiscriminately invites us to holiness, God does not expect anything close to undiluted purity of motive or action when asking us to lead holy lives. This is borne out on page after page in Scripture, despite our penchant for sanitizing saints regardless of what they did. Abraham, our “father in faith,” pandered his wife into another man’s harem. Jacob scammed his brother’s birthright. Even the unassailable Moses stammered for some time trying to weasel out of God’s call. David, the ancestor of the Messiah, was a conniving adulterer and murderer. Unthinking piety turns the apostles into bowdlerized saints instead of a passel of Keystone Kops, often bumping into one another in pursuit of personal advancement.
Reflect on the down-to-earth holy people you know—usually not the fastidiously devout, the cautious observers of the tiniest rules, the judgmental: Pope John XXIII, Dag Hammarskjold, Dorothy Day, Anne Frank; millions of men and women who refused to surrender their souls in Nazi camps; those who bear with dignity the slow impoverishment of disease; kids crippled in wars they did not comprehend; the nun who held your forehead when you threw up; the patient teacher who taught you to write; the parents who forgave before we “deserved” it. There is an almost palpable serenity about such people. They seem unafraid and open, indiscriminately caring, inwardly coherent and focused. Their holiness is their wholeness, their altogether-ness.
The source of that equanimity seems to be a special relationship with the ultimate being and, reciprocally, a freedom from the self-concerned values of this world. That genuine connection with a transcendent energy source makes them divinely restless, unwilling to ignore or yield to elements of human behavior that conflict with the obvious intentions of a provident God: exploitation, courageous ignorance, neglect of the marginalized and corruption anywhere.
Accepting holiness requires, at the very least, conversion in the sense of transformation, coming to a halt to ask, “Is this the truth? Is this where I want to go?” fiercely refusing to be bamboozled any longer by the mesmerizing media that promise instant gratification, but deliver ashes; rejecting the investment of your heart and hopes in anything that cannot defy death; uprooting one’s soul—one’s self—from the trivial and transitory and engrafting it into the eternal. It is not a static achievement but a continued evolution of soul that in authentic holiness becomes contagious. St. Paul suggests ordinary holiness should be easily evident: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22).
If we trim inflated notions of heroic holiness that lead us to negate God’s prodigal invitation, we might fulfill the hope that motivated the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God: “That you may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10); “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). Jesus could not have used “perfect” in the ordinary sense: flawless, unblemished, absolute. That would have been blasphemous. Only God can be perfect in such a restrictive sense. Both Hebrew and Old English use “perfect” for the way a sphere, no matter how large or small, is complete.
Holiness as Well-Roundedness
“Holy” is really a synonym for successful, fulfilled, well-rounded. Each of those words describes what God intended fully evolved human beings to be. We are the only species that is incomplete, whose nature is not an inevitable blueprint but an invitation. Every rock, rutabaga and rabbit fulfills God’s intentions without insubordination. They have no choice but to glorify God with an obedience that is, more exactly, helpless conformity. Only we, of all creatures, can choose not to live up to the inner programming that invites us by a quantum leap above even the most intelligent animals. As far as we know, no shark or tiger is annoyed by qualms of conscience. They are incapable of being wrong.
Those who rise to the challenges of understanding more and loving more at least seem more alive, more fulfilled as specifically human than those who succumb to the allurements of the beast in us (pride, covetousness, etc.). Few would argue that Saddam Hussein had a more accurate concept of the human than St. Thomas More.
Also, unlike other species, the requirements embedded in our nature are not immediately operative through inbred instincts. Each of us must discover the directions in which we will find fulfillment. This is—or ought to be—the goal of a lifelong education: not merely to make a living but to find out what living is for. With that understanding, it becomes more obvious that holiness, the full evolution of humanity, is not inaccessible to ordinary people, but it is also not commonplace. It takes a lot of effort. “Holy” need not be confined to achievement. Just striving is enough.
William J. O’Malley, S.J., is a teacher of English and religious studies at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, N.Y.