What does it really mean to be a holy person as opposed to being a good person? There is a big difference between the two.
Is holiness or goodness displayed in the person who utters a lot of prayers and performs acts of penance, or who takes care of the homeless, visits those in jail, or feeds the hungry? Which one describes renouncing power and possessions and living a life of heroic charity and compassion in the tradition of Mother Teresa of Calcutta?
The Concise Oxford American Dictionary gives the secondary meaning of holy as “devoted to the service of God: saints and holy men” and “morally and spiritually excellent.”
However, in this day and age when we are so aware of the way different cultures, education, and upbringing shape each human being uniquely, one person’s act of godly devotion can be interpreted by another as an act of terrorism.
So it was to the Gospels I went for an answer since Christian holiness clearly has something to do with the imitation of Christ. But that can still leave one in a quandary because I’m not sure exactly how far one needs to go.
Is one to go barefoot, become an itinerant preacher, and gather disciples around him to become holy? That seems naive and foolish – and maybe a bit egotistical. Certainly, Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor cannot be overlooked. But how does one obey that command in a practical way on a daily basis? Are we supposed to have the same emotional feelings for a God we can’t see that we may have for our closest friends? Even on our best days, that doesn’t seem possible. How do we love the next-door neighbor whose name and personal history we don’t even know?
Both the greatest example and teaching on the subject I believe is found in The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Daunting, as it may seem to some, it offers a lot of food for thought, and action in simple terms and words, a compact handbook for holiness if you will.
Remember the setting: Jesus is speaking to common people who had heard of his healing miracles (Matt 4.24-25) and perhaps are hoping against odds that this man is the long-awaited Messiah, the hope of Israel. The Sermon starts with the Beatitudes that clearly attack the agenda of the ego, focused as it is on self-concern, self-image, self-gratification, and self-preservation. Much to the chagrin of the ego, Jesus calls “blessed” or “happy” those who are not enslaved by the fantasies of consumerism but are poor in spirit and are willing to experience the painful emotions of grief and mourning. Jesus affirms those who renounce the lust for power and are meek. He encourages those who are willing to take a stand for justice and peace, who choose mercy over revenge, and who are uncompromising in their lives as Christian disciples.
Reflecting upon the Beatitudes certainly makes us realize that holiness has something to do with moving beyond the ego with its narcissistic concerns and hedonistic interests – a real death to self.
The rest of the Sermon on the Mount then offers some practical examples of Christian holiness. It reminds us that we cannot live a two-faced life: we have to make a choice between the false attractions of the world – treasures on earth – and the eternal values of the gospel lifestyle – treasures in heaven (Matt 6.19-21).
Choosing heavenly treasures means putting all of our concerns in the hands of God and trusting that God will care for our basic needs; a life of worry and anxiety betrays an obsession with trinkets and worldly pipe dreams. The Sermon on the Mount challenges us to be nonjudgmental and to treat others as we would want to be treated. It also challenges us with the reminder that, when all is said and done, authentic disciples vote with their feet and not mere words.
Then there is St. Paul’s distinction between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). Clearly, his understanding of life according to the flesh is a life consumed with, controlled by, and centered upon the agenda of the ego. Giving full rein to the ego leads to a life of cheap, recreational sex; of outrageous demands and slavery to addictions; of putting exaggerated emotional investment in possessions; and of looking at other people through the eyes of a cutthroat competitor that depersonalizes them into potential threats or rivals.
On the other hand, once a person moves beyond the puny yet well-fortified boundaries of the ego, their life blossoms with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Life according to the Spirit is clearly a life of holiness.
And so, though it may be challenging to define Christian holiness, we certainly know its fruit when we see it. We do, in fact, see the fruit reflected in the saintly lives of people, both past, and present. Think of Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, or Khrimian Hayrig.
And what is the common thread of grace that is woven through these different lives from different historical periods and different faiths and denominations? They give evidence of the virtues which are characteristic of the Spirit of God; they strike us as “devoted to the service of God” and as being “morally and spiritually excellent.” This is a selflessness that forms the heart of holiness.