How to be… Holy (part 3!)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

In our last 2 emails, we have spoken of holiness as the ever elusive but prized goal of the spiritual life. Just as holiness can’t be left off the spiritual life, or treated as something you might get around to one day, today’s subject, “Holiness, part 3,” can’t be postponed either. It might even be the first thing – not just the first labor within the quest for holiness, but maybe even the very beginning of the entire spiritual life.

Holiness seems so inward, so private – and it is. And yet there also is an outward holiness – but not being showy, as if you have a demeanor that tips people off that you are just so holy on the inside. Holiness is public. Holiness is social. We need other people to be holy. It’s never me and God, but God and us. Others walk the journey with us. We encourage one another, and even dare to hold one another accountable.

But my focus today is beyond that. Social holiness reminds us that my prayers, my spiritual quests aren’t just about me. They involve the world, its troubles, whatever breaks God’s heart. When we pray for the agonies of the world, we always ask, How might I become the answer to my own prayer?

Mother Teresa constantly reminded us that holiness is caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, walking with the vulnerable, sharing with the needy – not if you get around to it, but maybe even as a first act to then be followed by the other notions we’ve been exploring. When people come to me and ask why they are missing out on a sense of God, or that they want to begin now to live in close relationship with God, I apologize a little for having such a simplistic, undazzling formula to offer – but then with confidence I say If you go to church, if you read the Bible, if you pray, and if you engage with the poor, and not once or now and then but over and over and over and over, you’ll be there. Embarrassingly easy, and yet arduous.

It’s not dropping off an old coat you don’t want any more, or giving the preacher a ham to deliver to some poor family. You volunteer where you can actually meet and connect with someone who’s vulnerable, who suffers at the hands of a society that doesn’t bless everybody, who’s been dealt an awful hand, the kind of person so many people who blame or pity. You befriend. You show up. It’s not the haves bestowing goodness on the have-nots; that’s not holiness. A holy friendship connects people who seem to be very different, but aren’t really; both have dreams, yearnings, a need to connect with God. We find God, we become holy, in the presence of the stranger.

As I often say, if you only hang around with people who are like you, you become ignorant and arrogant. I’ll emend that now to say If you want to be holy, if you want to be vibrantly spiritual, you change a chunk of your social life and how you expend not your leftover stuff you’d like to donate (get rid of), but your valuable time, self, social connections, and love. We do what we do for God. We do it, as Mother Teresa would remind us, TO God; we love Jesus in the poor.

I recall reading St. Athanasius in seminary. He was explicating with astonishing wisdom who Jesus was and is – and in the thick of his admiring, glorious words about Jesus, he declared this: “For the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures, there is need of a good life and a pure soul. One cannot possibly understand God’s Word and the lives of the saints unless one is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first approach the saints by copying their deeds.” It’s not pray, read the Bible, and once you figure things out, you maybe go do something. You being by doing what the saints have done, maybe a bit sheepishly at first but then with mounting courage – and along the way, you begin to understand the Bible, you being to pray more clearly, you find yourself surprisingly close to the mind and heart of God.

   TRY THIS: Ask, Who’s poor? Who’s damaged by society? Who’s debated by judgmental people? Find them. Stand with them. Listen to them. Make a new friend. That new friend will be God in disguise for you. And what you do doesn’t have to “work” or be successful. Vaclav Havel reminded us that “Hope is the ability to do what is right, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not.” Holiness is just such hope. It’s social.