How to Become… Holy (part 2)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

What are the habits and practices that, over time, might create space for the dawning of holiness in your life? Holiness isn’t a bunch of rules you’d better adhere to. Holiness isn’t avoiding pleasure. Holiness isn’t perfectionism. It is love for God, a joyful reply to God’s love, manifesting itself in our thoughts, words, motives and actions – and all the time, not just when we’re at church or in a crisis.

We begin by cultivating reverence. Our society seems to dig when people are irreverent, not abiding by convention or politeness. Reverence, however, isn’t convention or politeness. Reverence is humbled awe, an appreciation for and marveling over the greatness of God and the beauty of the things of God. Paul Woodruff believes reverence is “the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.” Reverence is when we are still, and know that God is God – and we aren’t, thankfully. Practice reverence, so unfamiliar in our culture.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that our life mission is “to advance the holy into the realm of the common, and to diminish the impure, and thereby enlarge the realm of the pure.” Think of this from time to time during the day, and ask if any advancing, diminishing, and enlarging is going on, even in subtle, small ways.

Inventory your desires. What passions rise up in you? Can you picture ordering your desires to match up with God’s desires? What is unruly in your heart and mind? Can you envision the Spirit tamping those down a bit?

Holiness is being obsessed with God’s will. Not an unhealthy obsession, but more like a mother with her newborn, or a gardener tending his roses. A safe assumption is that you don’t know the fulness of God’s will just yet, so you pursue learning all you can, trusting that as you practice God’s will and presence, you learn more, blind spots are exposed, and you become more agile and fit as a holy person.

Sin is an abiding concern in the quest for holiness. Modern people, even religious people, don’t worry about sin so much as our ancestors did. But we still fear being judged or found unworthy, we suffer a sense of alienation, we encounter the world’s injustice, and we dread our own mortality. Holiness is a frank look at what in us is not (or not yet) of God, and trusting the boundless mercy of God, not overlooking what is awry in us, but actually bringing healing.

Be especially vigilant of thoughts and urges that mimic what is vapid yet popular in our culture: a judgmental mood, griping, a sense of deserving, self-medicating, on and on. Take note of what you keep very private – even from yourself! What throws you off balance, or causes anxiety to rise? I love Kate Bowler’s thought: when anxieties begins to rise, instead of attempting to crush them like whack-a-mole, tell them to rise, rise on up, rise all the way up to God, who can handle them.

Don’t fret too much over being holy (although I’ve just told you ways you should or might!). Look for the “fruit of the Spirit” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, Galatians 5) and Jesus’ “beatitudes (poverty of spirit, meekness, peacemaking, mercy, hunger for righteousness, Matthew 5) to settle a little more into your soul day by day.

Try this? The whole email you just read! And pray Thomas Merton’s famous prayer (without it becoming permission not to try the other things!): “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.