Searching for Holiness and Glory
Another quality at work in Greek epic is that of glory. Whether it is a warrior himself, or the shield made by the god Haephestus for Achilles, or the nodding, plume-crested bronze helmet of Hector, we find ourselves regaled by sheer glory all the way through the epic. Obviously, neither Homer nor his audience dreamed that either the idea of holiness or of glory needed any explaining.
So I asked the students just where one might look for traces of either holiness or glory in our own century. There was a long pause in the classroom. No one was quite sure of an answer.
Well, perhaps in the public realm -- in politics, say? Surely in the ranks of these public figures we will find glory, at least? But one begins to canvass the field, and finds oneself bemused. Glory? The word dies on our lips. Academia? Here we find eminent scholars to whom a certain dignity attaches. But the scholars themselves would shrink from any talk of glory. Entertainment then: cinema? Television? Music -- either pop or serious? Theater? Finance? Science? The military?
Certainly, acclaim crowns many in these domains. But does a skeptical, analytical, critical century such as ours perceive "glory" in the very personhood of a given man or woman, as it was understood by antiquity? Many deserve glory: the medic on a mountain in Afghanistan who crawls under fire to attend a wounded soldier; the firefighter who goes into a burning building to rescue an infirm old woman. But how does the category "glory" appear in modern imagination?
And holiness: How is the teenager in the mall arcade going to conceive of holiness? Or his parents, for that matter? Will the scholars tell us about holiness? Is it a presence in their imaginations?
To be sure, holiness attaches to religion. But is the modern churchgoer hailed by holiness in his church? The drift toward informality and good cheer in all aspects of modern life makes invoking the idea of the holy a difficult task. In Protestant churches, there being no altar, no tabernacle, no incense, and no sanctus bell, the burden must be carried by intangibles -- the text of great hymns, perhaps, or the sonority of the minister's voice. In Catholic churches, attempts to make the Mass familiar, friendly, informal, and affable may at times vitiate the idea of the holy.
A civilization could do worse than ask itself how things are going when the idea of the holy, or of glory, seems remote or strange to its citizens.
Tom Howard is retired from forty years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America. This piece originally appeared at Inside Catholic, and is reprinted with permission.