Mystical writers pretty much from the earliest years of the Christian era have insisted that the unavoidable first step in walking the way of the mysteries is to embrace a life of holiness. Not so much that we can just decide “I want to be holy now,” like someone decides they’ll learn how to play the guitar; for holiness is a grace given, not a skill achieved. Nevertheless, since Divine gifts are not foisted upon us without our consent, holiness demands that we at least choose to cooperate with the dynamics of grace at work in our lives.
But what does it mean to be holy?
As I’ve surveyed the literature of Christian spirituality over the years, I’ve come to sense that there are two primary schools of thought regarding the nature of holiness. Granted, there’s plenty of room for these two flavors of sanctity to overlap, but they seem to me distinct enough that we can consider them separately.
Pure Holiness: First is what I’d call the “classic” definition of holiness. Following the idea that what is holy is in essence “set apart” for God, this definition of holiness stresses purity. To be holy is to be pure: thus, certain taboos come in to play. The precise definition of what is or is not taboo has varied from age to age or among different faith communities, so I’m providing a range of examples, not all of which may apply to any one particular philosophy of holiness. But in general, holiness is mostly about what we don’t do, including:
- prohibited sexual behaviors (such as masturbation, homosexuality, prostitution, adultery, polyamory, pornography, bdsm, cross-gender behaviors),
- consumption of forbidden foods (ranging from pork, to meat on fridays, to alchohol, to junk food),
- participation in non-Christian religious or occult activities (Eastern forms of meditation, Wicca and paganism, Tarot, astrology, consulting with psychics or mediums),
- even down to manner of dress (short and well-groomed hair for men, veils or hats for women especially in church).
Granted, all of these negative (what not to do) behaviors that enable holiness only are effective when joined with similar positive (what we should do) behaviors, including regular participation in the sacraments or public worship, tithing and works of mercy, personal Bible study or lectio divina, a devout personal prayer life, and so forth. What I find most remarkable about the purity model of holiness is its uncompromising nature: a single breach of conduct is fatal. One broken taboo destroys the holiness in its entirety. One mortal sin makes someone unfit for communion. A single stain on a pure white dress ruins the entire garment. Thus, it seems to me that the classic model of holiness often leads to two decidedly not-very-spiritual experiences: spiritual pride/self-righteousness for those who manage to uphold the purity codes, or shame/despair for those who don’t (there’s a lot of pious talk about humility in religious circles, but I think this stems from a deep-seated tendency among Christians to confuse humility with shame. True humility is self-forgetful and earthy; whereas the purity codes engender feelings of shame and negative ego-reinforcement among those who fail to live up to the standards).
Compassionate Holiness: Given the limitations of the purity-code model, another philosophy of holiness has emerged within the Christian tradition. This approach to holiness stresses compassion. Here, sanctity is not about one’s personal conduct, but rather the quality of one’s relationships. How does one reveal compassion toward those who are in need, or handicapped, or elderly? How does one practice forgiveness toward those who have done wrong? How does one maintain healthy boundaries while also practicing hospitality and kindness to others? What does it mean to avoid enabling or codependent behaviors, but also to avoid a posture of judgment and unwillingness to care for others? What is the appropriate response toward those in authority, and how do we discern when it is appropriate to resist unjust authority? This model of holiness rests not so much on the rectitude of our deeds as on the love that informs our lives, and consequently, it is a much messier and less easy-to-pin-down model of holiness. Compassion holiness can’t be neatly reduced to a checklist, where we ensure that we’ve abstained from verboten sex acts, or unclean foods, or occult activities, etc. etc. Rather, it requires a more narrative and transactional sense of what it means to be holy.
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Both of these models of holiness come straight out of the Bible. Read Leviticus to get a handle on the purity codes, and then read the parables of Jesus to begin to unpack the riches of relational sanctity. What amazes me, however, is how the tradition has tended to favor purity holiness over compassion holiness. Or at least, so it seems to me. Perhaps this is because it really is easier to figure out if we measure up to a purity code or not. Still, as I gaze across the landscape of contemporary Christianity, it occurs to me that most Christians tend to opt for one or the other types of holiness. Conservatives (of whatever denominational stripe) seem to be most comfortable with purity holiness, and liberals tend to prefer the more demanding but less measurable compassion holiness. Alas, it seems to me that too often when we opt for one model of holiness, we ignore the other model altogether!
I think these two forms of holiness might also represent two different forms of human consciousness. Purity holiness is tied in with rules and roles, with determining who’s “in” and who’s “out” of a particular group by the quality of their allegiance to a code of ethics. Compassion holiness is more connected to consciousness that eschews external standards or rules in favor of internally-directed values, derived from reason and experience as much as from education or tradition. Here, consciousness is not so much about fitting in with the larger group but about authenticity and about being true to one’s own highest principles. I don’t mean to present these two dimensions of consciousness as a way of implying that some people live only in rule/role space, while others live only in existential/reason space. Rather, I guess that most healthy and educated adults have both of these dimensions accessible within their consciousness most of time; still, some folks are more comfortable in one dimension than the other.
I called this post “integral holiness” because it seems to me that in its most fully developed form, Christian sanctification embraces and includes both dimensions of holiness. But as soon as I say that, my mind begins to wrestle with the seemingly intractable problem that purity-codes and relational/compassion ethics often work at odds with one another. Traditional Christian ethics has insisted on homosexuality being taboo, but in our time more and more conscientious Christians have come to see that true compassion simply does not co-exist with the insistence that judgment be directed toward gay and lesbian persons who just want to find someone they can love with their whole hearts. Clearly, Christ stressed compassion and forgiveness as a higher calling than rules and judgment. But just because compassion is a higher good than rules does not mean we can do away with codes of conduct altogether. After all, to live freely by the dictates of an internally-directed code of ethics means that we first have to internalize something to give a form to our conscience. The alternative is the “Lord of the Flies.”
So what do we need? A new purity code, perhaps? After all, Christian notions of purity have evolved over the centuries, no matter what scriptural fundamentalists or Vatican functionaries might insist. Slavery and corporal punishment are two examples of taboos that weren’t always taboo. But given how fragmented the church is, not only denominationally but also philosophically, I don’t think we’re going to see an ecumenical council convening anytime soon to redefine the normative boundaries of Christian behavior. But perhaps the last thing the church needs is yet another top-down theory of what is or isn’t pure. Instead, the purity of the future probably needs to evolve from the ground up. This is a lot scarier, a lot messier, a lot more dependent on the sense of the faithful than on the pronouncements of the pope. But it’s also the only way that Christian holiness can continue to be a meaningful concept that encompasses both appropriate behavior and loving relationships.
Meanwhile, back to where I began… how can a person who aspires to the mystical life truly attain holiness in our day, especially given how fully these contested forms of sanctity actually subvert each other? To repeat the answer I gave above: holiness is a grace given, not a skill achieved. Perhaps if more of us simply and unceasingly pray for God to grace us with holiness, not as we understand it but as God chooses to give it, then the truest and most deeply Christian qualities of purity and compassion will emerge, probably in entirely unexpected ways that will fill us with surprise, delight, and humility (in the true sense of that word).