Holiness Is Not Manipulative

Holiness Is Not Manipulative May 12, 2023

Johnhain: Holiness / pixabay

Holiness, true holiness, is developed through acts of love, love which is given to God, of course, but also love which is given to and shown to our neighbor. Since performance piety is not based upon love, but rather the desire to receive accolades for what we do, even if it might contain some good, it does not led us to the perfection of love expected from us. If all we can do at a particular time is give thoughts and prayers, and we do so out of love, that is one thing; but when we focus on thoughts and prayers, so that we think we need to do nothing else, we fall into the error of quietism. For we are expected to help others, to do our part cooperating with grace, not just in our own lives, but in the world around us. If we ignore those in need, our love grows cold, and so we will not be able to attain true, lasting holiness.

We are to be holy like God is holy and God is holy through love. Love connects us to God, to grace, and to each other. Love motivates us to make sure we do not become slothful in the sight of those in need. All our spiritual disciplines developed to help us attain virtue and overcome vice must be engaged with this understanding. All our fasting, all our prayers, all our struggles against temptation do us no good if we subvert the expectations of love, for it is with and through such love we find our Christian vocation: “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (1 Jn. 3:11-12 RSV).

We are to love. Love will have us desire to protect others, not only preserving their lives, but the dignity of their lives as well. If we find ourselves excusing ourselves, like Cain did, from our duty to our neighbor, if we claim we are not our brother’s keeper, we have failed to understand what it is to be a Christian. “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35 RSV). It is better to be focused on those in need and help them than it is to be focused on our own piety, our own acts of worship, indeed, our own personal fight against various carnal vices if that fight ends up having us disregarding our neighbor. The more we care for those in need, the more we love our neighbor as we should, the more our love will bring us to true holiness. It is possible to fight against various vices in the wrong spirit, that is, without love, and so find ourselves gaining nothing, as Paul warned us (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1-3). Thus, many spiritual elders made it clear that while it is good to be concerned about our  personal spiritual development, we must not develop our ourselves at the expense of those in need:

A brother asked an elder: “There are two brothers; one of them live in hesychia, [fasting] six days in a row and giving himself a great deal of hard labour but the other one takes care of people in distress; whose task will God more readily accept?” The elder said to him: “Even if the one who [fasts] for six days were to hang himself up by the nostril he cannot be equal to the one who cares for people in distress.” [1]

It is a far greater vocation, a far greater calling, to take care of others than it is to merely take care of ourselves. This is not to say the monastic calling is insignificant, nor that ascetics are selfishly taking care of themselves and no one else. The best ascetics are those who know their work, their labor, is not just for themselves, but for all. They always make room for others, even if the others are those who might not seem to fit in well with them, such as when a holy ascetic took care of a Manichee:

There was one of the holy men of Egypt living in a desert place and there was another some distance from him, a Manichee – and he a priest, [one] of those called priests among them. As he came to visit one of his co-religionists, evening overtook him there where the orthodox holy man was. He was on the horns of a dilemma, afraid to go in to him and sleep there, for he knew the elder was aware that he was a Manichee and might not receive him. However, obliged by necessity. He knocked. The elder opened the door, recognized him and received him joyfully. He urged him to pray, refreshed him and gave him a bed. Awaking in the night the Manichee said: “How come he has not shown me any suspicion? This is [a man] of God.” He came and fell at his feet saying: “I am orthodox from this day forward,” and so he remained with him. [2]

While that story ends with the conversion of the Manichee, even if he did not convert, the holy ascetic did the right thing by taking care of him. The ascetic priest did it without any attempt to convert the Manichee, showing us how he correctly understood his concern should be for the good of the others, to help them out of love and not out of any other motive. Thus, when we help others, when we do acts of charity, we should likewise do so out of love, and not out of the spirit of proselytism. True love for the other means that no matter what they make of themselves and their lives, indeed, no matter what they believe, we will be concerned for them and their well-being. We might believe that our way of life, our faith, ultimately would be best for them, but we also recognize and respect religious liberty and the freedom everyone should have to decide for themselves their own religious faith and belief. If they are interested in our faith, we can explain it to them. If they are not, we should not force them to listen to us explain it to them before (or after) they get our help. When Christians do acts of charity for the sake of trying to gain converts, their hidden motive diminishes the good they do. Indeed, it is questionable whether or not they are even charitable. The holy priest did not treat the Manichee differently from anyone else. And this is because he didn’t have any other motive than love. The Manichee was astounded by that. His conversion came on his own terms, not out of any expectation placed upon him by the priest.

True holiness, a holiness which emerges out of love, will be naturally attractive. The pretense of holiness, with all the false piety and intent to make of ourselves appear so great that others will stand in wonder and bow down and do as we wish, always leads nowhere. Whatever accolades one gets will not last. In the end, it is love, and love alone, which will never be lost.

Therefore, if we want to be holy, we must first embrace the way of the cross, that is, die to the self, not in a nihilistic self-denial, but in and through self-giving love, loving others without placing any expectations on them. The more we do so, the more we will develop that love in ourselves and become holy for we will become more and more like God. And the more we treat others out of love, the more they will respond to it in kind. For love attracts love in return, not out of expectation, certainly not out of demand, but out of the very bounty of joy which is found in it.

[1] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers: A Select Edition And Complete English Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 233 [N355/17.22].

[2] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers, 193-5 [N289/ 13.12].


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