The Perfume Of Holiness

The Perfume Of Holiness June 13, 2023

No photographer listed: Perfume / PickPik

Grace, and with it, holiness, is something which spreads the more people of good will come together. Indeed, even those who are not so holy, when they encounter holy men and women, will find that such holiness will inspire them, and likely have them make some changes in their lives (while most of the time, that change might be small, every so often, it will be huge). This is because holiness does not just stay in place but radiates from the one who is holy, touching and transforming all those who come into its presence. Holy people will influence those around them to become holy like them, and they will do so, not just through words of encouragement, but because they will freely share with others the grace which they received, the grace which has rendered them holy. They do not try to hold onto grace themselves, as if it is something which they can possess only if others do not do so; rather, they know, the more they share it with others, the more they will receive of it themselves. And the more they receive, the more they can give.

One analogy which has been used to explain how grace is shared with those who come into contact with those who are holy is found in the Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers, where an elder says holiness is like a perfume:

An elder said: “A person entering a perfumery, even though he buys nothing, still takes in the fragrance. So too a person who visits the fathers; even though he has no wish to work, they show him the way of humility and it becomes a wall for him in the assaults of the demons.” [1]

The more someone looks towards those who are holy, seeks advice from them, indeed, the more someone seeks their blessings, the more they will come in contact with holiness and find it leaving its mark on them. This is not to say they will necessarily become holy, or if they do, it will be something done in an instant. Many who come in contact with the saints do not become saints but remain sinners. However, everyone who comes in contact with holiness will never be the same again. Despite their imperfections, despite how they might resist grace, they will find themselves changed and made better. The more they find themselves in contact with holiness, the more the residue of grace will be imparted to them, giving them more and more opportunities to cooperate with grace and be transformed and made holy by it. This is why it is important for those who are holy, or those who are pursuing holiness and have received many graces themselves thanks to that pursuit, make sure they do not stay completely distant from the world and all those within it, for when they do so, they stop the spread of grace. This will, in effect, squash the growth of grace, not just with others, but within themselves. For the more they stop the proper flow of grace, trying to keep it to themselves, the less of it they will have. It is like grasping after sand in a clenched fist. This is why pride quickly brings an end to many would-be saints, for pride suggests they are to elevate and separate themselves from others instead of continuing to be with them. All they will have in their seclusion is all their former experiences with grace and the holiness which they once possessed, as their pride will cut away from it and leave them empty. The more one is holy, and keeps working out their own salvation, the more they will welcome the presence of others in their life, including and especially those who are said to be sinners, for the more they are holy, the more they will be like God, willing to share their grace with others because they will have a deep, abiding love for all:

And so, whoever attains by the way of this love to the image and likeness of God will take delight in the good because of pleasure in the good itself. Since he likewise possesses a similar disposition of patience and mildness he will no longer be angered by the vices of sinners. On the contrary, with sorrow and compassion he will beg pardon for their frailty. [2]

Those who think they must distance themselves from all the world in order to keep themselves pure, to stay away from the stench of sinners, do not put love into practice. They are unjustly judging and condemning others as an excuse to keep their distance from them, and in doing so, they risk their own judgment and condemnation. They put a stop to the perfume of grace and the way it can and will counteract any evil stench, and so, that evil stench will take over, not just in the world around them, but also themselves. Holiness, therefore, is not something which is individualistic, but communal, and not just for one community, but for the whole world. For God so loved the world that the only-begotten Son came to save it all (cf. Jn. 3:16). Even if some feel their contact with the world is not helping, because their words are not being listened to, they need to put their trust in God, letting God and God’s grace due its work in and through them and their presence in the world. When they use this as an excuse to retreat from the world, it shows they fear the world more than they trust in God. To be sure, many who pursue holiness will appear otherworldly. They will not seem so focused on material gain. But this is not because they reject the world and what is within it. Rather, they perceive that by seeking spiritual gain, they can and will also receive temporal, material benefits as well, benefits which of course, are to be shared with everyone:

Amma Eugenia said: “It is to our advantage to intercede and just to be with Jesus, for rich is everyone who is with Jesus, even though poor in bodily terms. For he who prefers the benefits on earth to spiritual ones will lose them both, while he who longs for heavenly benefits will obtain all the earthly ones too.” [3]

The immanence of the eschaton, the incarnation, shows the world and all that is in it is to be one with the heavens, even as what is temporal is to find itself drawn to and raised up to eternity. Those longing for heavenly, or eternal, benefits must do so not in exclusion of earthly, or temporal ones, but rather, in a way to help bring them together as one. This is why attention must be had by those who pursue holiness and eschatological glory. They must harmonize the two together, resisting the temptation to ignore or reject worldly, temporal goods, for in rejecting the world they end up like the so-called Gnostics, rejecting the true glory which is to be found in the eschaton, the glory which must include all that is in creation becoming one.

[1] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers: A Select Edition And Complete English Translation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 301 [N 471].

[2] John Cassian, The Conferences. Trans. Boniface Ramsey, OP (New York: Newman Press, 1997), 415 [Eleventh Conference; Abba Chaeremon].

[3] John Wortley, trans., The Anonymous Sayings Of The Desert Fathers, 283[N 447].

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