Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Holiness Misconception

Recently I received a comment on one of my blog posts from an anonymous fellow Catholic, asking me when I was going to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders (for non-Catholics, that is the sacrament whereby a man becomes a priest in the Catholic Church.) It's not the first time I've heard that sort of question from a Catholic, but the first time I had heard it from a total stranger.

Oddly enough, it is a question I have also gotten more than a few times from protestants, agnostics, and even atheists in the Army. Sometimes it comes with the tone of, "Hey, instead of getting out, have you ever thought of becoming a chaplain?" (Little knowing what is entailed in becoming a chaplain on the Catholic side of the house.) More often it comes as simple curiosity, "So if you're all into religion, why don't you just become a priest or a preacher or something?" Sometimes (not very often) it has been with a slightly sarcastic tone, "Why don't you just go be a chaplain?"

Let's start out by saying that this is not a blog about discernment. That is my own business. Instead, this is a blog about the misconception that both sets of questioners have in common. Actually, there are two misconceptions. The first has to do with what holiness is. The second has to do with what that misconception of holiness means.

The first misconception is, simply speaking, an error in judgment. People judge others as holy or not holy, good or bad, moral or immoral, on purely exterior factors, whether or not they go to Church, whether or not they swear, or have tattoos, or drink alcohol, or a whole host of other factors. None of these are holiness. So a person who fits the picture of what they think holiness looks like is labeled as "religious" or "a straight arrow" or even "good" or "holy." (It may not even be a complimentary picture, by the way. For instance, how many people consider a lack of humor to be a quintessential part of holiness?)

But all of these exteriors are misleading. Holiness, however, is something interior. It comes from the same root as "whole," "holistic," "wholesome." The connotation of that root has to do with the healing of something fractured, repairing something that was damaged. It has to do with putting something into right relation with itself and everything else. The quality of holiness, then, is something that is always becoming for most people on this earth. In that sense total "wholeness" cannot be certainly claimed of any human being in this life. Even Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa were still becoming throughout their lives.

With this concept of holiness, the second misconception becomes clear. In both camps there is an unspoken assumption that holiness is something that only a few people are supposed to attain. There are a few priests and nuns who are maybe just a little strange, but they are the ones who are pursuing holiness, so good for them. We'll be respectful of them as kind of an insurance policy while we go on living our lives much the same as we ever did. This misconception takes different shapes depending on the atmosphere. In Catholic circles it can take the form of friends, family and religious ed teachers gently (or not so gently) nudging that nice boy who looks so pious on the altar, and that good girl who is such a little angel in choir, towards the priesthood or religious life. In the largely pagan world of the Army there is a general assumption that religion makes you slightly suspect as a soldier. It's all right to have religion on sundays, but it isn't supposed to be something that you drag into the mission or off duty hours. It doesn't belong in the barracks or the team room. I remember a soldier I knew, upon finding out that I was going to Daily Mass on lunch hour, exclaiming in disbelief, "No! I can't believe it. I can't believe you're one of those wimpy Christians." (A bold statement coming from him, since he and I both knew that I would utterly crush him at any test of strength or skill he could name (except maybe bench press.))

The truth is that this is a lie. There is no priveleged minority called to be holy, while everyone else is can scrape by with mediocre. Remember, the pursuit of holiness is not a step by step thing. Life is not paint by numbers. Holiness has nothing to do with checking a list of arbitrary rules to follow, and there is no cosmic schoolmaster who runs the scantron of our lives and deems us holy or unholy based on the percentage of correctly filled bubbles. We really are fragmented, broken, damaged creatures, and we really do have the opportunity to become whole, healthy, wholesome creatures. This is the universal vocation of all human beings, to bring themselves into right relation with the God who created them, because then, and only then, will they be in right relation with themselves and each other.

The particular ways in which we acheive this are as various as we are. Everyone, regardless of their state in life, married, single, consecrated religious, ordained priest or bishop; soldier, sailor, tinker, farmer, lawyer; father, mother, child, sibling; rich or poor; homeless or secure; drug-dealers, tweakers, pimps, prostitutes, alcoholics, addicts of all stripes; murderers, adulterers, rapists and child molesters. ALL are called to be holy, to be made whole.

So I don't think of myself as being out of the ordinary. I am just another human being trying to do waht all human beings throughout history should try to do. I just happen to be doing it this particular way, following the gifts and inclinations and leadings God has given to me. You should be doing the same thing, but in the way the God has for you. Whatever love I have for my God and my Faith (how much or little is not really your concern) has nothing to do with my particular vocation. It is just where I happen to be at this moment, and regardless of what work I am doing or how God is using me, I must grow in holiness or end up fading away into spiritual death. Those are really the only two alternatives.


  1. Very true. The people I used to work with assumed I was a saint just because I was the "good Catholic girl," a species they had apparently never seen in the wild. I tried to disabuse them of this notion. At the same time, they seemed bemused by my ability to function in the "normal world" without a compulsive desire to flee to a convent.

  2. Love it! We are all called to holiness and all called to sainthood!

  3. Keep up the good work. You are one of a kind. I'm your avid fan. I'm also a New Yorker like you and each one of us are called to holiness . It depends on how we respond to God's calling . There's a saying which is my favorite, What you are is God's gift to you, What you will be is your gift to God. Keep writin and share your thoughts for the greater glory of God.