Tuesday, August 23, 2005

What is holiness?

This rather loaded question was posed to us, with the requirement that we write an answer no more than one page in length. Yeah right - thousands of square miles of forest have already been cut down just for the books devoted to this very subject, and we're supposed to write an answer that is less than one page??? Geez - where do we even start?

Ah, the joys of graduate school.

Of course, now that my assignment's done, I can see why we were made to do it. It forced us to look at the question and boil it down to a succinct, logical answer, with precise definitions. And I learned a few things in the process.

I discovered the best definition of the term to come straight from John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation Christifidelis Laici, where he called holiness "the perfection of charity."

So there you have it. If someone on the street comes up to you and asks, "What is holiness?", you look them straight in the eye with a big smile on your face (because you actually know the correct answer!) and you say, "Why, I'm glad you asked! Holiness is the perfection of charity."

Of course, the likelihood that someone on the street would come up to you and say that is, well, better than the likelihood of, say, a walleye coming up to you on the street and saying that. But it's still not very likely.

So chances are pretty good you'll live the rest of your lives for the most part keeping this knowledge to yourself. Which is okay, too.

By now you're probably thinking, "Dan, I know you were supposed to write less than one page, but this one sentence answer business is a bit extreme. Can't you come up with a little more info on holiness than one teeny tiny sentence that involves a quote from the Pope?"

Why, I'm glad you asked! Holiness is the perfection of charity.
Oh, wait. I already told you that.

In truth, though, I did discover a few more things about holiness. Among them, that "perfection" and "holiness" are sometimes used interchangeably. Why is this? Well, calling something perfect is really saying that it has the fullness due to its nature. So in this sense of the term a cat is a "perfect" cat if it behaves most fully according to the way cats are supposed to behave (meowing, using the litter box instead of the sofa, etc.). And a car is a "perfect" car if it behaves most fully according to the way cars are supposed to behave (driving, not exploding in a blazing fireball, etc.).

We know from scripture that God is holy: "be holy for I am holy" (Leviticus 11:44). If God is holy, and perfection and holiness are interchangeable, then God can be said to be perfect as well.

"That's nice, Dan, but what does that mean?"

Hold on, I'm getting there.

If the perfection of something is due to its having the fullness of its nature, then the perfection of God is the fullness of His nature. And what is the fullness of His nature? Again we can look to scripture: "love one another, even as I have loved you" (John 13:34). God is LOVE. His love is so great that He, out of pure goodness, chose to create humankind. Furthermore, when we blew it in the Garden of Eden, He still chose to save us by sending His son to reveal that perfect love to us and to ransom us from our sin.

And there it is: God's essence is love, and so He can be said to be perfect, or holy, because He most fully embodies that love. Thus we're back to where we were with John Paul II: holiness is "the perfection of charity."

And now for my two cents: it's a good thing we've got a God who is holy. Can you imagine what life would be like if we had a deity that was less-than-perfect?

Now there is a little bit more to holiness than that. The fact is, as Vatican II taught, Holiness ain't just for God. Every single one of us, no matter what our occupation in life, is called to holiness. "Thus it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity" (Lumen Gentium, 40) Remember, "the perfection of charity" = "holiness". Of course, all holiness comes from God, who is its source. But this sense of the term indicates that we humans, too, can participate in God's holiness. Ultimately that's what heaven is: perfectly loving, and being loved by, God. But even on this earth we can advance on the path to holiness.

If I have time tomorrow, I will offer a few thoughts on how exactly we do just that.


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