All Saints Convent is located in Catonsville, Maryland
Ralph Martin, in the introduction to his book, Called To Holiness, tells a story about Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A reporter, interviewing Mother Teresa, asked her the question, “How do you feel about being called a living saint?” He expected her to say, “Oh, I’m not really as good as people think,.” Instead, she replied, “You have to be holy in the position you are in, and I have to be holy in the position God has given me. There’s nothing extraordinary about being holy. It is simply a duty for you and for me.”
Most of us probably believe, not surprisingly, that being holy is extraordinary. Most models of holiness have been saints or people like Mother Teresa, whose lives and accomplishments have attracted worldwide attention. Such people seem to be able to do things the rest of us just think about. We are impressed by their giftedness, prayerfulness, or humility. We think holy people are really special; compared with them we feel very ordinary. Holy people may indeed be gifted, prayerful, or humble, but these qualities do not necessarily a holy person make!
There are many ordinary people living in today’s world who are holy. They sincerely intend to please God, and their daily lives show it. Despite the very ordinariness of their lives we notice something different about them.
To be holy we do not have to be extraordinary human beings or accomplish great things. To be holy means to be chosen by God. Thus, holiness isn’t even an option for us! This idea can be traced back to Abraham, when God chose to make a nation of his descendants. The earliest Old Testament references to holiness are descriptions of the ways these people spoke about and experienced God. As their collective experience of God grew, so did their concept of holiness, which came to describe not only God, but the result of his impact on creation in general and on human beings in particular.
The story of how God made his chosen people holy is found in Exodus 19. There on Mount Sinai, God made an offer to the people Moses had led out of Egypt. If they would choose to abide by his covenant, they would enjoy a special place and a unique intimacy with God. In return, they had to be holy, as God is holy, and fulfill their role of priesthood to the nations. Scripture tells us they agreed to be holy. The people were then brought into holiness through consecration, in this case through the ritual washing of their clothes. From that moment on, they no longer belonged to the world. They belonged to God and were set apart for his use.
Being set apart for God, then, is the basis of what it means to be holy. God can choose and set apart for his use any created being or thing, whose holiness rests on the fact that God himself is holy. What makes God, God, is his holiness. What makes a person, an article of clothing, a vessel, a mountaintop, a bush, or a building holy is its separation from the world and its dedication to the service of God.
For the early Israelite, worshiping God properly depended on knowing what was holy. So the idea of “being set apart for God” was expressed by emphasizing the differences between the clean and the unclean, the pure and the impure, and the common and the uncommon. This way of expressing holiness led to the formation of Laws of Purification and other regulations. “Holiness” was meticulously spelled out. Despite the burdensome details of these regulations, the people’s understanding of holiness grew. They realized that only by association with God can people, places, things, actions, and words be holy.
In time, this concept of holiness was deepened and transformed by the prophets, who began to understand holiness as a description of a people called into covenant with God. They emphasized the personal dimension of holiness. God was the Sovereign One who manifested his holiness in judgment, destruction, mercy, grace, redemption, and salvation in response to the failings, transgressions, victories, and triumphs of his chosen people. Gradually, it became clear that holy people make mistakes, but that their relationship with God remains intact. Holy people obey God and do what God says BECAUSE they are his people and not in order to become his people.
This is why holiness can never be reduced to our behavior or conduct per se. God makes us holy as we do the things he wants us to do. We pray, read scripture, attend church, maintain contact with other Christians, and participate in worthwhile activities because these things help us to stay in contact with God. If our attention is on God, we can remain open to the movements of his Spirit and fulfill his will for our lives. Holiness is what we are.
For the Hebrew people, this understanding of holiness developed slowly. For generations, they had practiced a religion and lived a way of life dominated by dos and don’ts. God’s message of righteousness had been inscribed in stone, and that is where it had remained. What the people needed, said the prophets, was God’s message of righteousness inscribed in their hearts. Then obedience to God would be a part of their human nature. The prophets foresaw God’s establishment of a New Covenant through which this would occur. The question was, how long would they have to wait?
We know that with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s New Covenant came into being. For those of us who are in Christ, God’s message of righteousness has been written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is with us and in us. He gives us the power we need to resist and endure, to say yes and no. Each day we are given the grace to believe and obey God. That is why Mother Teresa does not see anything extraordinary about being holy. All we have to do is cooperate with the grace he gives us, even when such cooperation hurts. Holiness is a duty. We should, therefore, take our cues for living from God’s standard of righteousness and not from the standards set by our society, our friends, or even by ourselves.
But how many of us really know what God’s message of righteousness says? Many Christians are living their lives and forming values more in accordance with the gospel of secular humanism than with the Gospel of Christ. Their confusion with regard to holiness and righteous living is symptomatic of a church in great confusion. Today’s church sometimes seems reluctant to teach God’s message of righteousness or even the most basic issues of morality and behavior. Some church elders have so compromised and undermined the influence of the faith that many individuals no longer assume these “guardians” of the faith know what they are guarding. One cannot help but wonder if the hand certain church leaders say they are holding really has been pierced by a nail! Basic rights and wrongs still exist. The totality of God’s message must be preached no matter how unpopular or contrary it is to the spirit of the world. It isn’t possible to belong to both the Body of Christ and the body of secular humanism. The Christian has made a choice. He or she has been called to obedience to God, no matter what the cost or inconvenience.
Holy people are not spared the confusion. They just react differently. Because they read the scriptures, they know what God’s message says; because they have learned to pray and to listen, they have learned to pray and to listen, they have absorbed God’s message; and because they have met Jesus face to face, they struggle to live that message. Holy people keep company with God. As their knowledge and relationship with God deepen, they become more adept at seeing the world through his eyes, even if only for fleeting moments. But it’s those moments that make the difference. Holiness is really a way of seeing from God’s perspective. It is what happens to us when the experience of God changes the way we see and embrace life. It is the fruit of our relationship with Jesus as we allow ourselves to be grasped by the vision of the world as God intended it to be.
No, holy people are not extraordinary. They don’t often accomplish great things in the eyes of the world. They live their lives simply, in obedience to God, doing what God has called them to do. They further the Kingdom as they try to bring to others God’s gifts of forgiveness, compassion, righteousness, justice, and peace without regard for nationality, economic status, race, or religion.
Holiness is not an option. It is what we are by the grace of God.