What on earth is holiness?

By Martin L. Smith

I was in the presence of a holy man last month, and the evening I spent with him has set me thinking about holiness, that core concept most of us find so puzzling. Let’s admit it. The word holiness is infested with all sorts of unattractive connotations: otherworldliness, intense piety, life on a plane much higher than our own mundane existence. What on earth is holiness?

The man I am referring to is a Roman Catholic layman with a ministry of spiritual healing, and we met with him in a friend’s home, a typical domestic setting for the sessions of prayer and laying on of hands that he conducts up and down the country and abroad. There were remarkable healings that a number of us received and yet, quite apart from these experiences, I am just as grateful to God for refreshing my own faith in the reality of holiness. We were in direct contact with genuine holiness, the real thing, and it bears no resemblance to stereotypes at all. He was about as grounded a man as you could ever find. An unremarkable everyman, as my friend put it, who spoke about the work of God in plain, workmanlike terms. There was no drama, no manipulation, no ‘charisma’, no religiosity, just straightforward teaching and witness, and a kind of steady detachment salted with gentle humor. He had simply accepted this rarest of vocations as the agent of miracles, while continuing his regular life as a working man and volunteer in a soup kitchen, and undergoing the spiritual purging that kept ego out of the way.

Meeting Paul has sent me back to a quotation I once jotted down a few weeks after my ordination from Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way. “When in the course of my life I have had occasion to meet with, in convents for example, saintly examples of practical charity, they have generally had the brisk, decided, undisturbed and slightly brutal air of a busy surgeon, the face in which we can discern no commiseration, no tenderness in the sight of suffering humanity and no fear of hurting it, the face devoid of gentleness or sympathy, the sublime face of true goodness.”

Proust has put his finger on another of our stereotypes about holiness. We tend to think that a really holy person would be a paragon of meekness and gentleness who would never dream of doing anything to make us feel uncomfortable in any way. On the contrary, one of the manifestations of holiness is a kind of detachment, a non-dependency, that lets a person get on with the work of God, even though that might be a somewhat painful to everyone involved. And Paul was prepared to say some very direct things about the vocation of suffering and the meaning of pain that we never hear from the pulpit where preachers need to court popularity.

The more we reflect about this, the more likely we will find holiness closer at hand. We might find it in all sorts of areas, including that very risky one—the ministry of leadership. Just as people have this fantasy of the saint as someone who would never do or say anything that could ever cause us pain, so they imagine that good leaders are those who ooze empathy and concern and lovingly cocoon us with personal affirmation and uplift. In fact authentic leaders—holy leaders—are quite prepared to get on with God’s work fully prepared for that fact that that is bound to be upsetting and sometimes quite painful to us.

Few people have been as fearless as the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman in exposing the dynamics in which religious leaders get caught up, and he was as perceptive in his teaching as Proust was canny as an artist, about the way the ‘real thing’ stands out against counterfeits. Bogus leadership is soggy with dependency, collusion and denial; real leadership draws on inner resources of detachment and invariably draws fire from those who demand to be ‘cared for.’ Friedman didn’t pull his punches: here’s an example from his posthumous A Failure of Nerve; Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. “This tendency to adapt to immaturity and to sabotage strength is so often characteristic of chronically anxious systems that a good rule of thumb for leaders who are trying to pull any institution out its regression is that when people start calling you “cruel,” “autocratic,” “heartless,” “unfeeling,” “uncooperative,” and “cold,” there is a good chance you are going in the right direction.” (p. 69) Talk about hitting the nail on the head!

What is holiness? We need to keep probing this mystery in contemporary terms so that we get used to recognizing it. We find it wherever direct reliance on God day by day gives people freedom to act on his behalf without being hampered by the need to feed their own egos—or ours.

Martin Smith is well-known in the Episcopal Church and beyond as a priest, writer, preacher and leader of retreats. Through such popular works as A Season for the Spirit and The Word is Very Near You and in numerous workshops, lectures and retreats, he continues to explore a contemporary spirituality that encourages a lively conversation between new knowledge and the riches of tradition.

Past Posts