What is Holiness, Part 1 – What it’s Not

This series is adapted from a meditation that I gave in September 2008 for a Women’s Morning of Reflection. Quotes from the book Spiritual Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be by Fr. Thomas Williams, LC are used with permission.

What is holiness? You seem to know it when you see it. I remember a man I used to work with. Bob was a very faithful Catholic. He knew God was not calling him to the vocation of marriage and he was single. He spent a great deal of time helping sick members of his family and friends. Homeless people and those with drug problems would come to our workplace and ask for Bob, and he would always help them. Sometimes he would give them money. He knew this could be used in a sinful way, but they came to him for help and he would try to help him. You knew from talking with him he was holy.

Another person I could immediately sense was holy was my uncle George. He had a quiet soul. When I looked into his eyes, it was like looking into the eyes of Jesus. Kind… gentle… prayerful. He had sorrows in his life, but you knew he leaned on Christ. That he was close to Christ.

There is a woman that I see at weekday masses at my parish. She is a poor Haitian woman. Her clothes are probably from Goodwill. You can tell she has had a hard life. I don’t know her name, but she sits behind me. A rosary is always in her hand. She radiates Joy. A smile is always on her face. When the priest asks during the Mass what people’s special intentions are, she says the most profound prayers. You know instinctively that she is holy. That she knows Christ intimately. I consider it a privilege to shake her hand, and I always grasp her hand with both of my own because I know she is close to God. Maybe she will rub off on me. She always says “Peace be with you, sister.” And I feel privileged to be her sister in Christ.

But what exactly is Holiness?

Fr. Thomas Williams, LC talks about this in his wonderful book, Spiritual Progress: Becoming the Christian You Want to Be. He suggests that the place to begin understanding holiness is to understand what holiness is NOT.

First, holiness is not mere philanthropy. Donating money or giving aid to those less fortunate is important, but it is not holiness itself. Caring for those who need help is a manifestation of being holy, but it can also be because our conscience is bothering us, or we do it to look good to others. It in itself is not holiness.

Holiness is also not just avoidance of evil.  A holy person will, of course, try to avoid evil. But holiness is about doing and being, not about avoiding things.

Holiness is not an intellectual pursuit. The simplest people are often the holiest: the cleaning lady… the garbage man. We should all learn about Christ and learn theology. We should learn what the church, founded by Christ, teaches, but that is not what makes us holy.

Holiness is also not the number of disciplines you perform. Many people confuse devotion with disciplines. Holiness is not an excessive emphasis on external works, such as fasting, abstinence and lengthy prayers. Being miserable is not holiness. Jesus told us in the Gospel of John that His wish for us was he wanted our joy to “be complete.” Those who are holy are joyful, not dour, and sad, and serious all the time.

And he also does not expect us to walk down the street flagellating ourselves in public, like some saints of old did, to encourage public penance. He also does not expect us to battle demons in the desert like St. Anthony of the Desert, or to have extraordinary levitations like St. Joseph of Cupertino. Though I think my children would think it cool if I levitated!

Holiness is also not a means to something else. It is not trying to manipulate God to do what you want. Like going to church every Sunday in exchange for financial success. Or thinking that “If I become Holy, God will let me win the lottery!” We are trying to gain union with Christ. Not to gain anything but to be with HIM. HE is our supreme goal. Heaven is our goal because we get to be joined forever with our creator and the one who loves us the most. Money is just paper, it is nothing. God is everything.

Holiness is not self-improvement. We all want to improve and be better. We want to stop being vain or prideful or impatient. But this is not a self-centered pursuit. It is hard to remember “It is NOT about ME” It is about Christ. Pope Benedict wrote a book called “Called to Communion” and in it he wrote

“It is not the perfecting of one’s self that makes one holy, but the purification of the self, through the fusion into the all embracing love of Christ: it is the holiness of the triune God himself.”

So we become Holy by purifying ourselves. Ridding ourselves of whatever is in our way to be close to God. But we cannot do this ourselves! We need Christ to help us – by allowing Christ to work in you, you receive the holiness of Christ Himself.

Very importantly, Holiness is NOT about “Feeling” God’s presence. Good feelings come, and good feelings go. And that is normal. But it has little to do with growth of holiness. Many people have a naturally cooler temperament. Some are emotional about everything. Others are very controlled.

You got up this morning, got dressed, got your kids off to school. Did you feel enormous feelings for your spouse this morning? Did you even think deeply about your spouse, who may have left already or was busy getting himself ready for an important meeting? Did your heart overflow with love at the very thought of him? Or were you wondering if he will have clean socks? It is not normal to be in a perpetual state of emotion. You have to come down to the real world to function properly.

Loving God is a CHOICE, not a FEELING. God does not command us to FEEL a certain way, but to ACT a certain way. Loving others, which God commanded us to do, does not mean warm, fuzzy feelings but the desire for their good. Fr. Williams says

“Every time we prefer others to ourselves or choose to do something, not because we feel like it, but because it is the right thing to do, we are loving.”

Feeling love or getting consolations, is not an accurate way of assessing holiness. Many saints, like Mother Teresa, did not “FEEL” God’s presence for YEARS. It is what you do when you DON’T feel God that counts. Did you follow his commandments? Did you go to Mass even though you did not feel like it? Did you take the time to sit down for awhile and pray and open your heart to the Lord, even though you had a million things to do that day? You may not feel His presence, but He is there and many times MORE present when you don’t feel him. I picture Him sitting there beside me watching me, waiting to see what my choice will be today. Will I rush my prayers or really try to pray seriously?

Finally, Holiness is not an Unreachable Utopia. “It is not just one occupation among many, to be juggled along with our other affairs, but the Central enterprise of our lives.” It is, quite simply, the meaning of life.

What is very important to know is this: growth of holiness, the Christian life, like all life, is progressive. It is NOT a state or condition to be reached. “Today I’m Holy, Tomorrow I’m not.” They don’t give out awards – the holiness award. She’s now holy. No, it is union with God and we either grow or diminish. We can’t stay still. God calls each of us to holiness, to be saints, and He provides ALL the means we need to attain it. God puts in our life all the people, all the circumstances that we need to help us to be holy. Just think…your mother in law is providing you with the means to learn prudence!

SO…now that we know what holiness is NOT, tomorrow we will learn what it is.

Related Posts:
What is Holiness, Part II
What is Holiness, Part III – What YOU Need to Do to Be Holy

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