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The idea of holiness in light of Vatican II
Herbert Alphonso, SJ
Not rarely today we hear it said and even loudly trumpeted that Holiness is Wholeness. There is even a well-known book of Josef Goldbrunner's entitled precisely Holiness is Wholeness.1 This, of course, is very true in terms of what we are today calling a Holistic Spirituality in the sense that it respects the integral organic unity or wholeness of the human person. In such a context, to affirm that Holiness is Wholeness, then, is to assert quite rightly that the pursuit of holiness, far from being inimical to or stunting healthy human growth, does in fact foster and enhance it, and that those who strive to respond to the call to holiness are not in any way exempt from the integral human condition.
Unfortunately, however, as is happening in general with what is often stridently proclaimed as holistic spirituality - and every genuine student of spirituality knows this - Holiness as Wholeness is not seldom being interpreted in practice in a grossly reductionist psychological sense. And so genuine spirituality tends to become reduced in practice to a glorified psychology. Which of us in the field of spiritual direction, for example, is not painfully aware that today so much of what passes for Spiritual Direction is in practice no more than Psychological Counseling? This is in no way to berate or decry psychology or psychological counselling, nor is it to imply by any means that Psychological Counselling and Spiritual Direction, like Psychology and Spirituality themselves, are not closely and organically related. Of course, they are; but they are not in any sense, as is happening in a world overenthused by the doubtlessly amazing advances in psychology, to be identified with each other. Though certainly closely linked with each other, as are Nature and Grace, Psychology and Spirituality are, each of them in its own specific and distinct right, an authentically and professionally valid discipline and field of both theory and practice.
We are dealing here, then, with Holiness as an authentic spiritual category. All truly theistic religions predicate the word 'Holy' or 'Holiness' in the first and most fundamental instance of God. In the case of Buddhism it is in the 'epiphany' or manifestation of “unconditioned or undefined reality” that the 'Sacred' or the 'Holy' is revealed. For all theistic religions, then, to put it forthrightly, God as God is Holy in His very self, by very definition, as it were.
The Bible affirms this unambiguously. The great theophanies and hymns of praise of both the Jewish and the Christian Scriptures emphasize the holiness of God in this eminently singular sense.2 But this is not in any way to cut off or isolate God or His holiness. The God of the Bible is one who reveals and communicates Himself: He gives and shares His life and Himself, that is, He gives and shares His holiness. Holiness thus derives from God not merely as a designation but as a divine quality that is shared - a sharing in God's life, or “grace”, as later theology would term it. Such a sharing is both a state or condition and a consequent call or vocation. The Book of Leviticus already proclaims this: “I am the Lord, your God; therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44-45). This is explicitly echoed in the First Letter of St. Peter: “But as He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:15-16).
Quite in general, then - at any rate, for all theistic religious traditions - holiness for us human beings will mean, in authentic terms, union with God, for God is primarily, and in the most radical sense, the HOLY ONE.
Christian Holiness: Union with God in Jesus Christ
Now, for us Christians, God has revealed and communicated His life, indeed Himself, finally and definitely in His son Jesus Christ (cf. Heb. 1:1-3). Indeed, Jesus Christ is the one mediator between God and us human beings: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and human beings, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5). Holiness, then, in the Christian sense, comes to mean, in the simplest of terms, no more and no less than union with Christ - or, more precisely, union with God in and through Jesus Christ.
And so, while it is true that Christian theologians have across the centuries formulated the essence of Christian holiness in diverse and different terms, often conditioned by their times or by the schools of theology to which they belonged,3 it is equally true to say that all truly Christian theologians have more or less explicitly taught, in perfect accord with a continuous and germane Christian tradition, that Christian holiness consists, in the last analysis, in union with Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God and our Redeemer, who is the one mediator between God and human beings.
Vatican II's Express Formulation of Christian Holiness: Union with Jesus Christ
Not surprisingly, then - indeed, very significantly - the Second Vatican Council summed up all its teaching on Christian holiness in language that is even literally and expressly couched in terms of union with Jesus Christ, thus characteristically steering clear, as an eminently pastoral Council, of all controversies and discussions, albeit legitimate, among Christian theologians and the schools of Christian theology.
And, what is more, the Council, whose entire teaching in all its Constitutions, Decrees and Declarations turns centrally, we know, on its profoundly rich and renewed ecclesiology, did so in concentrated and masterly fashion in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium - notably in its fifth chapter entitled “The Call of the Whole Church to Holiness”.
It would be well worthwhile citing one or other crucially focal passage of Lumen Gentium to draw out subsequently the essential riches of the Christian teaching on holiness.
The Church, whose mystery is set forth by this Sacred Council, is by faith believed to be indefectibly holy. In fact, Christ, the son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is proclaimed 'the only Holy One', loved the Church as His Bride and gave Himself for her in order to make her holy (cf. Eph 5:25-26), and united her to Himself as His body, and He has filled her with the gift of His Holy spirit, for the glory of God. Therefore all in the Church, whether they belong to the hierarchy or are guided by it, are called to holiness according to the saying of the Apostle: 'This is the will of God, that you be holy' (1 Thess 4:3; cf. Eph 1:4) (LG 39).
If, already in this fundamental text, everything connected with Christian holiness has to do, directly or indirectly, with union with Jesus Christ, there are passages in the succeeding paragraphs of Lumen Gentium that explicitly identify Christian holiness with union with Jesus Christ. Thus, for example:
...because of their more intimate union with Christ, those in heaven establish the whole Church more firmly in holiness (LG 49). And further, in a virtual definition of Christian holiness, Lumen Gentium speaks of
the surest way by which, through the vicissitudes of this world, we can reach perfect union with Christ, that is, holiness (LG 50).
Christian Holiness: Trinitarian Dimensions
Not to be overlooked in this concentrated emphasis on union with the person of Jesus Christ as the substantial content of Christian holiness are its absolutely essential Trinitarian dimensions. The entire New Testament revelation, especially the Pauline and Johannine corpus, leaves us in no doubt whatever that the union with Jesus Christ we have been speaking about is in truth union with God the Father, through the unique mediation of the son Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy spirit.4 This Spirit of Jesus Christ is very significantly named the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of holiness, because He is the life principle that effectively unites the Christian to Jesus Christ.
Thus holiness in the Christian sense is first and primarily a state or condition - that is, holiness ontologically understood, if we are to use technical language. For through the sacrament of Baptism the Christian is “plunged into Jesus Christ” (baptizein eis Christon Iesoun is the original New Testament phrase: Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27) - united with and incorporated into Jesus Christ. The Christian “puts on”, “is clothed with” the Lord Jesus Christ, as St. Paul will phrase it (cf. Gal 3:27; Col 3:10-15). This state or condition of union with Christ or holiness through Baptism matures and is carried to what we might call a “state of adulthood” through the sacrament of Confirmation; it is further constantly fed, nourished and deepened by the sacrament of the Eucharist, preeminently the sacrament of union with Jesus Christ. It is easy to see and understand, then, why St. Paul can in his letters consistently address all Christians as “saints”: for through the very sacraments of Christian initiation they are in a state or condition of union with Jesus Christ, that is, in a state or condition of holiness. This state or condition of holiness for the Christian, in the precise sense in which we have just described it, is distinctively and specifically Christian. We insist on this, even while admitting that the Advaitic school of Hinduism, with its Aham Brahmasmi, may, within its own system, lay claim to a sort of state or condition of holiness. The Christian state or condition of holiness, which we have described, is a pure gift of God - a gift descending from the all-gracious Father through His Son Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.
But every gift, as we know, connotes in us, free human beings, a corresponding responsibility. And so, the very state or condition of Christian holiness, which consists in an ontological union with Jesus Christ, becomes for the Christian a consequent call and a vocation - a call and a vocation to grow in union with Jesus Christ, which has obvious ethical and moral demands and exigencies. Here precisely, then, is to be placed that profoundly significant Fifth Chapter of Lumen Gentium entitled “The Call of the Whole Church to Holiness” with its expressly worded invitation or even challenge:
...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...(which is) holiness (LG 40).
The reference here, when speaking of the “perfection of charity”, is to that charity, which is nothing but the love that tends to union, union with God through Jesus Christ. Here, too, are to be situated the many express exhortations of the New Testament writers addressed to Christians, calling and challenging them all “to be holy”.5 The intimate, indeed imperative, link in all these texts between holiness and moral conduct or behaviour gives clear evidence of holiness understood in the moral sense - a holiness common to all religious traditions - which is part of a responsible ongoing and maturing process of conversion. In the specifically Christian context, such a growth in holiness or union with Jesus Christ is effected through the Christian's free response to the word of God proclaimed or read and pondered in the heart (= prayer), through his/her sharing in the sacramental life of the Church, and through his/her actual living out in daily life - whether personal or family life, social or professional life - of those values and attitudes that make for, foster and deepen union with Jesus Christ. As you have surely noted, with this last sentence of mine, I have sought to sum up succinctly the most varied and variegated means of growth and maturing in Christian “moral” holiness.
Ecclesial Dimensions of Christian Holiness
Such union with Christ or Christian holiness, whether in the ontological or the moral sense, is no mere individual or personal state or striving. While the individual Christian is most certainly personally united to Christ and therefore holy, he/she is an integral part of a corporate people of God, indeed, a member of an organic body, the body of Christ which is the Church. Though the communitarian aspect of holiness is very clearly set forth in Traditional Religion, as also in Islam and in some expressions or forms of Hinduism, the characteristically ecclesial sense in which the Christian is an integral part of a corporate people of God, in the sense of being a member of an organic body - the body of Christ which is the Church - is distinctively and specifically Christian. Such a corporate or ecclesial dimension of Christian holiness is not to be overlooked or downplayed; it is an essential dimension of it, as much in its ontological state or condition as in its challenging aspect of call and vocation with all its ethical and moral demands. Little wonder that the union directly connoted by Christian holiness is expressed by love not only for God, but also for one's brothers and sisters in God, in Christ Jesus. Such love, like all genuine love, is directed and geared to union, as truly as it is the offshoot and fruit of union. Within this framework, too, of the typically ecclesial dimensions of Christian holiness can be best understood its eschatological dimension - in other words, its movement towards its fullness, perfection and final consummation - as Lumen Gentium has so admirably set forth in its Chapter VII on “The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Her Union with the Heavenly Church.”
Christian Holiness: One in Essence, Yet Not Identical for All
Thus the essence of Christian holiness is one in that it consists in that union with Jesus Christ which is effected by the Holy Spirit. But to say that holiness is one is NOT to say that it is the same or identical for everyone. LG 41 has been diaphanously clear on this score: it speaks of the una sanctitas which is, however, distinguished and differentiated secundum propria dona et munera - not, let it be noted, the una et eadem sanctitas (“one and the same holiness”), as not a few of our versions have rendered una sanctitas. Not only is every individual unique and unrepeatable on the level of nature, conditioned as he/she is by his/her history, culture, personal and social factors or circumstances; on the level of grace as well, every individual person is gifted and graced according to the measure of the sovereign freedom and liberality of the Father of all gifts: “Grace has been given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift” (Eph 4:7).6 No wonder, Vatican II has in its various decrees spoken explicitly of the holiness proper to the laity, as also of that proper to religious and that proper to priests - and this, to me, is a particularly Christian accentuation of holiness.
There is even more: as I have had occasion to spell out in my book entitled The Personal Vocation,7 on the very level of being - not just on the level of doing or function - every single one of us has been graced in Jesus Christ in a singularly unique and unrepeatable fashion which, as unique God-given meaning in one's life, becomes the secret of unity and integration of the whole sweep of that person's life.
So much for the genuine understanding of holiness in Christianity in all its essential dimensions. I would like to conclude, however, by offering an interpretation of holiness in terms of authentic Christian spirituality that opens the door to what I believe is helpful and constructive dialogue with other religious traditions. In fact, we shall note, as I briefly spell out this final word of mine, how very euphonically (if I may say so) it resonates with the “dynamics of liberation” that characterizes the other religious traditions in their own understanding of growth in holiness. The union with God through Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit, which we have shown to be the very substance of Christian holiness, is of God's doing. According to Biblical revelation, it is not we human beings who go to God; it is God who comes to us. As our own Indian poet-laureate Rabindranath Tagore sings in his Nobel-prize-winning collection of poems Gitanjali (Song Offerings):
Have you not heard his silent steps?
He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age,
Every day and every night,
He comes, comes, ever comes. ...”8
The primacy and the initiative in communicating His life and love to us belong to God. The only role human freedom and liberty has to play is actively to open itself, to dispose itself to receive the self-giving and self-communicating God, who is forever coming into our lives to save, redeem and sanctify us. So, on the part of the free human being, union with God or union with Christ consists in the freedom of the heart or inner freedom, as we are so heavily stressing in Spirituality today - inner freedom, which connotes both a “freedom from” all that blocks the invading life and love and power of God and a resultant “freedom for” or openness or availability - the French love the word disponibilité - to the ever self-giving and self-communicating God. Thus, on the part of the free human person what is required for holiness and growth in holiness is the free heart and ongoing growth in, or deepening of, this inner freedom of the heart. The one who is interiorly free will find God or be united with God, will find Christ or be united with Christ, in the very measure in which he/she is interiorly free. Growth in Christian holiness, then, is growth in inner freedom or openness to the Holy spirit who then leads us by His gifts; through these gifts He urges us to those active purifications or “freedoms” and accomplishes in us those passive purifications or “freedoms” which dispose us effectively for true union with God or holiness.
This interpretation of Christian holiness in terms of inner freedom and of the free heart - in what concerns the role of us human persons, that is - is most admirably exemplified in the case of Our Blessed Lady, the Virgin Mary, the prototype on our human side of Christian holiness.
It is precisely in the crowning Chapter VIII of Lumen Gentium on the mystery of Mary in the mystery of Christ and of the Church that we are offered the person of Mary as the type and figure of the Christian life in its growth towards holiness and perfection. In deeply moving language the Council shows how the whole mystery of Mary is summed up in the mystery of
her Annunciation. At the Annunciation it is God who takes the initiative and has the primacy: it is He who breaks into Mary's life and invites her to an active participation in His plan of salvation or the sharing of His divine life. Mary's response is not: “Yes, Lord, I shall do it; I shall be the Mother of the Incarnate Word.” It is rather, let us note, the active placing of herself, with all the energy and power of her freedom and liberty, at the entire disposal of God; it is her inner freedom of the heart which expresses itself as: Ecce ancilla...FIAT mihi! “Here I am, a servant of the Lord! You do with me according to your will!” ACTIVE RECEPTIVITY to God's gift, the active disposition of inner freedom which unites her effectively to God in Christ. In this precisely is the Virgin Mary the model, type, figure and icon of Christian holiness! And the rest of her mystery is nothing but the progressive spiral deepening of this very inner freedom - of her active disponibilité or freedom for God in the midst of her real everyday experience right up to the foot of the Cross and beyond.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us to learn, in and from you, how to be holy and grow in holiness.
* Fr. Herbert Alphonso, s.j. is Dean of the Institute of Spirituality at the Pontifical Gregorian University. This article first appeared in PRO DIALOGO, 1996/2 as The Idea of Holiness in Christianity. It is reprinted here with kind permission.
1. Pantheon Publishers, New York 1955.
2. See, for example: Ex 15:11; Is 6:3; Rev 4:8 ...
3. In the first centuries of the Christian era the ideal of the Christian saint was the martyr; by the end of the fourth century, with the passage of the classical era of martyrdom, Christian holiness came to be interpreted in a decisively “monastic” sense, so that even lay Christians who aspired to holiness strove to mould their lives on a kind of “flight from the world” (fuga mundi). This lasted fairly well through the Middle Ages until St. Thomas Aquinas, recapturing the insights of St. Augustine, placed the essence of Christian holiness fairly and squarely in charity or love - love which both leads to, and is the fruit of, union. Unfortunately, however, despite this return to the most genuine Christian tradition spearheaded by Aquinas, the accent on the ascetical-monastic “flight-from-the-world” understanding of Christian holiness continued somehow to prevail in practice. With the advent of the renaissance movements of a markedly apostolic spirituality - notably that of Ignatius Loyola with his Spiritual Exercises and that of Francis de Sales with his Introduction to the Devout Life and his Treatise on the Love of God - the understanding of Christian holiness as focussed on union with God (the union of love), in whatever state or condition of life in the world, was once again highlighted in both theory and practice. Since then, this specific union of love as the core understanding of Christian holiness has, according to the times and circumstances, tended to be accentuated (sometimes, perhaps, unilaterally) either in a wholly “vertical” sense as love of God or in an entirely humanistic “horizontal” sense as love and service of other men and women - thus posing a permanent challenge to maintain that authentically Christian balance which organically integrates love of God and love of neighbor (cf. 1 Jn 3:4-18; 4:20-21).
4. For example: Mt 28:19; Jn 14:25; 15:26; 16:13-15; 1 Jn 5:7-12; 2 Cor 13:14; Eph 1:13-14.16-21; 4:1-6; 1 Thess 1:2-5 ...
5. To mention only some: 1 Pet 1:15-16; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 1:4; 5:3; and 1 Thess 4:3 (“This is the will of God, that you be holy - hagiasmos”).
6. See, as well, 1 Cor 12:4-11: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit...To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good...All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”
7. Herbert Alphonso, s.j., The Personal Vocation. Transformation in Depth through the Spiritual Exercises (Gujarat Sahitya Prakash, Anand, India 1993, 6th edit.); see esp. pp. 23-43.
8. Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali (Macmillan, London 1967, 8th edit.), Poem 45, pp. 36-37.