Thursday, May 2, 2013

What does it mean to be "holy"?

The grail (1)
There's a lot of talk about holy men and holy women, holy spaces and holy places. People point to cups or beads or papers and say they are holy. What is it, exactly, that they are saying? What are they meaning? What are they expecting from the people and items they label as "holy"?

When it comes to ministers, priests, pastors, rabbis, and other faith leaders, there is an expectation that they are somehow holy. They are set apart from the normal people in the world. They are better, different, singular, and different. Perhaps there is a belief that they are somehow touched by the Divine, making them separate from the rest of the human race.

  1. Dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred: "the Holy Bible"; "the holy month of Ramadan".
  2. (of a person) Devoted to the service of God: "saints and holy men".
This definition is somewhat lacking, though. Many things and people are dedicated to the All and Many. By this definition, pretty much everyone who does a moment's service at a church or temple is to be considered holy. Then again, perhaps that's not so wrong after all.

 Sheila na gig (2)
Several weeks ago, I had someone berate me for not being holy enough. Initially, I was confused, as I wasn't speaking to the person in "minister mode". I had been discussing politics and personalities. Neither of these things seems very holy to me, and in fact seem almost opposed to holiness. They're still important, just not a part of spiritual things. The fact that I am a minister was not even discussed that day.

Later that evening, I got to thinking. What does it mean to be holy? Did I perhaps make a mistake in what I had said or thought? Had I somehow presented the All in a way that was less than pleasing? I went over my conversation with a fine-toothed comb (both mentally, and via FB because it stores your messages), and couldn't find anything to do with spirituality. Not only had I not presented the All negatively, I had actively avoided discussing spirituality and drawn the conversation away from it. Where, then, did this accusation come from?

I can only assume that it came from the accuser. I began to think about "holy" versus "secular" and how they apply to me, and to other ministers, priests, Rabbis and other spiritual leaders. Of the many leaders I've spoken to over the years, none feel holy all of the time, and some don't ever feel holy at all. Most seem to fall into the category that I do, where we draw "holiness" on like a cloak when we're acting on behalf of the All as if it were a prayer to be worn. When our time as leader is done, it is removed, and we're no more holy than the next guy.

It seems that a lot of people feel that those who take the title of spiritual leader, in whatever religious path they follow, should be wearing that holiness all the time. It should be evident from morning to night, on display for the comfort and joy of all those around the person. It doesn't work that way, though. Nor do I think it should.

Shofar (3)
Holiness doesn't come with a seminary education or a Masters of Divination. It doesn't appear because of a laying on of hands or a muttered prayer. Holiness has nothing to do with your prayer mat or your undergarments. Each of these things might enhance holiness, at a particular moment or time, but they do not bring it about.

So what does bring holiness into a person? I think the only real answer is "intent." There are moments when we open ourselves to be channels to the All, and those are the moments that we can achieve holiness, if only briefly. I tend to use my stoles as a method of showing the world when I am opening to the All, and setting myself apart from everyone else. This is a visual cue for something that's very much invisible.

While there is holiness to me working in my garden, volunteering around town, or snuggling with the kids, I don't think that's the same thing that people expect when I am speaking in a pulpit or leading a ritual. To think that I will routinely channel the All while I am kneeling in muck and weeding my cabbages is, I believe, asking a little much.

There are people in my life that I look up to as being holy. Rabbi Roger Ross and Rev. Deborah Steen-Ross, Rev. Sarah Margaret, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Rachel Held Evans, Pastor Alison Jacobs, and all my fellow students, Deans, and instructors from seminary come to mind. Yet each one of these people who I hold in such high esteem has been depressed, cried on my shoulder, ranted to me, made silly remarks, made mistakes... We're all human. If I call on these people and say, "Hey, be my minister today, please?" then yes, I expect a moment of holiness from them as they listen with the ears of their God. Just as often, though, I enjoy hearing their laugh, seeing their smile, or feeling their hug.

It is my strong opinion that you can't "be holy" all the time. Each of us has things to deal with on a daily basis that are far from holy. Cars break down, and marriages too, and people die. Bad things do happen. We get sad, we cry, and we retreat from being holy to needing holiness brought to us by another. That's the beauty of holiness, though. It can come from anyone, and anywhere.

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1) Image by ronnieb / morgueFile2) Image by Jusben / morgueFile
3) Image by davi / morgueFile