I have a blank spot in my preaching schedule coming up. It is the season of Lent. I had been thinking about preaching on the topic of holiness, or using the lectionary or some combination of both. One of the questions I am forced to ask, however, is one for which, I am discovering, I have no answer: “What is holiness?”

In the midst of this decision I came across a book on my shelf that I honestly didn’t even know I had. It is New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. The book is some 41 years old and I don’t remember ever picking it up. My guess is that I grabbed it off of a give-away stack at the Catholic seminary library where I used do some of my sermon study.

I am mildly fascinated with Thomas Merton’s life and writings, though I’ve never really read anything else by him. I read a book last year about him and three other 20th century Catholic writers, entitled, The Life You Save May Be Your Own (by Paul Elie). It was excellent, thought-provoking and theologically enjoyable. Merton spent most of his adult life as a Trappist monk in a monastery in Kentucky, my home state, and so I feel some connection with him.

I began reading New Seeds with some confusion as the writing style is not one I normally find easily attainable. But I stayed with it and am finding Merton’s take on the contemplative life refreshing and challenging. And, wouldn’t you know it? He has a chapter on the nature of holiness, or sanctity, as he sometimes refers to it.

Merton maintains that our conceptions of holiness often have too much to do with our own abilities and virtues, when in fact, true holiness ought to find its source in the mystery of God. He distinguishes between these two understandings of holiness by using Christ Jesus as an example. Christ, he states, was crucified precisely because he was not truly holy according to the standards of those who opposed him. He writes:

"So God Himself was put to death on a cross because he did not measure up to man’s conception of His Holiness…. He was not holy enough, He was not holy in the right way, He was not holy in the way they had been led to expect. Therefore He was not God at all."

Christ’s holiness, Merton goes on to say, consisted in that he “emptied himself” (Philippians 2.5-11). He became human and dwelt in the flesh among sinful human beings. In fact, he too was considered a sinner. This was his holiness, his sanctity. It should be ours as well.

We must “empty ourselves” as Christ did. We must deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow after him. We must make ourselves “nothing”, just as he did. In doing so, we live not so much in ourselves as in Christ. He adds,

We must live by a power and a light that seem not to be there. We must live by the strength of an apparent emptiness that is always truly empty and yet never fails to support us at every moment.

“This,” he says, “is holiness.” True holiness is not found by striving or in our own efforts, or by competing with others. Indeed, true holiness cannot be created by us at all. True holiness is only found by losing ourselves in Christ, as we are transformed by the Love of God living and working in us and through us in all that we do.

This is not fair, of course, as it flies in the face of the very thing I wanted to preach to my congregation: the need to pursue holiness as followers of Christ. What Merton says, and I am starting to understand and believe, is that this is not the pathway to true holiness. It is too concerned with my concept of what I “ought” to become or do, rather than with the Love of God living in me and expressing itself through me. At least this is what I think at first reading.

This does not mean, of course, that some of the very traits we normally associate with holiness are not valid, but that they do not come first. Perhaps these traits (and I’m thinking here of lifestyles, choices, character, relationships with others, and a desire to overcome sin in our lives, to name a few) are more results of holiness, rather than steps toward holiness. Add to this the concept Merton mentions earlier in the chapter that, “A man becomes a saint not by conviction that he is better than sinners but by the realization that he is one of them, and that all together need the mercy of God!” With that, then, the very nature of sanctity is in the realization that, if anything, we’ve only just begun!

Holiness, then, is not to be defined by certain ways of living or certain border behaviors that separate the holy people from the unholy. Holiness is not so much defined at all. Perhaps it is best pictured, rather than defined. If I am holy I am one whose life and personality is characterized by less of me and more of God. Or, in the words of John the Baptist, when my natural self (or “false self” according to Merton) is ever on the decrease and the person of Christ is ever on the increase in me and through me.

Ah yes. But will it preach? Stay tuned.


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