One of my pet peeves is the way people throw around the word “holy” to mean a lot of things other than what the word historically means. Sometimes when word-use shifts you just have to shift with it; thems the breaks in the evolution of language. Sometimes it’s worth the effort of preserving the older usage alongside the new one and recognizing which one you are facing in any given context. But sometimes, if the word and its concept matter enough, you just have to draw a line in the sand and say “No further!” and break your little ships if people try to take liberties with the word.
“Holy” is one of those latter words.
I think that the erosion of the meaning of the word “holy” has been a disaster for thinking seriously about the meaning of life and religious matters. I go out of my way to teach a basic sense of the word to my younger students and always resolve to find more ways to use the concept with my older students. I have occasionally alluded to the correct use of this word in some of my older posts, but I have never set down a full account of what I take to be the essential features of the concept of “holy.” Let’s remedy that.
If you press on any person, even a child, long enough, they will eventually tell you that the word “holy” means “good.” They may dress it up in lots of additional language and ideas, and invariably it is tied to the divine, but fundamentally when people say “holy” they just mean “good.” Like really, really good. Superlatively good, even.
Ironically this dumb take on the word is (I think) historically the fault of Christianity, which does unite the concept of holy with the concept of good. But in doing so the terms collapsed, both lost their real meaning, and only a rudimentary notion of what stands behind the word “good” remained. That’s my just-so story and I’m sticking to it.
This is no place to try to give a complete account of “holiness” as it might be studied in comparative religion. Those books have already been written and, like all things in academia, endlessly debated and revised and challenged and overturned. Here I propose to give my own take on what ancient cultures were getting right about holiness, all seen from the perspective of what the Church means when She speaks of holiness.
[It might help to know that I think all the gods (or at least most of them) worshiped in the ancient world are real, not merely inventions of human religious impulses. When I speak of them factually, it is not merely conventional speech meant to take ancient religions seriously]
The word holy (qadosh, hagios, sanctus) properly means “set apart by the gods for divine use.” In its basic signification it has nothing to do with something being morally good or evil. This isn’t a unique feature of Roman religious vocabulary or Jewish religious vocabulary or whatever.
Holiness is rooted in the belief that the universe is somehow divided into different realms, spheres of activity, planes of being, or what have you. The way holiness plays out is different in each culture, but all cultures that make use of the concept start with this basic division of the universe.
Holy designates the realm, or sphere of activity, or plane of being, of the gods. Perhaps it is a place you can really walk to, because a god was known to have walked there or performed work there; perhaps it is too remote for humans to reach, like Mt. Olympus or the empyrion heaven; perhaps it is not a place at all but something more like a state we enter into when performing certain activities or coming into contact with certain fundamental forces of the universe like life and death.
The opposite of holy is mundane. The mundane is the sphere of activity of ordinary human life. Look around you; here it is. It is the world we survive and study and control, the world in which we build cities and plant crops and have children. The mundane is the part of the universe proper to us humans and our concerns, for whatever brief time we may occupy it. If you ask a modern secularist, it is the only sphere that exists.
The most basic signification of holy is a place that is God’s, or the gods’. The ancients built (some of) their temples in strange, hard to reach places because those places were already holy; the gods worked there or dwelt there or were seen there. It is the gods who make holy, for they are holy–they are not part of the mundane. Temples were not “gathering spaces” for believers to sit and sing songs and hear a lesson and whatnot. They were buildings to honor the gods who already lived there, to acknowledge them and perhaps seek their assistance in some fashion.
All other senses of the word depend on this first one. The “sacred vessels” of a temple were just as much the possession of the gods as the space itself, and so were holy, off-limits to humans. Only those designated by the gods could enter these places and handle these vessels. This designation could be granted temporarily or more permanently through some kind of initiation, but in either case entry to the sacred space was marked by a ritual transition from one realm to the other, often involving ritual washing or putting on new attire.
The most famous of the “permanently designated” were the priests. As we have said in previous posts, the job of the priest was to offer sacrifices to the god in whose sacred space they served. They could be joined by other functionaries who cared for the holy place in some fashion, but typically priests ruled over the divine household by virtue of the fact that they performed the most essential function: the sacrifice.
The word “sacrifice” literally means something “made holy.” As a verb it means to make something holy. A sacrifice is a mundane thing given to the gods and in that giving the thing ceases to be mundane and becomes holy. It does not merely become their possession; it exits the mundane sphere and enters the holy sphere. This is why the act of sacrifice so often involved the death of something, passing beyond the ultimate border of this world. It is also why sacrifice so often involved burning things or pouring things out–in either case, the thing disappears. It is visibly, ritually, gone. It is no longer of this world. It’s also why the time of sacrifice was so often dawn or dusk: symbolic passage between the two realms of day and night.
Importantly, a person does not become holy by making a sacrifice. The sacrificed is made holy, a space can be made holy, but the one who sacrifices is not. Only the gods, it seems, can make humans holy, and only one already made holy by divine invitation or initiation can make a worthy sacrifice in the first place. We cannot move ourselves into this other realm, and to attempt to do so is hubris (perhaps we could find in this a way to understand the Church’s teaching on suicide).
Now let’s apply this rudimentary account to the Old Testament. God tells Moses to remove his shoes because he is standing on holy ground–a sacred space created by the fact that God is revealing Himself and His name there. When God says to Israel, “Be holy, for I am holy” He is both giving an invitation and establishing something as true by decree. God tells the Israelites that they are to be a kingdom of priests–not that they would have a priesthood, but that they themselves would be set apart from the mundane to serve as priests for the entire world. This is why He invited them to purify themselves before approaching Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law–because they were entering into the presence of God, and therefore holy space, and because they were about to become priests. Importantly, none of them did other than Moses. This is why only Levites, the designated priests of the Israelites, can touch the poles of the ark. This is why no one can see God and live, and why no one can touch the ark without being vaporized. This is why the construction of the temple is marked by Solomon sacrificing an absolutely incredible number of animals to sanctify–that’s make holy, again–the space. This is why only the high priest enters into the innermost space of the temple in the presence of the ark to make propitiation for the sins of the people. This is why in Isaiah’s mystical vision of the temple the angels, the holy ones of God, are singing “holy, holy, holy” to the Holy One.
God’s revelation in the Old Testament is a correction of pagan belief in the holy on a number of points. The first is the connection between holiness and omnipotence. The pagan gods had power tied to their holy places; the strength of a god could be expressed in terms of how far outside the holy place they could reach and how much they could accomplish there. But God’s power is unlimited by location; He goes out of His way to show this to Jew and Gentile alike.
This flows from an even more fundamental point: holiness is original and the mundane depends on it for its existence. This is one of the key claims of the creation account in Genesis. Instead of starting with a cosmos divided into the holy and mundane realms, we begin with nothing except God. Sacred space is simply the divine presence and mundane space is a something He creates and fills with all things.
This is why God laughs at David when he proposes to build a temple for God. It’s not just that God is “too big” for a building, although that’s partially correct. It’s that God built the entire universe as a house for David and the rest of humanity. “You build me a house? No, I build you a house!” is the divine reply. Heaven is my throne, and the earth my footstool. When Solomon does build the temple he explicitly acknowledges this problem and focuses on the temple as a form of mediation for the sake of the people even while sanctifying the space and setting it up as a dwelling for God.
Another key point, especially given my pet peeve with which I began this article, is the connection between holiness and goodness. God constantly demonstrates in word and in deed that He is good: patient and merciful, abounding in blessing for those who fear Him. When He calls the Israelites to be a holy nation He gives them a code of conduct so that they might imitate His conduct. “Be holy, for I am holy” entails, among other things, “Be good, for I am good.” The gods could be capricious and vicious, indeed more intensely so than any human, and so the holy and the good had no intrinsic connection. But the Holy One of Israel, the true God and true source of holiness, is also truly good. This unity will only become clearer with the emergence of Jewish Platonism and an increasingly rigorous natural theology that emphasizes the simplicity of God ad the unity of the divine attributes. And of course God’s revelation in the New Testament will confirm this development even while continuing to make heavy use out of the concept of holiness. By His own testimony, Christ’s followers are in the world, but not of it.
Holiness does not only exist in Catholic doctrine hidden in the guise of divine goodness. Holy refers to the entire natural-supernatural divide that runs throughout the Catholic tradition. It is enshrined in the creed that declares God to be the creator of all things visible and invisible. We are not merely celebrating gravity and electromagnetism! Holy names the invisible realm of the kingdom of heaven, God’s angelic servants, and the communion of saints (the word means “holy ones”!). When we speak of the holy sacrifice of the mass we are not merely saying that the mass is good or that the mass is related to God somehow. It means that in the sacred liturgy we exit the mundane world and enter a new kind of space, a new kind of universe: the New Creation.
It also turns out that, even though holiness does imply separation, it is impossible to conceive of anything being more interior to us than God. Because He is the ultimate ground of all being and precisely because He transcends the universe as Holy Other, He is also perfectly and intimately present to all of it. Because He is holy, He is also with us. In Him divine immanence and divine transcendence are actually one.
This shows up in a surprising way in natural theology: when we put on our philosopher’s hat and trace back to a First Mover or Uncaused Cause or Last End, we are actually tracing the road of holiness. We are mapping our way from one realm to another, and seeing the necessary dependency of one realm on the other, even as we focus on what seems to be the most abstract details of the mundane. In the end, everything in the mundane points back to the holy whence it came. “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”
We also see the holy in one of the most essential phrases in our Catholic tradition: “sanctifying grace.” This is the divine assistance given to us as a gift that makes us holy, that transports us beyond the mundane and brings us into the realm of God. In a children’s catechism, sanctifying grace is what you gotta have when you die to get into heaven. All this talk of holiness should make clear why.
When the New Testament talks of us dying so that we might rise with Christ, of being transferred from one kingdom into another, of putting off the old man and putting on the new, or Christ breaking down the wall that divided us, these are not metaphors. Or they are, but not in a vague or strangely Pauline idiom. They are extremely basic and common ways of describing holiness in all the ways discussed above. We are fearfully made of mundane stuff, fashioned in the image of the Holy One and called to imitate His holiness, and ultimately only achieve that transcendence because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–the Holy One Himself, emptying Himself and taking the form of a slave, mysteriously gathering us into Himself and transporting us into that higher and original realm of being. In our wayfarer state we will ever encounter holy as other, and suffer an estrangement not only from God but from ourselves as well, but by God’s grace we begin the unified life beyond this barrier of separation. In Him, we transcend the universe and its present divisions. The feat will not be fully accomplished until after our death, but it has already begun in us.
This is what baptism does. Fundamentally baptism makes us holy by uniting us sacramentally to the Holy One. It effects our transfer of citizenship from one realm to the other, from the mundane to the holy. Because we are made holy we can participate in the heavenly banquet not only after our deaths but even now, sacramentally, in the Eucharist. Because we are made holy we survive the passing of this world, because we are no longer of it despite being in it.
But also quite importantly, we can lose our holiness. Our citizenship in this other realm, our preliminary transcendence of the universe, requires our moral cooperation. Nothing we do can make us holy; only God can do that. But the things we do and fail to do can undo our holiness and forfeit our citizenship. This could never be seen as anything less than the most awful kind of death, and it is precisely what we mean by the phrase “mortal sin.” This is why we are constantly exhorted to persevere in our faith and why St. Paul constantly preaches about those sins that separate us from the kingdom of heaven. In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ adds to “Be holy, for I am holy” a new dimension, or rather makes clear a dimension that has been there all along: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The ongoing life of holiness is not merely a “natural outgrowth” of our new citizenship; holiness is a life of citizenship we must maintain and sustain through our imitation of Christ in the moral life, constantly fortified by His grace.
The whole idea of holiness is rooted in the idea of separation, a separation effected by God. Because we are made in His image we also can effect a separation…two kinds, in fact. One is our voluntary separation from this world that is passing away and from the ways of wickedness that lead to death. But the other kind of separation is a perversion of divine holiness that ends in our death, for we are not the Holy One. “You have made him little less than a god,” but still less. We are only like him, sort of, and by His grace one day will truly be united with Him.
And that is the consummation of all things at the End: that the entire universe exist as a New Creation, no longer separated from God as the mundane but rather perfected in Him, in a general resurrection of the body, that God may be, not some in all, but all in all.