Many Christians today hardly give holiness a second thought. For them, holiness is something for the clergy, the monastics, and especially for the Saints, but not something that needs to be a serious concern for the average Christian. “I am no saint,” Christians are sometimes heard to say.
Is holiness central to the Christian life, or is it an optional extra meant primarily for a few? Is there a universal call to holiness for all Christians? The Sacred Scriptures are clear on the matter: “For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44); “Speak to the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2); “but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (I Pet. 1:16); and “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Many Christians view holiness in moral terms — sexual purity, support for traditional marriage and marital fidelity, and opposition to abortion. Still others identify holiness with spending a lot of time in prayer, studying theology, or engaging in ascetic labors; but holiness is not moralism or even asceticism.
Good morals are fruits of holiness, but not its root; and asceticism is an important means to an end, but not the end in itself. The Apostle Paul writes, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and although I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing” (I Cor. 13:1-3).
Holiness is not something we do or refrain from doing. Holiness is relational. Holiness is union with the Triune God Who is love, and sharing in the holiness of the God-man Jesus Christ. St. John the Divine writes, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and He who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16).
Our Lord Jesus Christ summarized the torah, the teaching or the Law of God, in one word: Love. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40).
The Apostle John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another... If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (I John 4:7-11; 20-21).
Christian love is self-sacrificing and is manifested in showing compassion and mercy to others, and always wanting what is best for them. “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8).
Compassion is when you see a person or another creature in need and you help. Mercy is when you give someone another chance, not a second chance but another chance. Our Lord tells us that we should forgive someone 70 x 7 times, so giving someone merely a second chance falls far short of Christian love.
Summarizing the ascetical teaching of St. Isaac the Syrian (d. c. 700), Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) says, “Those who strive for holiness should, first and foremost, imitate God’s love: that all-encompassing co-suffering love that makes no distinction between the righteous and sinners, between friends of the truth and its enemies.”
St. Isaac the Syrian says, “What is a merciful heart?... It is the warming of the heart of man toward all creation, toward people, the birds, the animals,... and all creation. When he remembers them or beholds them his eyes shed tears of a great and intense pity that encompass the heart. And from great suffering his heart diminishes, and cannot endure, hear or see any creature suffer harm or even small grief. Because of this, he brings forth prayers every hour with tears for the speechless creatures, the enemies of truth, and those who do him harm, so that they might be protected and be purified; he also offers prayers with great pity for that which creeps on the earth; this pity is aroused in his heart until he has likened himself in this respect to God” (Ascetical Homilies, Homily 48).
St. Paul writes, “Owe no man anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).
What of asceticism? Detachment, self-discipline and self-sacrifice are vital parts of the Christian life. Speaking of the fallen world and its allurements, the Apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 3:15-17). And St. Paul writes, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (I Cor. 9:27); “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the body, you will live (Rom. 8:13); and “Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).
Holiness is relational. Holiness is a loving union with God who is love. “God is love, and He who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16). It is love for God, Who first loved us, that unites the Christian in an intimate personal relationship with the Holy Trinity, allows the Holy Spirit to change him from the inside, and motivates and empowers him to be light and salt in the world and to suffer and even lay down his life for Christ. The Christian is to be in the world, but not of the world, and is to live a life of love toward God, mankind and all creation.
St. Isaac the Syrian says, “Love is hot by nature, and when it flares up in a person without measure, it makes the soul foolish. Because of this the heart that has felt this love cannot contain and endure it... It is with this spiritual inebriation that the apostles and martyrs were drunk, and they traveled the entire world, laboring and enduring insults, while others shed blood like water from limbs that were cut off. In the midst of terrible suffering, they did not lose heart but endured valiantly, and being wise, were declared fools. Still others wandered ‘in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth’ (Heb. 11:38-39), and were the most composed and calm during times of trouble. May God grant us to attain this folly!” (Ascetical Homilies, Homily 73)
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).