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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Holiness of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
I doubt if too many years ago a conference on holiness, except perhaps to a cloistered community of religious, would have been, I don't say appreciated, but even really understood. Things have changed. For the first time in her councilor history the Catholic Church in her latest Council, the twenty-first and the Second Vatican Council, has given us the most extensive and the more authoritative, not merely discourse on holiness, but the absolute necessity of holiness for everyone in the world of the future (I mean the modern world) if Christianity is even going to survive. An ordinary life of prayer, humility, patience, charity and chastity is not enough in the modern world. Over the years since the Council, I have been telling people, without a shadow of doubt when I said it, ordinary families will not survive, only holy families will; ordinary bishops will not survive, only holy bishops; ordinary priests, ordinary religious will not survive; ordinary Catholics will not survive: only holy bishops, priests, religious, Catholics, I don't say will survive, but what is most important as we look forward to the twenty-first century, will thrive and inspire future generations to follow Jesus Christ. What converted the pagan world in the first three centuries was the extraordinary holiness of Christ's followers in those first centuries. Nothing converts like holiness. Holiness is magnetic.
We should have no doubt, therefore, that holiness is not only a nice thing to have, in our days it is no luxury, it is a condition for survival. My forty-two years in the priesthood convinces me. Only God knows how pleasing I am to him; having taught over six hundred priests, all I know is only holy priests, I don't say can remain holy, but can even remain priests, alive, active and what is hardest, happy in the modern world.
All right, we need holiness. So what is sanctity or holiness? We commonly and correctly say that holiness is God-likeness, and we define sanctity as assimilation to Christ who is God become Man. Holiness is to be or become more and more like God. Sanctity is to become more and more like Christ, so that by imitating Christ's virtues as Man we might become more and more like the God who practiced those human virtues.
Our main focus in this meditation is to go behind our holiness, and ask ourselves the harder question: not what is our holiness, but how is God holy? Why is this important? Because if our holiness consists in God-likeness, we then become more holy as we strive with his grace to become more and more like him. On the practical, down-to-earth, day by day level, we can become holy, theologically expressed, by following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. As little as thirty years ago it didn't quite occur to me that I would even give a meditation on this subject to my theological students and entitle it "De Sanctitate Dei". But much has happened in thirty years. You see, it is not just Christianity that is now on trial, it is God.
What does divine revelation tell us about the holiness of God? There is no single attribute of God that is more stressed in the Bible than the holiness and sanctity of God. If there is one thing that the Holy Spirit wanted to get across to the sacred writers who wrote the Bible it was that no one should have a doubt that God is the all-holy One. In the Psalms we find: "In his holy name we trust" (33:21); "O God, your way is holy" (77:14); "Our shield, and to the holy One of Israel" (89:19); "Holy is he!" (95:5); "Bless his holy name" (103:1); "Glory in his holy name" (105:3).
The Catholic Church has been repeating since the first century in her Eucharistic Liturgy, repeating on earth what the angelic hosts sing constantly: "Sanctus Sanctus, Sanctus - holy, holy, holy." Our very triple enunciation of this divine attribute was already said way back in the Old Testament in anticipation of the Holy Trinity that would finally be revealed with the coming of Christ. In the New Testament the holiness of God is the underlying figure of everything which Christ preached. Over the centuries especially with the Nestorian heresy, the Church has to make very plain what we mean when we say that God is holy. We are told the love which unites the Father and the Son is the HOLY Spirit and the three Persons that constitute the Godhead are simply and unqualifyingly the Holy Trinity.
For most people the meditation that we are now undertaking might be interesting but hardly necessary. On the other hand I do believe that the more clearly we can understand not only that God is holy, but how is God holy: what makes the Holy Trinity holy.
The Hebrew word for holy is kodesh. What does it mean? Remember, when the Holy Spirit inspired the writers of the Scriptures, we define inspiration as that divine guidance given the sacred writer so that he wrote what God wanted him to write and expressed what God wanted him to say. That being the case, it follows it was not enough for the Holy Spirit to enlighten the sacred writer - Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Mark, whoever, the Holy Spirit also had to provide the necessary means of expressing what God had wanted to be said. In other words the vocabulary in divine revelation that has come to us is also mysteriously part of divine revelation; so the words that the sacred writer used are part of the divine wisdom which expressed what God wanted not only to be said by the writer but what was to be understood by the reader.
This word 'kodesh' has at least five meanings: separate, distinct, unique, cut off from, totally different. The one word that I found best expresses what I believe after a lifetime of study and teaching of sacred doctrine, is to say that the holiness of God is the total otherness of God. God is the totally, the wholly completely 'Other'. Once we realize that this is the underlying meaning that the Church says must be the inner meaning that the Holy Spirit had when he inspired the sacred writers to speak of God as holy, as the One who is totally Other, once we see that, everything else that revelation tells us about God makes perfect sense and fits into place.
No wonder in the first commandment God told his chosen people, and through them has been telling the human race: "I am the Lord, your God. You shall have no strange gods before me." Why not? Because idolatry is a lie: there is no one like God who is absolutely, utterly, completely beyond anything that our human finite minds can conceive. This totally unique Being is not a construct of the created mind (which, by the way, is a one sentence synthesis of Karl Marx's understanding of God.) That understanding of God is why almost one half of the human race is being ground under the godless cruelty of communism. So we had better realize who this God is otherwise we, too, can be swept in by the tide of a godless world that is so immersed in this world that for them God is either a syllable pronounced by simple pious people or a word of profanity.
We have already said the holiness of human beings consist in their becoming more and more like God. We are asking ourselves what makes God holy, so that we by becoming like him will become holy too. How is God the totally Other One? He alone must exist. Surely that is being totally other. He alone is Creator. Don't tell me that's not unique! He alone is almighty. No one except he can do whatever in his infinite wisdom he wants to do. He is all-loving, all-wise; he is all-good he is absolutely unchangeable; he is that pure Spirit, that Mind and Will that existed from all eternity, and except for his existence there would be no mind and no will, there would be no knowledge and no love in the whole universe.
Practical reflections on the holiness of God. We believe that Jesus Christ, conceived at Nazareth, born at Bethlehem, and crucified in Jerusalem, surely by all historical accounts was a man. But we believe that Man, the Child that Mary carried for nine months, whom she clothed in a stable in Bethlehem, and, as the Fathers of the Church tell us, was spattered by his blood on Calvary, we believe that Man is God. We grow in holiness in the degree to which we follow the teachings of Christ and imitate his virtues. He spoke as Man and, being seen and heard and watched, he was human. Because we believe that that Man is God, therefore we believe that by accepting his teaching and by imitating his virtues we will become more and more like Christ who is God; and what makes God holy is total otherness.
If there is one thing that Jesus Christ taught, insisted on, it was that our minds and hearts should be set not on the things of this world but on the things of God. How do we become more like God? By becoming more and more detached from everything in this world. Why? Because that's who God is. He is the Being who is totally distinct from this world, independent of this world, indeed, on whom everything in this world totally and constantly depends. Viewed from this perspective, what profound wisdom Christ taught us.
We all have our share of trials, difficulties, misunderstandings, temptations, thank God. We all have our share of pain and suffering, thank God. We all have our share of disappointment, becoming increasingly disillusioned with this world, thank God. Am I beginning to shed some light on what we mean when we say that God is holy?
God is so holy that he is so independent of this world that the whole world totally depends on him. That's quite an independence! The struggle we have is to see what God is doing in providing us with constant, daily, nightly opportunities for becoming more and more detached from the things that this world calls good, so that our hearts will become more and more attached to the only Being who, on the premises of our own definition of holiness, is the one who depends on no one and on whom everything else depends for its very existence.
Go back and reread some of those impossible passages of St. John of the Cross. We have so many needs: water to drink, table to write on, air to breath. You read John of the Cross and you ask if he is talking about a real world. Yes he is, the real world of God. Everything in this world is only a means to an end. And that end is to reach God. And what a task we have to keeping telling ourselves that we are made for nothing in this world, nothing, we are made only for God.
"Lord Jesus, we believe you are the all-holy God who became Man. You taught us so many things but most importantly that we set our hearts only on God. Dear Jesus, this world can be very terrifying, and we are afraid. This world can be very seductive, and we don't want to let go. But help us with your grace to live up to your teaching, to find in you the way to love God for whom we were made. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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