“Nothing is so silly an aim in life as holiness,” writes spiritual author William Cleary. The word “holy” or “holiness” is probably one of the most common terms I’ve heard in my religious life. Most people are taught that it means set apart. When something is declared holy it is seen as set apart for God, or for some spiritual use. Water is blessed and “set apart” for blessing or for Baptism. A person professes religious vows and is “set apart” for God in a particular way. Cleary describes it as “a cut above,” or “closer to God.” One might call this separative holiness. Cleary writes:

“Holy” semantically implies “otherness.” It sets us apart. But to make it our aim to be “set apart” is profoundly silly because our most humane aim is to be firmly grounded somewhere, to be connected, to feel connected, to discover our connectedness.

In other words, our human purpose, from a Christian perspective, is to be come fully human — which Jesus teaches us how. We might say that becoming fully human means becoming our true selves, who God made us to be. Saint Ignatius, in his Principle and Foundation, says that our purpose is to be in a loving union with God and neighbour. Unity. Connectedness. Oneness.

Separative Holiness

When religion has a separative notion of holiness, then the spiritual life becomes about achieving something and determining who is in and who is out, who is “closer to God”.

The Second Vatican Council, in its document Lumen Gentium, states that there is a call to holiness, regardless of hierarchy. It began to break down some of the pedestals and classism that existed between different states of life like priesthood and marriage. However, it does call the holiness of virginity or celibacy a “special way” of holiness. “Special” perhaps, if meaning “different from what is usual,” than meaning “better than.” The theology of Vatican II roots the universal call to holiness in baptism, which all Christ followers are called to. Still, note that it is a call to holiness, not inherent holiness. Such theology is challenging when we speak of baptism as an indelible mark of belonging to Christ.

Unitive Holiness

Etymologically, the word holy can be traced to an ancient word that means whole. Instead, it has taken on a meaning that alludes to division and separation. Now there are healthy manifestations of holiness, like setting apart one day a week for sabbath rest and prayer. Such “holy” practices draw us toward God and love of neighbour. We might call this unitive holiness. This kind of holiness is what Ignatian spirituality sees as characteristic of all things, so long as they draw us to God or “love of spiritual things”, Ignatius writes. In his Principle and Foundation, Ignatius tells us that the purpose of all things is to orient us to God:

And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created.

From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it.

If unitive holiness is our aim, then I am making choices that lead me to a deeper connection with God and others.

Ignatius likely would have scoffed at overly zealous pieties or efforts to “attain” holiness (Lord knows he made that mistake himself). In the Spiritual Exercises he mentions holiness only in reference to God or Mary. In 1547 Ignatius received a report from the Jesuit Simão Rodrigues about several Jesuit scholastics in Portugal whose “excessive fervor led them to discipline themselves in the city streets, preach half-clothed, and raise penitential cries in the middle of the night.” This created a division in their Jesuit community and Ignatius responded in turn. While Ignatius praises a certain holy zeal, he encourages these students to be prudent. “Try to maintain a holy and discreet fervor in your work and in the pursuit of learning as well as virtue.” He speaks against a “listlessness” but warns that excessive fervor can be harmful. “If one fails to observe this moderation,” Ignatius writes, “he will find that good is turned into evil and virtue into vice. He will also learn that many inconveniences follow which are quite contrary to the purpose of the one who so acts.”

In the Jesuits’ “holy fervor” they were creating separation in their community, placing themselves as a sort of “cut above” the rest. In the modern world—and in the church—we compete and grade and do all we can to be “set apart”. Our striving is not for wholeness but for holiness, we claim.

Holiness can be a silly aim, as Cleary says, if it is separative, exclusive, and hierarchical. However, when we understand holiness as unity with God and neighbor, as Ignatian spirituality does, it can be a beautiful and meaningful aim in life. Ignatian spirituality encourages us to make choices that lead to a deeper connection with God and others, and to avoid overly zealous pieties or efforts to “attain” holiness. Rather than being about achieving a certain state of spiritual perfection, holiness is about becoming fully human and living in loving union with God and neighbour.

Listen to the podcast version of this post…