Surprised By Holiness
I might be chided for playing an esoteric card if I talk about having been personally involved in what, in the RC Church, is called a process of canonization, that is the procedure which leads to declare that a deceased person is a saint. I will never forget being in St Peter’s square during a pontifical ceremony, meters away from Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, when he proclaimed the 14th century founder of the monastic order I was part of, Bernard Tolomei, a saint. Up to that moment he had only been honoured as “Blessed Bernard” and it took many centuries to reach the point when he could be declared a saint because no miracle which could be attributed to his intercession (one of the requirements for the canonization) had happened yet. This ceremony was very personal to me since some 20 years before I had pioneered the re-discovery of his figure and his life by translating from Latin and publishing 14thcentury documents and letters that had been mostly forgotten. In this way, I contributed to rescue his character from the fictional (and often farcical) layers under which it had been hidden by baroque hagiographers and which had been uncritically perpetuated (and often embellished) for centuries. This experience taught me that hagiography, that is the writings aiming at extolling the holiness of a person, succeeds only by being highly selective, playing on stereotypes, and, most regrettable of all, erasing the humanity of the unfortunate character singled out for, as the procedure requires, the so-called “heroic” character of his virtues. This explains a maxim I often heard from wise monks, namely that “saints are to be admired but not to imitated”.
This does not mean that I do not believe in holiness, on the contrary. I have seen holiness many times in my life. But I have learnt that it is never advisable to think of anyone, dead or alive, that she or he is a saint – something that the Rule of St Benedict acknowledges when, somehow mischievously, says to the monk: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (4.62).
I like to think of holiness not as a state or a trait capable of encompassing the whole of the life of a person, but rather as a novelty that can bloom unexpectedly in the most unlikely places. We do not need to become holy and I do not think we ever will. But we can discover that we are capable of acting in holy ways is some circumstances and be the first to marvel at how on earth this has happened.
Here I am reminded of the title of a famous book by C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, and I find that it can equally be said that we must be ready to be "surprised by holiness".
I hope not to be too irreverent if I confess that one of the most inspiring examples of this description of holiness I have found is the character of Dora in John Steinbeck’s charming novel Cannery Row. The novel is set during the Great Depression in Monterey, California, and borrows its title from a street lined with sardine canneries that is known as Cannery Row. Dora runs a restaurant which also happens to be a brothel, something which admittedly might not play in her favour in a canonization process. Everyone agrees in recognizing that she has standards: she does not sell hard liquors, does not allow any vulgarity to be spoken on the premises, keeps an honest prices for the products and services, never turns out girls even when they become old or ill. Especially during the Great Depression, many women were led to prostitution by hunger and destitution. And this job would not have been needed if there weren’t men desperate not so much for sex as for someone to talk to. Steinbeck portrays these prostitutes as therapists performing a humanizing role sorely needed in a harshly Puritan society plagued by toxic masculinity. “Real” men could not afford to admit their need for intimacy and affection, not only with their friends, but especially with their wives. This could happen only in the safe space of a prostitute’s parlour. Steinbeck was a keen observer of his native California and even if these characters are fictional, they are taken from real life. Prostitutes were uniquely positioned to have access to people’s plight and when needed they would help with incredible generosity. During the darkest days of the Great Depression, we see Dora paying people's grocery bills and feeding their children, very nearly going broke in the process.
Was she a saint? Probably not. Are these actions rays of holiness? I would argue that they are, all the more touchingly so because they shine where one expects them less.
This is what gives me hope when I read Jesus’ description of what holiness is about in the page of Matthew’s Gospel known as the Beatitudes. I do not know if I will ever be “pure of heart”, or ever reach such levels of gentleness and forgiveness so as to qualify for the reward promised to the meek and the merciful – nor I think I will ever be so humble as to be described as a “poor in spirit”. On the other hand, I know that to be holy is not to be perfect, because this is not possible in this life. Just as we cannot be thoroughly evil so we cannot achieve total goodness.
I know however, of me and of most of the people I have come across in my life, that when we are given the right inspiration, in the right circumstances and thanks to the right form of encouragement, we are capable of startling generosity, kindness, altruism and ability to forgive. In other words, while holiness is not an attribute that I am ready to ascribe to individual persons, I think that we can achieve it together, as a community, by being generous, loving, and forgiving in turn, and by encouraging each other never to get discouraged when, for whatever reason, we fail to do so – because on these occasions we rely on others to do it for us and can be thankful to them.
This is the portrait of holiness in common which Paul outlines when he invites us to “aim for maturity, encourage each other, agree with one another and live in peace so that the God of love and peace may live among us” (2 Cor 13.11)
This is how, as with an unexpected and welcome guest, we will be surprised by the holiness.