Holy is a Four-Letter Word

Growing up Catholic, I walked into a lot of old churches and cathedrals. The lingering smells of incense, the glow of red votive candles and the overwhelming presence of Jesus hanging on the cross front and center above the altar made it very clear that this sacred space was a holy place. You don’t always get that walking into minimalist Protestant churches with bare walls or big screens in movie theater-like auditoriums. In Catholic churches, the idea or should I say “the sense of” holy permeates the place. When you walk into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, you know you’re in a holy place. You’re not at the Regal 21 screen multiplex.

Holy and the idea of holy is a word that most of us just don’t get. For many years in my spiritual journey, holiness has often seemed like a long walk in the desert with no real destination in sight.

Holiness always seemed other-worldly and spiritually out of reach. Primarily because I see so much inside of myself that is not holy. For many of us who have wrestled with God or struggled with one particular sin or another, holy really is a four-letter word because our hearts long for “wholeness,” but this wholeness, this holiness is so far out of our reach. Others of us have resisted holy living for fear of being perceived as “holier than thou,” which is really just an excuse for living small. Whatever our fear or motivation or issue, holiness can just become a nagging frustration blocking us from the deeper spiritual life we want to live. Just like much of the frustration Paul wrote about in Romans 7 and his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10.

And maybe that’s the point. To use another four letter word, I’ve often gotten to the point where I’ve said to God, “Damn! I can’t do this on my own. Holy living is impossible for me. My words. My thoughts. My motives. My actions. God, if there is going to be any wholeness, any true goodness or hint of holiness in me, this is something you’re going to have to pull off because I can’t do this in my own power and strength.”

And what I love about Advent and the Christmas season is that it is a very needed reminder that the Light broke through the darkness to bring a wholeness, a definitive holiness we could never achieve on our own.

I do not make me holy.

This is only the work of God. The gift of God. Through Christ, the living Holy Spirit of God working, changing, healing and transforming the broken glass we’ve scattered throughout our hearts and lives. Which is why I love this prayer I just read this morning. I thought I’d share it with you and hope you will find the same encouragement I found in being reminded that holy is possible because of Christ. We are made holy because He is holy and His blood covers all that is not holy. This is why, as GK Chesterton wrote, that hope is the Christian distinctive. Christmas is all about hope, another four-letter word that people hunger and search for all their lives. Ask God to fill you with His wholeness…His holiness as you pray…

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Breathe in me,
O Holy Spirit,
that my thoughts may all be holy.

Act in me,
O Holy Spirit,
that my work, too, may be holy.

Draw my heart,
O Holy Spirit,
that I love only what is holy.

Strengthen me,
O Holy Spirit,
to defend all that is holy.

Guard me, then,
O Holy Spirit,
that I may always be holy.

–Augustine of Hippo (Algeria/354-430)

Questions: In what ways have your human attempts at holiness failed? How have you viewed holy living as something impossible or possible through Christ? How might our lives reflect Christ’s holiness by trusting Him to do this greater work in our hearts (like He really wants to!)?

One book that I’ve found to be helpful in growing closer to Christ is Renovation of the Heart: Experiments in Spiritual Transformation by Dallas Willard. His insights into living a deeper, richer life in Christ have been very significant in my life.

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