Are we holy, holey or wholly holy?

By Kathy Berken

Here’s a short list of holy things: holy water and fonts, holy cards, the Bible, relics, religious rituals, votive candles, lives of the saints, churches and everything inside, retreat centers, rosaries, medals, icons, crosses, religious art, statues, incense, stations, scapulars, prayer books, religious garb.

These are holy by definition and associated with our faith. Isn’t that good enough? Well, yes, they are holy in and of themselves, but I want to delve deeper into how we can stretch our religious imagination by experiencing them as “wholly holy.”

Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, an organization that helps gang members get their lives back on track, says that holiness goes far beyond religious objects and rituals. “We tend to think the sacred has to look a certain way,” he writes. “In our minds, we call central casting to supply cathedral spires, incense, jewel-encrusted chalices, angelic choirs. … But look — right before our eyes, the holy is happening, even if we are hesitant to believe it.”

He argues that the spires, incense, chalices and choirs are easy to view as holy, but are they any holier than what is happening around us? Not necessarily. I would argue that when we engage in a moment of forgiveness, for example, and we experience the intimate presence of God in doing so, we have encountered the holy in a way that we may never experience by mindlessly reciting a memorized prayer.

So, if I use a holy card as a bookmark it is lacking its full potential to bring about in my soul an intimate awareness of the presence of God. However, if I hold and look at the card, think of the person whose picture is on the front and intentionally pray the prayer on the back with the hope of growing closer to God, then the holy card becomes wholly holy.

When I walk into church and dip my hand into the font and make the sign of the cross without any thought or intention, the water and gesture are still holy but incomplete. However, if I am aware that the font represents my baptism and all who go before and after me and I remember what I am called to and that I am part of the communion of saints, then that gesture is wholly holy.

So, holy objects and rituals become wholly holy through conscious engagement, but what do we do to transform our “holey” selves into holy (or wholly holy) people of God?

As “holey” people, we have cracks, rips, tears, dents and chips. Some days we simply cannot imagine being the container that holds anything sacred, much less God, when we see our lives as broken, smoldering, faulty heaps of barely working humanity. But let me suggest that we can move from holey-ness to wholeness and holiness when we pay attention to the graced moments that usually happen without warning. So, I encourage all of us to notice and bank experiences that turn our heads, make our hearts skip a beat, bring a tear to our eye, cause us a tinge of compassion, soften our judgment, inspire us, take our breath away and keep us from being able to speak.

When, despite feeling that we are still on the ash heap, we have experienced a moment like that, I contend that our “holey” lives will have become holy in that flash of a second and perhaps we could dare to call those times wholly holy as well.

Fr. Boyle wrote: “What God considers sacred won’t be pigeonholed. … Nothing is outside the realm of sanctity, for the world is infused with God’s presence. … The divine always wants to be liberated, no longer confined for too long in compartments so tiny.”

Holey, wholly holy!

(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minn. She previously lived and worked at The Arch, L’Arche in Clinton and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark.”)

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