“COME, HOLY SPIRIT, SANCTIFY OUR LIVES!”
The cry for transformation and sanctification corresponds to the deepest longings and desires of the human being. And God knows the world, as it is, and our existence, as it actually is, needs transformation. The image of God, in which we are created, knows we cannot be content with things as they are. There must be change for ourselves and the way things are; but how?
The Holy Spirit: Two Avenues
Asking the Holy Spirit to be involved in our lives in any process of transformation leading to holiness. One is to ask Him to assist with our efforts: we do the planning, we make the efforts, and the Holy Spirit is asked to help. The other way is to leave everything to the Holy Spirit. We do nothing but pray, and leave everything to the Holy Spirit. Both of these extremes are wrong; but of these two the first one is probably the one we have to watch out for more carefully at this time of widespread rationalism and planning. The Episcopal Church claiming the Holy Spirit is responsible for the “new thing” that is being done in is an example of this.
The Holy Spirit seems to have an obsession with freedom. He blows where He wills, and does not like to be told what to do. [Remember the joke about how to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans…] We must certainly try, and we must definitely do our best, but when we pray for the Holy Spirit to come we must be prepared for the unexpected. All of our best thinking may well prove to be wrong. But I for one would rather be holy than right…
Sanctification has always been associated with the specific operations of the Holy Spirit since the time of the Church Fathers. But the way this sanctification and the holiness that results from it have been understood through the centuries has turned spirituality into an irrelevant concept for the world today. A certain aristocracy and elitism are often associated with spirituality. We need to combat the lie which says the Holy Spirit transforms and sanctifies only certain individuals, with the truth that His gifts are poured “upon all flesh” as the prophecy of Joel has put it. How can we make the concept of holiness relevant today?
The Ethos of Holiness
Holiness means setting apart someone or something for God. Holiness requires an attitude —towards all that exists (our bodies, our minds, the material world, everything) — which says, “by nature, this belongs to God.” We cannot own ourselves, our bodies, our lives, our natural resources — they belong to God. Our theology says that we are in the world as the priests of creation endowed with the privilege of offering creation back to its Creator.
This eucharistic attitude is the first thing that we need today during this time of severe ecological crisis as well as when there are so many enemies and factions in our lives. This eucharistic attitude is a spirituality of holiness that flourished in the desert Fathers, but has been forgotten in the meantime. It has to be recovered urgently, now that we need to be redeemed from humanistic and human-centered attitudes to existence.
Holiness and Community
One of the greatest sins of mankind today is seen in how holiness is understood individualistically. We think of the transformation of an individual into a holy man or a holy woman and that they are characterized by certain virtues and they shine forth with qualities of goodness, humility, love, etc.
But we tend to forget that when the Holy Spirit blows, He always brings about communion and therefore creates community. There is no such thing as “holy individualism.” All holiness stems from the communion of the Spirit. That is what makes the Church holy and at the same time is so important for our spirituality and holiness.
There’s an old Latin saying that goes “One cannot be a Christian alone.” It is because of the association of the Holy Spirit with communion that the saying of St Cyprian, “There is no salvation outside of the Church,” must be taken seriously. And so we must look for a transformation of the Church even as we speak of sharing holiness and sanctification.
The structure and ministry of the community — which is visible unity — cannot be irrelevant to holiness. It is a tragic reality that Christian communities do not recognize each other’s saints, because of division at the level of both or either faith and order. Holiness and church structure cannot be separated. Praying for holiness must go together with working for unity. If we are not working for unity we cannot be holy.
Holiness and Freedom
Finally, holiness means liberation — or rather, freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). Liberation is from someone or something; freedom is for someone or something. Both aspects are associated in the work of the Spirit, who is freedom. These take various forms:
- liberation from the past — forgiveness through repentance (metanoia);
- liberation from passions of egocentricity (askesis, healing one’s self);
- liberation from injustice, exploitation, poverty and all social evil;
- liberation even from decay and death — something we speak so little about;
- freedom to love, even our enemies; to allow for personal, cultural and other differences to exist; to give our lives for our enemies, even as our Lord gave His on the Cross for us.
All this means that the Holy Spirit has a great deal to say to the churches today through sanctification and holiness. We must work for a spirituality that will make sense for all human beings in all walks of life. And yet we must guard ourselves against an easy ‘spiritualism.’ We often speak too easily and too quickly of the presence and the activity of the Holy Spirit in what we are doing. We must humbly submit what we are and what we do to His purifying judgment, waiting for Him to reveal the truth.
There is always the danger of confusing the Spirit of God with our own psychological experiences or certainties. The Holy Spirit is God. He is Lord. He cannot be contained by our feelings. The best we can do is to worship Him as Lord, to pray to Him to dwell among us, and to wait patiently upon Him in all that we do.