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Archbishop reflects on holiness with young adults in Christchurch

Sunday 4th November 2012

In this address to young adults in Christchurch, New Zealand, the Archbishop explored what it means to be a holy person.

In an often personal reflection, Archbishop Rowan suggested that holy people love being themselves, but are not obsessed with themselves. Instead, their joy enlarges others' sense of the world.

The Archbishop said: “You come away from them, not feeling, 'Oh, there's a remarkable bloke or blokes.’ You come away feeling, 'There's a remarkable world or there's a remarkable God', and even, 'What a remarkable person I am too.’ That's the transforming thing. I think that's the acid test for identifying where holiness is.”

However, the Archbishop said there is “a catch” in Christian holiness. “If you want to be holy, stop thinking about it.  If you want to be holy, look at God.  If you want to be holy, enjoy God's world, enter into it as much as you can in love and in service.”

The full text of the address is below.


Archbishop's address to young adults of the Diocese of Christchurch

4 November 2012

Thank you very much indeed, Josh, for the welcome and thank you all for giving me the time to meet you and to speak a little bit.  I'm going to sit down, actually.  It's been a long day.

Bishop Victoria suggested that I might share with you a few thoughts about holiness, because today is when we commemorate All Saints, and so we're going to be thinking about saints and about what holy people look like, and what holiness looks like.  So, I'm going to have a go at that, and then you might want to ask questions about that or indeed about any other things that cross your mind, and I'll try to answer the easy ones!

If you look up 'holy' in some sort of biblical index, you might get from bits of the Old Testament a very, very strong impression of what being holy means, very much to do with being set apart, very much to do with being on rather dangerous territory.  Remember when Moses meets God at the burning bush, God says, 'Take your shoes off.  This is holy ground.'  And when the people of Israel come to Mount Sinai, and it's sort of blazing with lightning and all the rest of it, it's holy and it's very, very dangerous.  It's a bit like a sort of pylon with a, you know, a notice on 'Danger of Death', and, I don't know whether you have them in New Zealand - in Britain we have these rather vivid pictures of a little cartoon figure going 'whoaah' and a sort of bolt of lightning going through them.  That's holy in the Old Testament, and that really suggests that the thing to do with holy places or people is run a mile. 

And then, if you turn to the New Testament, at first sight you get a bit of a contrast.  For one thing, St Paul, when he writes to the people he writes his letters to, often addresses them as holy people: To the Saints, to the Holy People at Corinth, the Holy People at Ephesus, the Holy People at Philippi.  And that might give us a bit of a pause to start with, because it doesn't sound from the way that Paul uses that word, or the way it plays out in his letters, it doesn't sound quite as though 'holy' there means dangerous and weird in quite the same way it does in the Old Testament. So, you might start scratching your head at that.  And then, maybe, one of the crucial bits to turn around our thinking on this is in St John's Gospel.  I can't start talking about St John's Gospel, really - there's plenty of sermons there.  But in St John's Gospel, where Jesus says to his friends at the Last Supper that he's just about to consecrate himself, he's just about to make himself holy, and he wants his disciples to be holy in the same way.  And what that means is that Jesus is making himself holy by stepping forward towards his death, stepping forward towards the cross.  And the New Testament makes it very clear in all sorts of passages that the crucifixion is in one sense the supremely holy thing that happens, and yet it's found outside holy places, conventional holy places.  It's away from holy people.  It's an execution machine on a rubbish dump outside the city wall.  Holiness seems to be not being separated off and protected here.  Holiness in the New Testament is Jesus going right into the middle of the mess and the suffering of human nature.  Being holy is being absolutely involved, not being absolutely separated.

Now, I could spend the next hour or two explaining why the Old Testament and the New Testament ideas aren't quite as contradictory as they might seem, but I'll spare you that.  Only it's quite a helpful contrast to start with.  Because I guess quite a lot of us have a feeling that holy is a scary word for scary realities.  That holy is dangerous and weird, that holy is to do with dim religious light and a particular kind of religious building, or holy is to do with people a bit drained of blood - the sort you see in stained glass windows sometimes.  That holy is, well, in a nutshell, not like us. So, if we were getting a letter from St Paul - not an easy experience by the sound of it - if we were getting a letter from St Paul that began, To the Holy People of Avonhead or the Holy People of Christchurch, we might wonder who exactly he was talking about, because it's certainly not us.  That's where I think the way that Jesus talks about it in the Last Supper is helpful.  Holiness there is seen as going into the heart of where it's most difficult for human beings to be human.  And so Jesus goes outside the city, he goes to the place where people suffer and are humiliated, he goes to the place where people throw stuff out, including other people.  Outside the camp - in the language of the Old Testament - outside the settlement.  And that's one first thing to bear in mind about the Christian idea of holiness.  It's something to do with going where it's most difficult in the name of the Jesus who went to where it was most difficult.  And he wants us to be holy like that. 

Which is why there's no contrast, no tension really, between holiness and involvement in the world. On the contrary, the most holy, who is Jesus, is most involved, most at the heart of human experience.  And we really misunderstand the whole thing very seriously if we think the holiness is being defended from our own humanity or other people's humanity: quite the opposite.  Now, that makes me think about something which somebody said to me many, many years ago about the difference between being holy and being good, or even being saintly.  There's a fine phrase in one of Evelyn Waugh's novels, when someone says to another character, 'She was saintly, but she wasn't a saint', meaning that this person was actually very, very irritating.  Saintly, very strict, very devout, very intense, but somehow the effect she has on the people around her is to make them all feel worse.  They're made to feel guilty, they're made to feel inadequate, and I think that's probably what most of us experience when we encounter people we think are Good - they make us feel rather worse.  I had a Northern Irish friend when I was an undergraduate who said of a common acquaintance of ours, 'He's so nice you could kick him.'  I think that says it all, really about what goodness or saintliness makes us feel.  But, this friend of mine said years ago, holy people actually make you feel better than you.  Good people make you feel worse than you are.  Because goodness always comes across just a little bit as a competitive examination.  Some people are scoring very well and some people are on the borderline, and some people are sinking below the line.  But the holy person somehow enlarges your world, makes you feel more yourself, opens you up, affirms you.  They're not in competition; they're not saying, 'I've got something you haven't'.  They're saying, 'There's an enormous amount of room for you in the world we occupy together.' 

And when I think of the people in my own life that I call holy, people who've really made an impact in that way, I think that's what comes across most deeply from all of them.  These are the people who've made me feel better rather than worse about myself.  Now, you can misunderstand that - not people who make me feel complacent about myself, but people who make me feel it's OK, we can start there.  The world is big enough and God is big enough.  Real holiness somehow brings into my life that sense of opening up opportunity, changing things.  It's not about me being made to feel inadequate.  On the contrary, somehow I feel a little bit more myself.  I have a theory, which I started elaborating after the first few times I'd met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a theory that there are two kinds of egotists in this world.  There are egotists that are so in love with themselves that they've got no room for anybody else, and there are egotists that are so in love with themselves they're quite happy for everybody else to be in love with themselves.  And Desmond, who is a great performer, I mean he's not a shrinking violet, Desmond loves being Desmond Tutu.  There's no doubt about that.  And the effect of that is not to make me feel a bit kind of frozen or shrunk.  It's to make me feel, well actually perhaps I could love being Rowan Williams in the way that Desmond loves being Desmond Tutu.  That's an aspect of holiness, and that's why in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the criteria that's used for making people saints is that they produce joy around them, and one of the arguments - I shouldn't really say this, should I - one of the arguments advanced against making Cardinal Newman a saint, which is what the Roman Catholic Church is in the process of doing, is that actually he was a bit miserable a lot of the time.  Now, I couldn't possibly comment, but it's an important discussion to have.  A person that we want to call holy, that we want to call a saint - do they have the effect of illuminating things, enlarging things?  That may be the single most important thing about the holy life, and somebody who'd known Cardinal Newman quite well wrote in his one of his letters - about 120 years ago - of the contrast between Newman, very saintly, very spiritual, very learned, but you came away feeling a bit glum after being with him - contrasting that with a priest that he'd known in Paris, a priest who was, in many ways a very complex character, a very depressive person who had a series of breakdowns, who had suffered physically a great deal, and spent a lot of his time lying on a couch in a darkened room with a cloth over his eyes because of migraines, and when you spend ten minutes with him, you went away feeling wonderful, and, said the writer of this letter, 'That's what I call holiness'.  It was somebody who kind of moved through all of that, something that under and through all the suffering and the neurosis and all the rest of it just shone through, and you came away feeling better.  And it was put very well in a reminiscence that somebody came up with of a great Anglican priest of about half a century ago.  She described her first meeting with this priest, and said that as she talked to him the landscape changed.  There was a new light on it.  Now that to me has always stuck as a brilliant definition of what it's like to meet a holy person.  The landscape changed - there was a new light on it.  So, a holy person makes you see things in yourself and around you you hadn't seen before.  That is to say, enlarges the world rather than shrinking it, which is why we say of Jesus he is the most Holy One, because he above all changes the landscape, casts a new light on everything.  You can't look at anything the same way afterwards.  In St Paul in the Second Letter to Corinth again, when we're in Jesus Christ there's a new creation, nothing looks the same. 

So, we're beginning to build up a picture, I hope, of holiness.  It's not goodness, it's not a sort of extra special kind of goodness.  Because somehow it's not about competing levels of how good you are.  It's about enlarging the world, and it's about involving in the world.  A holy person is somebody who is not afraid to be at the tough points in the centre of what it's like to be a human being here and here and here.  And a holy person is somebody who in the middle of all that actually makes you see somebody new.  And I guess that all that, at the end of the day, boils down to something horribly simple and horribly difficult, which is that holy people, however much they may enjoy being themselves, just aren't obsessively interested in themselves.  They actually allow you to see, not them, but the world.  They allow you to see not them, but God.  You come away from them, not feeling, 'Oh, there's a remarkable bloke or blokes', you come away feeling, 'There's a remarkable world or there's a remarkable God', and even, 'What a remarkable person I am too'.  That's the transforming thing.  I think that's the acid test for identifying where holiness is.  And the horribly difficult thing, of course, is that you can't really do this by trying, because if you sit down and say, 'OK, I'm going to be completely unselfish and unselfconscious; every 20 minutes I shall check whether I'm being self-conscious, whether I'm being selfish; every 20 minutes I'll think whether I'm thinking ... oh, hang on', that's the problem - that's the catch in Christian holiness, that it happens when you're not thinking about you, which is why there are no sort of self-help books on being holy.  There are self-help books on being thin, there are self-help books on being an effective leader, there are self-help books on being a good cook, but I have yet to see a self-help book on being a saint.  I would be very, very suspicious if I saw one, because becoming holy is being so taken over by the extraordinariness of God that that's what you're really interested in, and that's what bounces off you to reflect on other people.  So, there's the catch: if you want to be holy, stop thinking about it.  If you want to be holy, look at God.  If you want to be holy, enjoy God's world, enter into it as much as you can in love and in service.  And who knows, maybe one day someone will say of you, 'You know, when I met them, the landscape looked different.'  And the who knows is important - we can't plan it, we can't organise for it.  And I think, you know, what goes for individuals goes for the Church itself.  Every so often people come up with these wonderful schemes for making the Church a holier place, which usually means, making sure that some people don't get in, or some people who are in get out.  A holy Church is of course a Church which is full of people a bit lke me at my best, and when the Church sits down and tries to become holy in that way, it almost always ends up in an appalling mess.  Exclusive, anxious, and self-conscious.  Am I really being conscientious enough, am I really being pure enough?  Are they really being pure enough?  Surely not!  Whereas the Holy Church is a Church that is taken over by the excitement of the extraordinariness of God, a Church that wants to talk about the beauty and splendour of God, and wants to show the self-draining, self-forgetting love of God by being at the heart of humanity, by being where people are most human. 

So being holy is certainly being unselfish, but not in the sense of, again, having a policy about how to become unselfish, but being so interested in God and the world that you don't really have too much time to brood on yourself.  And we're all called to it, and we're all in Jesus' spirit empowered for it, because the spirit of Jesus is the spirit that constantly renews in us the ability to pray with integrity and conviction; to pray to God intimately, as to a parent, to say Abba, Father, that's what the spirit does.  And, 2 Corinthians again, 'The Lord who is the spirit uncovers our faces and', as I was saying earlier this afternoon, 'shows us the glory that's around'.  The spirit is peeling off the layers of illusion and defensiveness, so we can see things as they really are.  And I like to think occasionally too that this means that a really holy person is a bit like a great artist or a great musician, or a great poet.  They make us see what we'd otherwise miss; they make us see dimensions and depths in the world that we might not otherwise spot.  Not every artist is a saint by any manner of means.  Some of them are conspicuously selfish bastards - artists, poets, and others.  But somehow in their work, in their work they forget themselves enough for something to come alive, to come through.  And the saint, the holy person, is I guess somebody who decides to make that kind of artwork out of their lives, to let something come through, to let a bigger world appear, and a new light and a new landscape.

We start, then, on the path of holiness, by two very simple things - simple in this case meaning difficult as before - and that is looking, looking at Jesus, looking at what God is like, looking at the Gospel, looking at all that that means, and by exploring.  Exploring where human beings are, what their needs are, and what they are calling you to do.  How you may help make them more human.  Those two things, the looking and the exploring in the human world around you, those are the only things that could possibly give any foundation to self-help advice on being holy, which as I say doesn't really work anyway.  But start there, and who knows.  That, I think, takes us a bit further towards what I think is the really biblical idea of holiness.  Jesus' holiness, which is going into the heart of the suffering and the trouble of humanity, and at the same time changing the landscape, the new creation.  And just so that I don't leave you with the impression that the Old Testament and the New Testament are saying something completely different things on this, I suppose that in the Old Testament that sense of the danger of holiness is a way of getting us to think of just how alarmingly different the world can be when God is really around.  One of the most powerful images, I think in the Old Testament is when Solomon dedicates his new temple and prays that the presence of the Lord may fill it, and the presence of the Lord does fill it, and we're told it's like a thick, choking cloud coming down on the temple so that the priests of the temple can't stay there.  What a picture.  Solomon finishes this great service of the dedication of the temple and down comes the glory of God and the priests are running away from the temple because the glory is so intense they can't breathe.  Now, that gives you a sense of danger all right, but the danger is all to do with just how different it is, and therefore just how much we have to change in order to cope with it, and I think in that sense you can see the connection, and that's why people have talked about the Glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ being from some points of view a terrifying reality because of just how far we have to travel, just how much we have to change for us to be able to live with it.  In the Eastern Orthodox Church on the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of the prayers that's said is a thanksgiving to Jesus for having revealed his glory to your Apostles on the Holy Mountain as far as they were able to bear it.  As far as they were able to bear it, because it's a big change, it's a long way, and the holiness that in one sense gives us life, enhances our joy, is also terrifying because of that level of change, conversion. 

So, a few thoughts.  But any questions or reflections you have on this or other things, I would be very happy to hear what you want to say, so over to you really.

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