One Kind of Holiness

I noticed something today when I visited a small Catholic bookstore in my town.

Every year or so I like to scan carefully the two shelves of bookshelves in this bookstore, seeing what sorts of books the owners select. This is a quite conservative bookstore which also often features displays on Mary. There are many spiritual classics (in the vein of Therese of Lisieux, not Merton), writings by the contemporary pope, and sections divided by sacrament, doctrine, or life topic. There was little by contemporary Benedictines I know — certainly nothing by Joan Chittister or other simultaneously prophetic and spiritual writers who have nurtured my faith for years.

But today I caught a whiff of something which animates those Catholics who want to live strictly by papal teachings that run against the grain of much of secular life (including the lives of many US Catholics) — like teachings on abstinence and the prohibition of birth control, and a poetically described gender essentialism that honors women’s callings to be mothers and wives and that identifies women as having traits distinctive from those of men. While my own life has never fit into such a gendered depiction, what I glimpsed as a theme running through many of the books I perused was a deep hunger for holiness — a holiness tied to a vision of a life that aims to conform to an ideal that is truly out of step with much of mainstream society, secular or not.

This is probably obvious to many Catholics who read this blog. But as someone Lutheran who was raised to be suspicious of anyone’s personal pretensions to holiness — “Only Christ is holy; we are all simultaneously saints and sinners saved by his grace!” — I’ve been only rather dimly of the degree of intensity some Catholics apply to the ideals of a life of personal holiness within the context of marriage and family. The quest for holiness as something tied to the religious orders –now THAT I could see and feel even as a young girl walking past the few Catholic nuns who lived in my town, hanging out on their front porch putting up laundry or chatting. And my historical training has taught me that only relatively recently have Catholics themselves begun to value (heterosexual) marriage and family with the same degree of sacral association they’d long given more readily to celibacy and holy orders. But holiness in families has become a vibrant living part of Catholic imagination today, nurtured by recent visitations of Mary whose messages convey values of a traditional family life as an ideal.

The Spirit speaks of holiness in a multifaceted way. I have better heard the voice of the Spirit testifying in movements for social justice — movements which name the effects of corporate sins like economic exploitation, racism, sexism, and our consumer-oriented lifestyles that blind us to planetary destruction. I’ve also sensed the Spirit’s movement in my ELCA Lutheran church, which recently decided to make space for individual congregations and synods to discern whether or not they would accept the ordination of persons in same-sex relationships or bless same-sex unions. While I sense the Spirit is at work challenging deep old prejudices here — much as Peter needed to be challenged by a vision from the Spirit to eat animals unclean to Jews, to make space for welcoming Gentiles into the church — I sense even more (and with pain) that the Spirit is at play in my national Lutheran church’s decision to make space for a genuine disagreement in scriptural interpretation and in conscience about the acceptability of same-sex relationships.

Since I’m in a relationship right now with someone (a fellow Lutheran) who believes that same-sex relationships are sinful and who is deeply caught by a vision of men and women as distinctive creatures meant to be in marital union with one another, I’ve become more aware of the power and the beauty to many of the ideal of heterosexual marriage as a God-given norm. It delights me (if also pains me) that human beings can disagree on this issue and still love one another deeply. My companion supports civil unions and accepts the reality of same-sex relationships, but is one who doesn’t want the church to lose its sense of the normative nature of heterosexuality. While I believe just as deeply that the diversity and quirkiness of God’s gifts to individuals (including diverse forms of family-making) should be supported and welcomed, I have become more sensitive to the pull for many of an older deeper vision of things.

What my visit to a traditionalist Catholic bookstore today added was a greater sense of the way, for some devout Catholics, an affirmation of family is tied to a hunger for holiness — beyond a sense of gratitude for the goodness of God’s gifts of community. The latter is a Lutheran affirmation, as is the conviction that we grow in our faith only together, in families and/or in community. But even though Luther thought men who changed their kids’ diapers were holier than men who enter a monastery, it’s some of today’s Catholics who have been developing a sacramental view of family that tastes a tangible holiness most vividly in a highly traditional, counter-cultural expression of family.

The Spirit speaks where and how she will — and perhaps in more ways than one.

2 thoughts on “One Kind of Holiness

  1. Hi, there is a similar bookstore near us. I only went once and it was also the Only time that I have been in a bookstore and didn’t buy anything. After reading this, I think I need to go again and take an open mind with me, to see what I can learn therein. Thanks.


  2. Hi Martha–
    I usually do find a few books at the store, for some kinds of devotional or spiritual reflection cross a wider audience. Plus it’s interesting to talk with the owners.


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