A Swath of daffodils lay dying in St James's Park, London.
Somebody had ripped them up. The psalmist's words, "O worship the
Lord in the beauty of holiness," had fallen on deaf ears.
On one level, this was no more than thoughtless vandalism, the
destructive outcome of a night's drinking. Reflect further, though,
and you might conclude that it was a symptom of a deeper malaise, a
defiant rejection of respect, and a two-fingered salute to the
Such a despoiling of glory is the outcome of a personal
philosophy that is egocentric and nihilistic. Only the self matters
in such a world. Introduce the concept of holiness, however, and
all is transformed.
Holiness, though, is a loaded word. Only too often, it gives
birth to negative images of seraphic faces peering from
Pre-Raphaelite canvases; of pious kneeling in a stone-cold church.
It reeks of sanctimonious believers frowning distastefully on the
sinful world and preachinga joyless life, bereft of alcohol,
laughter, and sex.
This is a parody of holiness, and certainly not biblical. Moses
found holiness not through wearing a hair shirt, but by seeing that
God's glory in the burning bush turned the whole world into divine
ground. The Lord's Prayer does not exhort us to flagellate
ourselves, but to hallow God's name.
The road to holiness is not oneof grim deprivation, but of
im-mense gain. It is a transformative, creative process, which
leads usto respect every aspect of God's creation - and it often
takes a lifetime.
Under its benign influence,we come to see that there is
aninsoluble mystery, a profound sacredness at the heart of the
St Augustine felt this strongly: "What is this which gleams
through me and smites my heart without wounding it? I am both
a-shudder and a-glow." Rudolf Otto, the early-20th-century German
theologian, called it a "mysterium tremendum", an
awe-filled awareness that leaves us trembling.
To experience this, we need only to peer through a telescope at
the Orion nebula, observe the birth of a baby, view the Alhambra at
dawn, or look at a rare orchid. The mysterium tremendum
can be found in the depths of prayer, in half-light, music, drama,
or through falling in love.
However we experience it, our world will be reorientated, and
our vision enriched. It urges us to pass through and beyond our
tired, depressed perception of what the world is, to that place
where the light thins, the barriers between heaven and earth melt
away, and eternity is close.
We need to cock a snook at the world's harsh realities, and come
to share Wordsworth's vision: "There was a time when meadow, grove
and stream seemed bathed in celestial light."
This is not just a theological game. Nor is it an endeavour to
out-do our neighbour in sanctity - that leads to spiritual
bankruptcy. The pursuit of holiness is no less than the search for
We have no more potent weapon with which to manage life.
Approach the world with respect, and our hearts will be green and
eco-friendly, deploring the litter of decaying nuclear material,
the poisoned landfills, and extinction of species.
Apply the mysterium tremendum to humanity, and the
prospect is even rosier. Violence, abuse, war, and hatred fade
away. Holiness is the womb from which new worlds are born. Fired
with it, we can emerge into a God-filled, hope-enfolded future.
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest living in