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Take the road to holiness

25 April 2014

It is not deprivation, but immense gain, says David Bryant


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 numinous.

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 universe.

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 God.

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 Yorkshire.

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