Tuesday, May 11, 2021

What is Holy--part 2

(This is the second part of my presentation at St. Paul's, New Haven in 2002.)

II. What is 'holy' is what is other...

    Karen Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who writes about 'holy' in an astonishing way in her book A History of God.

    "When we use the word 'holy' today, we usually refer to a state of moral excellence."

    My first and foremost caveat regarding "holiness" is this: FORGET THE CONNECTION OF HOLINESS TO MORAL EXCELLENCE.

    Long ago reality ceased to exist for me in terms that can in any way be seen as good/bad, white/black, moral/immoral, holy/mundane., The 'moral landscape', if I might call it that, is, for me, a landscape painted in numberless shades of gray. For me...and for Karen Armstrong: she writes, "holiness..in Hebrew, kaddosh...has nothing to do with morality as such, but means 'otherness', a radical separation."

    Every time I sing the Sanctus during the Eucharist, I am tempted with the seraphs, to cry out: "Other, other, other, Lord God Almighty,"

    Holiness, for me, is radical other-ness. It is, in fact, the Holy that sets the boundaries up that allow me to know WHO I AM. I know who I am, in actuality, because 'I know what is other from me. I am a being defined and called into being by 'what I am not'. My existence is surrounded by and defined by that which is most definitely NOT 'my existence.' I am, in a way, an island of ME afloat in a sea of 'the Other'--a holy ocean.

(Here I draw out a precious, holy dead-thing from my pocket to offer you. I do so with great fear and trembling, but I have gone this far and must risk something for your time and attention.

    I grew up in a seven room apartment over a grocery store in Anawalt, West Virginia. Off my bedroom was a storage room--a rectangular room six feet by 15 feet. I would have made a great walk-in closet in a fancy house, but that was not its function. My mother kept the vegetables and fruits she canned on shelves there. Extra clothes were stored there. Things not-often-needed were kept there. Boxes of letters and neatly tied bundles of magazines and all our family photos were there on the shelves as well. My excess toys were there, scattered on the floor.

    I would sit in that room for hours sometimes. I would read there and play there and dream there and feel terribly, absolutely alone there from time to time. In that room it was easy for me to imagine that I was the only 'true' and 'real' thing in the world. Amidst the endless Bell jars full of applesauce and green beans and tomatoes and chow-chow and sweet and sour pickles...surrounded by winter coats and my father's WW II uniforms (encased in plastic) and the veritable wardrobe of dresses that were either too small or too large for my mother, depending on where she was in the eternal war she waged with her weight..beset upon by decades of unused and perhaps unusable Christmas gifts from our family--cheese plates for people who only ate Velvetta, twenty years of towel sets, candle holders for people who never lit a candle, candy-dishes for people at war with sugar, mixing bowl sets in pastel shades, a half-dozen pairs of house slippers that never fit my father's war-pained feet and enough salt and pepper shakers to start a new venue on E-Bay--in the middle of all that, I had the childhood fantasy that I was the only real/true living creature in the universe.

    I have mentioned these feelings of absolute uniqueness to few people, so I have no idea if others ever imagined they were the only true/real creature in the Universe or not. But I felt that, for years, in fact.

    For years the whole complexity of the cosmos boiled down to this: THERE WAS ME AND THEN, THERE WAS EVERYTHING ELSE.

    I'm not sure I can convey how terrifying, how bone-deep frightening it was to view the endless expanses of space and time while believing that all that was or is or ever can be could be neatly divided into two categories: Me and Not Me.)

    Whatever is NOT ME was 'holy'--and like the holiness Karen Armstrong writes about, "this sense of the Wholly Other cannot even be said to 'exist' because it has no place in our normal scheme of reality."

    As a small child sitting alone in what my family always called 'the other room', since it was one room that didn't have a name--I developed a keen and reliable sense of "otherness".

    "The Other Room"--what a remarkably theological name we called that small space chocked full of 'stuff'! The OTHER ROOM was where everything that wasn't us dwelled. And the stuff in that room could, in a real sense thought of as not 'existing' since it dwelled (if it can be thought of as 'dwelling' anywhere) outside the reality and place of my little family's 'scheme of reality'.

    And it was there--I swear to you on my mother's caned goods and my father's army uniform--that I began to understand that "I" existed in contrast to, over and against, as something different from 'all that was other from me'.

    Today--decades and eternities distant from my childhood's 'Other Room'--I still sit alone, reflecting on all that is 'not me'...astonished by the wonder of 'being me' as opposed to all that is 'other...and all that is HOLY...that isn't me.

    My God...the God I worship...my Wholly Other...what is Holy to me--like Yahweh Sabeoth--fills the whole earth.

    My maternal grandmother was a Holiness woman. She belonged to the Holiness People--a remarkably fascinating and little appreciated of American religious life. Her name was Lina Manona Sadler Jones and she was a sweet, wondrous 'holy' woman. I never saw my grandmother's arms until she was deep in the grip of dementia in a nursing home. She always wore long sleeves because for a woman to expose that much flesh would invite the baser instincts of men. And I never saw her hair down until she was in that nursing home, no longer 'herself'. The attendants would brush her hair--thin and pure and white by then--that reached down to her knees. A woman's hair was something else that would engage the baser instincts of me. So my grandmother always wore her hair in a tight bun on the back of her head, though she had not cut it for decades.

    (All of which is an aside about 'what is holy' to me. The Holy is usually 'hidden' and 'concealed'. I am convinced and am persuaded that we discover 'the Holy' by tripping over it in the dark. I do not believe that 'the Holy' is 'revealed' to us by God. I believe 'the Holy' is 'unconcealed' when we trip over it in the dark. I believe everything that is 'Holy' is already present with us, but hidden from view and understanding. I expect to 'REVELATION' from beyond this physical and psychic world. I have little patience with those who 'hear voices' and suspect them to be from God. I saw my 'Mam-maw's' arms and hair when she was beyond worrying about anyone seeing them--and they were 'Holy' to me, long hidden, finally unconcealed.

    I'm not pleased when people refer to Christianity as a 'revealed religion'. Judaism has such a claim to make. Yahweh Sabbaoth 'revealed' his holiness to the people of Israel. But then it 'filled the whole earth.' 

    I await no 'new revelation'. I just wonder around in the dark, kicking things over and 'unconcealing' what is Holy by my clumsiness. My grandmother, who did believe the Old Testament God was the One, True God, believed in revelation. My mother simply wasn't interested in that whole conversation. And I reject it. What a difference two generations can make!)

    The whole point of bringing up Lina Manona Sadler Jones--is that a great name or what?--is to remember how she divided, dissected, separated the world. For 'Sister Nonie', which is what everyone called her, life was sweet and simple. For her there were 'Church People' and every one else. And "Church People" were Holiness People or Nazarenes or Independent Baptists or folks from the Church of God. Everyone else was on the fast track to perdition--including United Methodists, Roman Catholics and those strange 'Piscopalians' from down in Welch.

    It is really helpful and convenient to be able to divide the universe into simple categories: fish or fowl, good or bad, liberal or conservative, 'Church People' or everyone else. 

    And I can do that about the Holy.

    What is 'wholly other' from me, is holy.

    That's what I learned in 'the other room' of my childhood and I'm sticking by it.




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some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.