Can holiness be attained?

Critique of the term holiness.

                 Even to posit holiness as an attainment is to be facile and miss the entire point of the search for the Divine. Anthony de Mello sj, attempted in his two volumes of The Prayer of the Frog to systematically destroy our concepts of sanctity. He did this by not defining what holiness is, but certainly, what it is not; e.g. it is not being holy to carry on praying when one’s brother needs one’s help just to feel secure in fraternal love. It is not asking one’s surroundings to be quiet so that one can pray by rote useless mantras which one doe not even understand. The late Bhagavan Osho, in his talks on Zen[1], spoke of holiness as just being conscious of all our senses; of being at peace with our inner desires and compulsions. While both Fr. de Mello’s definition of holiness and Osho’s understanding of holiness are to say the least, at odds with traditional formulas of holiness by the mainstream religions, yet to this author, they appear more authentic for our own times. Yet it would not be amiss at this stage to recapitulate more conservative and acceptable understandings of holiness and the methods to attain it.


Traditional views of holiness, in the majors religions of the world[2].


St. Ignatius of Loyola was before his accident and subsequent inner conversion, was a tempestuous youth. He decided to become holy and did this: every month he chose to emulate one Saint and the latter’s characteristic virtue[3] e.g. he wanted to be as poor as St. Francis of Assisi, ; he wanted to be as interiorly-turned as St. Bruno, the Founder of the Carthusians etc. Thus, to help his fellow pilgrims on their journeys to find God he wrote his famous Spiritual Exercises. This particular handbook had its technical origins in such works as Aristotle’s Poetics, a “how to”  book which deals with the techné of dramaturgy. The Renaissance and the period just preceding it, was a time when such works dealing with the techne of the interior life was composed. We have Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, much earlier we have  the set of instructions for consecrated Virgins in the Ancrene Wisse (also known as Ancrene Riwle) or Guide for Anchoresses. Then, there is the famous Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales. All these handbooks for holiness, if one can call these as such, have their bases in the Holy Bible and especially in the different set pieces of commandments that we have there: the Ten Commandments with their positive and negative exhortations; the Beatitutdes of Jesus and the various epistles penned by the Apostles. Within the Eastern traditions we have the best techné for the spiritual life set out in the Bhagavad Gita; for example, the different ‘yogas’ map various terrains for possible attainment of holiness. We have, for example, the aphorisms of Kabir to guide us to holiness and within the Buddhist traditions, we have theTripitakas enshrining all of the Buddha’s teachings. In fact, the Buddha clearly delineated the Middle Path as a means of attaining holiness. Then we have the Dao of Lao and the later works of Confucius to lead a holy and ethical life. They form the traditional global corpus on methodologies of attaining holiness and further include such works as the Jewish Torah and the Talmud. All these canonical works on spirituality see holiness as a state of life which is attainable and take for granted the fact, that such a state is also primarily desirable over all other statuses in life. These attitudes and presumptions need to be critiqued not for the sake of some destructive intellectual exercise but to interrogate them in the light of Postmodernism and the philosophies thereof,  including those of Foucault, Derrida, Negri and now, Agamben. Theory is only jargon for those who do not understand it.


Holiness in the light of contemporary philosophy.


Holiness, in the light of contemporary metaphysics can be considered as the logos which has been constructed as a physical, spiritual state that has to be reached. In effect, within the traditional tropes of religious paradigms, man is still seen through the lens of medieval philosophies and is constructed as a  pilgrim in both eastern and western philosophies. The human person is seen as a traveller in life and trying to reach a certain socially constructed idea of himself which in fact is just what the  bourgeoisie wants spirituality to be all about. Thus, we have the discourse of holiness which as a meta-narrative of ethical behavior acts as an exclusivist discourse which conveniently by-passes Jesus’ exhortation to not be judgmental of others. The very existence of the concept of holiness as a sign or even, as a tangible existence, is a proof that elitist forces want to marginalise a large part of our population as not sufficiently mature enough to accept the truth or the urgency to be holy. Thus, we see that holiness itself is a repressive mechanism that silences all other discourses and suppresses all heteroglossia. Holiness, seen as a metaphysical concept tends to spill over into the realms of lived existence only to titillate us with its reality when it is unreal and unjust itself ( see Jean Baudrillard for the nature of the real). This author thus sees holiness with suspicion and deep misgivings that it might in fact be what Anthony de Mello sj aptly termed as “the holiness game”. To be, with all one’s existential burdens, both not so appealing and attractive; to be even totally obnoxious and to just being oneself may be more real than being holy within any religious or ethical traditions.


Japanese concepts of Holiness and literature as an aid to attain sanctity.


The Japanese have the concepts of both the “shibumi” and the highly refined art of the “ikebana” or the calculated cultivation of plants. The former concept refers to a state defined as: “ Japanese taste may be summed up in the word shibumi (or shibui as we now spell it), which stands for all that is quiet, delicate and refined . . . austerity in art without severity.”[4] Ikebana, or “the traditional art of Japanese flower arrangement”,[5] is for this author, the essence of holiness. Both shibumi andikebana, the former being an abstraction which finds expression in the latter are ineffable and intangible; we cannot fathom their natures. This is the nature of holiness. It is what the poet Keats called “ the sad song of Ruth”:

…the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.

Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?[6]


Holiness is realising that we cannot ever know whether we “wake or sleep”. It is jouissance which is at once fully physical and at the same time meta-physical and accessible only through the mysterious world of myths and literatures all over the globe. Holiness elides and eludes the seeker. It is said of Buddha’s most bright disciple, Ananda, that when he tried very hard to become holy, his days would end in frustration. Then one night, he simply gave up the desire to attain Buddha-hood, and fell at long last into deep sleep. The next morning he woke up an enlightened being.

The author of this paper recommends the reading of literary classics in any language to become holy. There is nothing comparable to the ambiguities inherent in literature that comes close to the slippery nature of holiness. Literature fluctuates between this lived world and another world of incomparable beauty which mimetically represents the dazzling splendor of the sun of Brahman/Yahweh.


[1] See Osho. Osho on Zen: a Stream of Consciousness Reader. Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 2001.

[2]Tanqueray, Adolphe. The Spiritual Life. Tan Books, 2001, for example , was one of the bestselling Catholic how-to books to attain sanctity.

[3]See Rose, Stewart. St. Ignatius Loyola and the Early Jesuits. London: Burns and Oates, 1891 for an eminently readable life of the Saint.

[4] See  Clay Lancaster, The Japanese Influence in America (New York: Walton H. Rawls, 1963), v. This book is one of the very few scholarly books to touch upon this concept of the ‘shibumi’.  For the popular novel, see Trevanian. Shibumi. New York: Crown Publishers, 1979. This novel is a major commentary on this Japanese concept. I consider this fictional and mimetic representation of ‘shibumi’ as more worthwhile than any dictionary meaning of the term.

[5]”‘Harmony through Ikebana’,” Manila Bulletin, 7 April 2005.

[6] Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats.

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