“God’s name is not known; it is wondered at.” —Gregory of Nyssa
What does it mean to experience holiness? I am ordained in a theological tradition rooted in the holiness stream. This is a tradition that has spent generations exploring not just whether holiness is possible (we believe it is) but also what holiness this side of heaven looks like. I have heard holiness described as victory over sin. I have heard holiness described as a process rooted in love. I have heard holiness described as an emotional experience, and I have heard holiness described as something practiced into formation. Often, however, we miss out on an important aspect of holiness: mystery.
Humanity lives on planet Earth, which is a 3,959-mile planet in what’s known as the solar system. This small collection of planets, our cozy little neighborhood, is roughly 7.44 billion miles wide (from Pluto to the sun). The solar system exists in one arm of a very average-sized spiral galaxy known as the Milky Way. Don’t let this average size fool you, though. The Milky Way is still one hundred thousand light-years across. Far from being alone, the Milky Way is part of a larger body known as the Local Group, which is a grouping of fifty dwarf galaxies. The Local Group is part of the Laniakea Super Cluster, which includes hundreds of groups, and the Laniakea Super Cluster is one of millions of super clusters in the observable universe—the observable universe being 93 billion light-years across.
The universe, suffice it to say, is massive.
Fascinatingly, the universe is so large, and is expanding at such a rapid rate, that even if humans could travel at the speed of light, we would never leave the Local Group. All the other groups would be moving away from us so quickly that we would never catch up. (If you want to learn more about the universe, this is a great place to start.) It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of creation. In thinking about the enormity of the universe, I find myself struck by the audacity of the call to holiness.
Nazarenes define holiness as “the work of God which transforms believers into the likeness of Christ.” This means we believe in the invitation of all people, in this life, to begin the journey of being transformed into the character of the triune God who binds the universe together. If we sit in this for a moment, the full weight of this realization can cause our heads to swim. For millennia, Christians have been attempting to give language to this journey, attempting to grapple with what this means for those who follow this path. Unsurprisingly, it comes out quite mysteriously.
In The Orthodox Way, Eastern Orthodox scholar Kallistos Ware shares a couple different descriptions with us of the holiness experience. He says that St. Gregory of Nyssa describes it as someone walking over the mountains in a mist: he takes a step forward and suddenly finds that he is on the ledge of a precipice, with no solid ground beneath his foot but only a bottomless abyss. Similarly, St. Symeon the New Theologian describes it as a person standing in a darkened room: they open the shutter over a window, and as they look out there is a sudden flash of lightning, causing them to stagger backward, momentarily blinded.
Jeanne Guyon reminds us in Experiencing the Depth of Jesus Christ that “God is an infinite stillness. [Our] soul, if it is to be united with the Lord, must partake in his stillness.”
So we are left with a question: what does it mean for a people called to the holy life to engage with the mystery of holiness?
Back in The Orthodox Way, Kallistos Ware describes mystery like this: “Our Christian ancestors teach us that holiness is an active paradox. We go out from the known to the unknown, we advance from light into darkness. We do not simply proceed from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge, but we go forward from the light of partial knowledge into a greater knowledge which is so much more profound that it can only be described as the ‘darkness of unknowing.’”
The journey into holiness isn’t a journey into better behavior. To make it so cheapens the depth and power of that which is happening within us, which is something eternal. Christian tradition teaches us that life doesn’t end after death. Furthermore, as finite beings, even upon entering heaven, we will still spend an eternity learning about and experiencing in greater and greater measure the character and love of God. God will continue to draw us inward for all of eternity and, because we are not God, we will spend an eternity learning about the depths of God. We will journey for all of eternity and will still never learn all there is to learn about God. Like a human-made spaceship zooming toward the outer edges of space, we will never reach the end of our journey. This is the invitation: to journey farther up and farther in, learning more and more, wading deeper and deeper into the river that calls us all home.
To become holy is to be restored. However, the fullest purpose of holiness is not simply better behavior. The point of holiness is to encounter the depths of God.
Will this journey have an impact on us? Absolutely. To encounter God is to find our hearts transformed and our minds renewed. To become holy is to be restored. However, the fullest purpose of holiness is not simply better behavior. The point of holiness is to encounter the depths of God. It’s the journey into a deeper and more mysterious faith—one that is rooted in the dynamic and self-emptying love of the Trinity—while paradoxically creating more questions than answers.
Holiness engages mystery; it does not run from it. It welcomes paradox and engages the questions paradox creates, and it invites us to stand in awe of that which we cannot explain.
My daughter is fascinated by the universe. We read books about planets, talk about satellites, and marvel at the moon through our telescope. She squeals in delight when the space station speeds overhead. She cares very little about the bureaucracy surrounding NASA or what the cost is to fund a manned mission to the moon. She doesn’t process the fiscal responsibility of launching the Voyager satellite. Her mind, instead, marvels at what might be found beyond the Kuiper belt. The draw of the unknown pulls her forward to learn more about creation and the God who formed it.
As Christians, maybe we would do well to remember this childlike wonder and draw toward mystery. As Ware powerfully expresses, “It is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery. God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.”