My husband and I lived in Vancouver for three years while I worked on my theology Masters. While we were there, I made three distinct attempts at being holy. Each year the faculty encouraged students to go on retreat. My first retreat took place at the VanDusen Botanical Gardens. It was Autumn term. I took my Bible and journal and headed off to a green space in the hope that, like the Buddha, I would be able to sit meditatively under a tree and let holiness descend. In the event, I got bored, picked up fallen leaves to dry, and left, holyless, via the garden gift shop.
For my second attempt I pushed the boat out, literally. James and I ferried to Gambier Island, rented a cosy cabin on the beach, walked, picked blackberries, and watched the sun go down. I read my Bible and reflected (a little), but the highlight of the expedition was without doubt going to sleep to the sound of lapping waves, and staring vacantly out at the horizon.
In my final year of college, I was determined to take this retreat business by the horns and give holiness a real go. We woke at dawn, boarded a Greyhound bus and drove and then hiked through the pouring rain to a monastery. On arrival, we were shown to our room, given a tour, and invited to join the monks for daily prayer, which we did, and at which I embarrassed myself—good Protestant that I am—by getting hopelessly disorientated in the church, sitting in the stalls with the monks instead of at the other end with the regular folk. Salvation came the following morning in the form of an all day breakfast. My lasting impression, however, was that holiness is a hard place to get to.
Earlier this year Drew Dyck wrote an article for Christianity Today in which he put the case that we have in some ways forgotten the holiness of God. God’s holiness is God’s primary attribute. Dyck describes God as ‘radically different from us…ontologically dissimilar, wholly other, dangerous, alien, holy, wild’ and supports his presentation with overwhelming visions of God in Scripture as ‘consuming fire,’ ‘Judge of all the earth,’ overpowering, blazing, brilliant. I don’t take issue with that. I do however think that there’s more to God’s holiness than that.
It’s curious to me that in Jesus’ day, one priest once a year could enter the temple’s Holy of Holies, and yet Jesus, God incarnate, went nowhere near it. Evangelicals are often accused of making God too chummy and tame but if you ask me, Jesus started the rot, because Jesus did away with distance. He bridged the gap between God and people. Jesus came as a baby needing to be held. He entered a culture which kept God at a distance, claiming that God was in fact very close. He demonstrated this with actions that seemed to bring heaven to earth, all the while mixing with the kinds of people who could make a person ritually unholy. To cap it all off, when asked by his disciples how to pray, Jesus told them to begin by calling God Daddy. That’s about as homely and close as you can get.
This changes everything. Holiness is no longer a matter of shielding our gaze, of finding a quiet moment or of chasing monks up mountains. Being holy means to be holy in the manner that Jesus is holy, acknowledging the tremendous lengths God has gone to to get close to us, and allowing him possibly closer yet.
With God’s help, it’s even possible for me.