by Michael Maciel
Much of what we call “holy” is based on a belief that the world is not. This is a great tragedy. It isn’t that we should behave as though everything is good and therefore we should get as much of it as we possibly can—to seek only pleasure and always avoid pain. That would be hedonism. Those who have tried that route usually find themselves miserable in the end. But those who hold themselves aloof from life, even as they are caught in its gears, also find themselves left with nothing more than a desperate hope that things will get better when they die. But is that any way to live?
Of all the theories I have heard of why we are here, the best one, in my estimation, is that we are here for one reason and one reason only: soul growth. Put another way, we are here to develop character. We are here to discover who we are, not what we’re not, although finding out what we’re not usually comes with finding out who we are. If there is some other reason why we’re here, I simply cannot imagine what it would be, not in a way that doesn’t sound like an elaborate hoax or a cruel fiction.
Look at it this way. Perfect parents would not only help their children grow up to be strong, capable adults, they would also help them discover their own innate qualities, the gifts they were born with, gifts that might even make them unlike their parents in significant ways. That would be remarkable parenting, would it not?—to help your children find their full self-expression even if who they really are runs counter to your standards and ideals. After all, in a perfect world, children aren’t clones—they eventually become people in their own right. They become evolution’s next step up the spiral of adaptation, not just physically but spiritually, too. And what they become (in a perfect world) will be larger and better adjusted than their forbearers.
But what about us, the children of God? If God is perfect, that doesn’t leave much room for exuberant self-discovery, does it. In fact, anything other than clone-ship would by definition be imperfect or (as religious folks like to put it) sinful. The very idea brings exuberance to a screeching halt. What’s there to look forward to in life if all you can ever be is “just like dear old dad”? And if you’re a woman—well, yours is an impossible task, isn’t it. Most girls don’t even want to grow up to be “just like” their mothers, either. They want (just like their brothers) to grow up to be themselves.
Now, I know we live in extraordinarily narcissistic times, but this is not narcissism. Wanting to be your own person is your soul’s most ardent desire. And as such, what could be more holy? We’re not talking about an infatuation with oneself, but a love affair with spirit. The soul is looking for full-blown self-expression, not a pretty picture of itself. If the soul is a living thing, then growing into its potential is its primary objective, not to get hung up in its own image. It wants to celebrate LIFE, not bask in its own undeveloped state. Children don’t care about being children (unless we teach them to). They care about playing. They care about tearing across the yard as fast as they can, not to get to the other side of the yard, but simply because they CAN. Running is the point, not to reach a goal (unless, to our shame, we teach them that that’s what they should want).
It’s the belief that there’s something wrong with the world that keeps us locked into false notions of holiness. It keeps us from surrendering to the opportunity that life is. Believing that the world is innately contrary to the will of God freezes us in a pathetic, undeveloped spiritual infantilism and unnecessarily drags out whatever difficult lessons we might need to learn. When it comes to suffering, I’m for the short kind. Why, in God’s name, make it worse? Just because there is SOME suffering doesn’t mean that it’s ALL suffering. If that were the case, then we would be forced to become narcissists, because such a dismal state could only lead us into a downward spiral of self-obsessed despair.
We cannot become holy by holding the world at arm’s length. We get holy by engaging with life in whatever form it presents itself. Buddha called it “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world,” which in mom-speak translates as “be grateful for what you’ve got, honey, and try to be nice.” And if that sounds trite, just think of what puffed-up ideas of holiness have done for people other than make them feel superior. If you’re too holy to be nice, then you’re too holy.
Sometimes, being holy means getting up and going to work. It means showing up when other people are expecting you. It means being thrilled to come home at night, to be ecstatic in the company of friends, to let somebody with only one item go ahead of you in the checkout line. Holiness finds its fullest expression in the simple things of life more easily than it does in lofty notions of the nature of reality. Chop wood, carry water. First the ecstasy, then the laundry. Suffer the little children to come unto me. Consider the lilies of the field. Smell the roses. And, most importantly, get off your high horse.
Being poor isn’t the way to go, either, but then neither is being wealthy. The soul wants only to be in the present moment. It hungers for the now. And it doesn’t much care about the contents of that moment, only that it be present to it when it happens. Be present. Be awake. Be IN your life and give thanks for it, even if it’s hard. It’s the fool who chases after things and manufactured ideals. The wise seek out what’s right in front of them, and they don’t move on until they have squeezed the last bit of nutrition from it.