What does it mean to be holy?
My image of holiness is my grandmother–quiet, kind, gentle, endlessly patient, a servant to all. I can’t remember her ever complaining about anything or anyone. She loved babies. She made the most delicious wild blackberry pie that I cannot replicate, no matter how many times I try. She lived a simple, small life tucked into a wild corner of the continental United States, unknown to any but her family, her church, her neighbors. This is holiness as purity.
But there’s a different kind of holy, too. The holy weird.
This is the holiness that looks odd, eccentric. The holiness that speaks strange. The holiness that rebuffs, demands, and fails, requiring the sacrifice of our sacred idols. This is the holiness that says “bulls–t.”** It’s the holiness that rips our delusions from us, sometimes ruthlessly. The holiness that puts on no pretense and does not soften the truth in the name of “kindness.”
I’ve been thinking about holiness because in a few weeks I’ll be teaching Frederick Buechner’s magnificent novel Godric. Godric of Finchale was a real person–an eleventh- and twelfth-century ascetic and hermit–and he cut no quaint grandmotherly figure.
He was a merchant and sailor for a while, and there is some suggestion that he got a little pirate-y. But he abandons his pirating ways after a spiritually transforming conversation with Saint Cuthbert, who happened to be dead at the time but who nevertheless gave good advice. So Godric builds a little hermit hut for himself in the wild North of England, where his best friends are two snakes. (Didn’t see that one coming, did ya?)
Buechner’s Godric is brutally honest with himself about his less-than-holy tendencies, and he’s constantly attempting to undercut the hagiography being written about him by Reginald of Durham:
“I started out as rough a peasant’s brat and full of cockadoodledoo as any. I worked uncleaness with the best of them or worse. I tumbled all the maids would suffer me and some that scratched and tore like weasels in a net. I planted horns on many a goodman’s brow and jollied his lads with tales about it afterward. I took up peddling as my trade. I cozened and tricked the way a baker yeasts his loaves till they are less of bread than air. I passed off old for new. I thieved and pirated. I went to sea. Such things as happened then are better left unsaid. …
There’s much you’re better not to know, but know you this. Know Godric’s no true hermit but a gadabout within his mind, a lecher in his dreams. Self-seeking he is and peacock proud. A hypocrite. A ravener of alms and dainty too. A slothful greedy bear. Not worthy to be called a servant of the Lord when he treats such servants as he has himself like dung, like Reginald. All this and worse than this go say of Godric in your book.”
One thing you have to hand to the medievals–they recognized the holy weird when it showed up.
Of course, viewed in a certain light, almost everyone in the Bible is weird–Jesus most of all. I mean, he tells people to eat his body and drink his BLOOD, right? And the disciples? They leave their perfectly respectable jobs to wander around with some homeless dude for a few years. Judas is clearly the most sane, the most adult one of the bunch and, well…Judas.
But what about us? Where is the holy weird in our lives, I wonder? We love to sanitize, polish, airbrush, and filter our social-media selves. The holy weird isn’t a great personal brand, you know? That stuff doesn’t Instagram well.
In a few weeks I’ll ask my students these questions:
What makes you weird? And how does that weirdness connect with holiness?
Or put it the other way around–how might holiness make you weird?
There’s one thing I know for sure about my own holy weirdness…
It doesn’t involve snakes.
**Yeah, yeah. I recognize the delicious irony.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College in Pennsylvania.