The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view


St. Columba, The Book of Kells

Something pure and good about Columba. Said to have died with a smile on his face after 30 years of running the monastery he founded at Iona. Diligent missionary. Righteous man. Holy.

Something strange about Anthony. Came in from the cold — well, the desert, which is hot and cold, probably the way hell is, or at least our idea of it — then went back. Probably wanted to die in that place where he felt closest to God. He was 18 years of age — eighteen! — when he divested himself of all he owned, which was considerable, and went into the wilderness with nothing. Alone.

It’s hard to imagine passing over to the subjective standpoint of either man, although part of me yearns to do so. Both severed themselves from lives they knew, and that frightens me. The part of me that yearns is the part that wants to know that species of holiness, that sense of set-apartness, that sense of the presence of God in every act, so pervasive it becomes ordinary, so ordinary it requires no sense of purpose. It’s just the way one is. Real. Really real.

It’s probably possible for anyone to take on holiness, to become holy, whether it’s here or there, far away or near. It seems that only a few actually take the steps — and I would think there’s no guarantee that holiness will be the outcome. Indeed, it’s probably more likely than not that holiness is elusive for most, even among those who step off in that direction.

Priests are called to a kind of holiness, though not the same sort as
that of the hermit or the monk. Priests are made holy in a certain way by ordination, whereas the sanctity of hermits and monks is rooted far more existentially. Ordination sets one aside for specific purposes, like a loaf of bread set aside for the Eucharistic table. Hermits and monks set themselves aside, so to speak, by betaking themselves elsewhere than
the usual patterns and modes of life for the special purposes of prayer and rule. Christian priesthood partakes of a kind of domestic holiness, that of the kitchen and the cupboard. Monastic vocations partake of something more adventuresome, more that of the moor or the mountain.

St. Anthony the Great

People may fail at both types of holiness. Many do. Few do not, although I’m sure there are more who do than meet the eye. True saints are more likely than not to be silent. Truth be known, too, most saints are not priests or monks or hermits but Christians made holy by baptism, the fundamental form of Christian holiness; Christians who live into their vows with intensity and courage, seeking the Lord where he wills to be found and calling upon him when he draws near.

Of course, not all Christians are saints. Probably most are not, but that’s not because it’s beyond reach. It’s because we let the world tell us it’s beyond comprehension. That’s the kind of world Anthony lived in, and he felt as though he had to do something radical in order to make a break from that incomprehensibility of holiness. The teachings of Jesus were clear, at least to Anthony. The understanding of the world was not, so Anthony moved out beyond the reach of cultural psychic clutter to let himself be enflamed by the love of God in the least cluttered place on earth. He heard the word to the rich young man, but didn’t turn away; instead, he took up his cross. He remained true to his vows. He fulfilled his vocation.

June 10, 2005


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