From Wholeness to Holiness

Three years ago I reflected on today’s Mass readings in these words:

Isaiah is the poet of Advent. We begin the Church’s new year at a time when the earth is dark, quiet, strangely still, and we are asked to open our hearts and minds to embrace a silence that stretches beyond the furthest star — the silence in which the Word of God takes flesh and comes to live among us. But because we need words with which to understand that silence, lyrical words that will speak to us even when we would rather not hear, the Church provides us with many readings from the prophet Isaiah. . . . Isaiah must have been a man of  deep and persevering prayer, at home with silence, for in his words we find an echo not only of messianic joy but also of messianic fervour. Today he is supremely joyful and eloquent about that most awkward and uncomfortable thing, living with integrity (Isaiah 11. 1–10).

Integrity is not for the faint-hearted. It is panther-like in its grip on honesty; wolf-like in its tireless pursuit of truth; lion-like in its refusal to give way. It is often disparaged by those who are not themselves honest or truthful because, for all the demands it makes, integrity is rather unspectacular. It is one of those quiet virtues that can turn the world upside down, and it is very much what we are asked to practise in these days of Advent. Today’s gospel (Luke 10.21–24) talks about the hiddenness of the Kingdom, the messianic promise fulfilled but not recognized. We, who are watching and waiting for the coming of the Lord, need to be alert to the signs of his presence. Living with integrity is an important way of ensuring that we will be ready to welcome the Word when he comes, but it must not be a glum, self-regarding integrity. It must be radiantly joyful, free, full of the poetry of love and devotion. (abridged)

Today I would want to add this. The Latin root of the word ‘integrity’ contains important notions of being whole, consistent, yet how often do we hear people speak of their feeling broken, not being themselves, as though their inner core of stability had crumbled under the weight of events? How often, too, in response to some unexpected behaviour, do we say of others, ‘he acted out of character’ or ‘that wasn’t like her’? We expect consistency and a degree of predictability from both ourselves and others, but it does not take much to unsettle us. Is there something here we need to think about?

Advent, with its invitation to set out into the unknown, can be a bewildering experience but can also, if we allow it, make sense of much that ordinarily puzzles us. We are asked to let some of the concerns of other times fall away so that we can  spend more time in prayer and reading the scriptures, or, at any rate, in conscious reflection on how we live as Christians and respond to the Lord’s call. To live with integrity is not merely to act with honesty, it is to live from the central core of our being — only most of us are too busy and preoccupied to discover what that is. Perhaps this Advent we are being asked not only to live upright lives but also to learn something about ourselves we never knew before. It may prove painful or difficult or something we are tempted to shy away from, but there can be no real holiness without some degree of self-knowledge — call it truthfulness about the self, if you like. There is thus a direct connection between wholeness and holiness all the saints have recognized.  So, a useful question for today might be, are we ready to risk being made whole, that we may become holy? Are we ready to become people of integrity?

A prayer intention for today: let us pray for all whose integrity is relied upon by others; those whose lives have been scarred by a lack of integrity or whose integrity has been questioned; those who are broken and in need of healing (which includes all of us, one way or another).