Two days ago I was in a coffee shop in Denver. It was a nice, sunny day so the sidewalks were bouncing with people, enjoying the last stretch of this year’s warmth.
At one point, coming down the sidewalk toward the coffee shop, I saw a nun in full habit, rounded off with white New Balance sneakers.
It suddenly hit me: When you’ve devoted your life to the Lord through the expression of celibacy, you don’t really worry about looking good or stylish. I envied that freedom.
As the nun drew nearer, I began to notice something fascinating.
Wherever she went, people fell silent.
Out of discomfort, some college kids she passed cracked jokes and giggled softly. Many people stared. She was the most beautiful thing I had seen all day.
There’s this post I’ve been working on for years and still can’t seem to get it right. I may be drawing near and publish it later this week, but the title is: DO PENANCE.
Without giving too much away, there was a rainy spring day in Chicago several years ago. And I saw a holy man.
I’ll never shake the image from my mind as long as I live.
He was wearing pale sackcloth from head to toe, and on the breast of the shirt, in bold red print, were two words: DO PENANCE. The man was in his 50’s, and he was on his knees before a giant painting of Jesus. In the pouring rain.
I found out he barely knew English, but even without words he painted an image across my mind I’ll always return to.
In 2014, I attended a conference in Kansas City and one of the speakers was talking about ‘holy men’. He mentioned a photographer who traveled the world, interviewing and photographing various expressions of the world’s holy men.
It fascinated me.
It painted an entirely new portrait of the meaning of the word ‘holy’ and what it means to be a holy people. The men in these photos were nothing short of astounding and utterly different from the rest of the world with their facepaint and dreadlocks taller than they were. They had chosen to pursue something invisible; something transcendent. To them, these invisible entities were somehow more real than the material things the rest of the world chases.
Looking at their faces, I was drawn into their world. It was obvious that they inhabited a different planet than the rest of us, their experience so vastly different from ours. I wondered if these images were not far off from what the biblical prophets in the Old Testament would have looked like.
Ezekiel was instructed to lie on his left side for 390 days straight. Then he had to bake his bread over his own feces.
What do people like this look like, and what draws them to do such wild feats? Either they are truly mad, or they have come into contact with something so profoundly otherworldly that they are more sane than the rest of us.
Holy things stir us.
The word holy, most simply, means set apart. Different from the rest.
The small population inhabiting the sidewalk the other day fell silent in the presence of a ‘holy woman’, a woman who had devoted her life to the pursuit of the transcendent and would not be sidetracked. She said nothing. She did nothing but walk by.
But the world is hungry for holy things.
Whether we admit it or not, I think all of us are thirsting for more than what Hollywood and television can feed us. We are stuck in the same cycles of shopping for new clothes, trying to impress others, and building our own image.
All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again. All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye will not have its fill of seeing, Nor is the ear its fill of hearing. That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
We are hungry for more than all this.
We are hungry for the holy.
We reach a point where we’ve fed our addictions as much as they can consume; our eyes have become so numbed and desensitized that we don’t even enjoy our hedonistic feasts any more. Our tongues have tasted every flavor known to man and our stomachs have plumped out in gross gluttony.
And where does this leave us? Hungry for more.
Yes, we are a culture starved for the holy. For something so much more real than what we can see and touch.
There are days I feel so lonely I want nothing more than a warm body to curl up with before a good film; someone to share my thoughts and frustrations with. Yet in my better moments, I remember that these longings, though not necessarily evil in nature, pale in comparison to the sweetness of Jesus. After all, the father of all playboys died recently and even 1,000 bedmates were not enough to satisfy his carnal ache.
There are times I assume I’ll be satisfied once I sell my lemon and get a nicer car, or land a more respectable job.
But all of these things are dust on the sandals of holier men. Shiny cars, beautiful homes, and hot girlfriends do not cause crowds to fall silent the way the elderly nun did earlier this week. There is odd and quiet power in holiness, though it looks nothing like that of the world.
Men buy unnecessarily gigantic trucks and spend hours in the gym to become more ‘powerful.’ Women shop and diet to attract others. But to what end? How fascinating is another pretty face or swollen bicep?
I am fascinated by the holy; by those men and women who have decided that their lives will not look like the lives of the world. I’m amazed by people who forgo sex for 70 years in order to experience substantive ecstasy, or those who pilgrimage or preach. I’m fascinated by the stories of the prophets: Tortured, discarded and outcast. And WEIRD.
You don’t need to alienate your friends and family to live a holy life, however. By no means am I a normal person, yet people are absolutely mind boggled that I am a 26-year-old virgin. We can pursue the holy in our daily practices and routines.
Do you use your body in ways that reflect a desire for the holy?
What about your money? Your time?
Francis Schaeffer asks, How then shall we live?
God calls us to be a holy people. And I wonder if that means we will be weird. We will stand out. The world won’t understand why we do what we do. It doesn’t have to. It’s glued to its material pursuits while we have forsaken them for something higher, something transcendent,
May we learn how to become more holy, more different, more weird. May we leave our lusts for material goods in the garbage and cling to the invisible. May we be led by the Spirit into poverty and brokenness that we may truly be healed. May we reconcile our fleshly hunger with the Bread of Life, the Well who won’t run dry, the Holiest of the holy.