Come, Holy Spirit, Sanctify Our Lives!
Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon
The cry for transformation and sanctification corresponds to the deepest longings and desires of the human being. The world as it is, our existence, as it actually is, needs transformation. We cannot be content with things as they are. We must change ourselves and the way things are; but how?
There are two ways of asking the Holy Spirit to be involved in any process of transformation leading to holiness. One is to ask him to assist with our efforts. This is the way of ethics: we do the planning, we make the efforts, and the Spirit is asked to help. The other way is to leave everything to the Spirit. We do nothing but pray, and leave everything to the Spirit. Both of these extremes are wrong, but of these two the first one is probably the one we have to watch out for more carefully at this time of widespread rationalism and planning.
The Spirit seems to have an obsession with freedom. He blows where he wills, and does not like to be told what to do. We must certainly try, and we must definitely do our best, but when we pray for the Spirit to come we must be prepared for the unexpected. Our computers may well prove to be wrong or even useless.
Sanctification has always been associated with the specific operations of the Holy Spirit since the time of the Church Fathers. But the way this sanctification and the holiness that results from it have been understood through the centuries has turned spirituality into a concept almost irrelevant for the world at large.
A certain aristocracy and elitism are often associated with spirituality. Does the Spirit transform and sanctify only certain individuals, or is it rather poured “upon all flesh” as the prophecy of Joel has put it? How can we make the concept of holiness relevant today?
The Ethos of Holiness
Holiness means setting apart someone or something for God. The ethos of holiness requires an attitude towards all that exists (our bodies, our minds, the material world, etc.) as is fit by nature belonged to God. We cannot own ourselves, our bodies, our lives, our natural resources - they belong to God. We are there in the world as the priests of creation endowed with the privilege of referring creation back to its Creator.
This eucharistic ethos is the first thing that we need today at a time of severe ecological crisis. This is a spirituality that flourished in the desert Fathers, but has been forgotten in the meantime. It has to be recovered urgently, now that we need to be redeemed from humanistic and human-centered attitudes to existence.
Holiness and Community
Holiness is often understood individualistically, as the transformation of an individual into a holy man, characterized by certain virtues and shining forth qualities of goodness, humility, love, etc.
But we tend to forget that when the Holy Spirit blows, He always brings about communion and therefore creates community. There is no such thing as holy individualism. All holiness stems from the communion of the Spirit. It is this that makes the church holy and at the same time so important for spirituality.
“One cannot be a Christian alone,” as the old Latin saying put it. It is because of the association of the Spirit with communion that the saying of St Cyprian, “There is no salvation outside of the Church”, must be taken seriously. Should we not look for a transformation of our ecclesial communities before we speak of sharing holiness and sanctification?
The structure, ministry, etc. of the community - what we call visible unity - cannot be irrelevant to holiness. It is a tragic reality that Christian communities do not recognize each other’s saints, because of division at the level of both or either faith and order. Holiness and ecclesiality cannot be separated. Praying for holiness must go together with working for unity.
Holiness and Freedom
Finally, holiness means liberation - or rather, freedom. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). Liberation is from someone or something; freedom is for someone or something. Both aspects are associated in the work of the Spirit, who is freedom. These take various forms:
liberation from the past-forgiveness through repentance (metanoia);
liberation from passions of egocentricity (askesis, healing one's self);
liberation from injustice, exploitation, poverty and all social evil;
liberation - yes! - even from decay and death - something we speak so little about;
freedom to love, even one’s enemies; to allow for personal, cultural and other differences and identities to exist and create; to give one’s life for the others as our Lord gave it on the Cross.
All this means that the Spirit has a great deal to say to the churches today through sanctification and holiness. We must work for a spirituality that will make sense for all human beings in all walks of life. Yet we must guard ourselves against an easy spiritualism. We often speak too easily and too quickly of the presence and the activity of the Holy Spirit in what we do. We must humbly submit what we are and what we do to his purifying judgment, awaiting for him to reveal the truth.
There is always the danger of confusing the Spirit of God with our own psychological experiences or certainties. The Spirit is God. He is Lord. He cannot be contained by our own feelings. The best we can do is to worship him as Lord, to pray to him to dwell among us, and to await patiently upon him in all that we do.