Holy Otherness

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

One fundamental dimension of holiness is otherness.  We find it perfectly in the transcendent God, Who does not lose His otherness even in drawing close. We who are called to be holy because He is holy (cf. 1 Pt 1:15-16) must approximate this otherness in our lives. Which is precisely where we draw back and hesitate about holiness. No, we do not want to be at odds with God…but neither do we want to be other. We do not want to be odd or weird or apart from the crowd.  We desire togetherness, not otherness.

00-james-jacques-joseph-tissot-the-pharisee-and-the-publican-1894But all this is to misunderstand otherness, as so many have done throughout history. The Pharisees — whose very name means “the separated ones” — founded their holiness on not being like other men (cf. Lk 18:12). As we heard last Sunday, our holiness must surpass theirs (cf. Mt 5:20) — that is, be of a different, nobler kind. If we take seriously the Gospel imperative to holiness (admittedly, a big “if”), we must understand this dimension of otherness.

To be other means to be rooted in and to draw life from the One Who is Other. God alone is the Holy One. We, in drawing every bit of our life from Him (or, rather, being aware that we already do), attach ourselves to His holiness. We become other because who we are and what we do does not come from this world. It comes from the Other and is going to Him. Thus Saint Paul exhorts the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). This is not a hatred of the world so much as a recognition that the Christian draws his life breath from beyond this world — that he allows all his thoughts, desires, words, and actions to be determined not by any worldly standard but by Him Who is Other.

Only with this in mind can we then grasp the negative component: that we must separate ourselves from what keeps us from God.  And that means, first and foremost, ourselves.

Only with this in mind can we then grasp the negative component: that we must separate ourselves from what keeps us from God. And that means, first and foremost, ourselves. We must sever ourselves from the worldly, rebellious part of us — the “old man” (cf. Rm 6:6). “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). What keeps us from God most of all is our own self-centeredness. To be other we need to reject our own way of thinking, speaking, and acting — and adopt His. 

Only after self-denial do we look to separating ourselves from the world.  To be other means that we do not shape our lives according to the world’s lust, vanity and pride (cf. 1 Jn 2:16). We will not be holy if we allow the world to shape how we think, speak and act. Nor will we be any good for the world. Which brings us to another point… 

398px-Transfiguration_Raphael“Other” does not mean aloof. One of the greatest mistakes is to think that the more we are distant and disconnected from things, the holier we are.  …As if sanctity can be defined simply by what it is not. Certainly the world proffers many evil things that infect our souls. Too many Catholics have neglected that truth. Thus Mother Church speaks of a “withdrawal” from the world. But the Catholic instinct has never been to barricade ourselves from the world. Our Lord is clear that we are to engage and evangelize the world, which we cannot do from a bunker. Even the most remote hermit withdraws from the world not to escape but to be with Being Himself and from that vantage point to pray for the world. As Jesus prayed for all His followers at the Last Supper: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou shouldst take them out of the world, but that thou shouldst keep them from the evil one” (Jn 17:14-15). Or, in a rephrasing of the old saw, We are not to be of the world, but in it.

We are not to be of the world, but in it.

Indeed, the otherness of a Christian — because it roots him more deeply in God Himself — enables him to draw close to each person. Because who is closer to all than God Himself? Mother Teresa’s mysticism did not make her less concerned for others. Padre Pio, while occupying the heights of holiness, was amazingly attentive to those he encountered. More to the point, it was because of their otherness, not despite it, that such saints loved their neighbors so concretely. It is a mark of the saints that in becoming other they were able to be more attentive to others.

It is a mark of the saints that in becoming other they were able to be more attentive to others.

“Other” does not mean odd. Certainly, the Communion of Saints has some eccentric members. But whatever quirkiness some may have possessed was not essential to their holiness.  We worry perhaps that the more we give to the Lord, the odder we will become. Of course, the world may indeed consider us “odd.” But that should disturb us only if the world as it is constitutes what is normal. Nevertheless, otherness does not require oddness. From the first Christians sought to live holiness — as our Lord did — in the midst of the world, as men and women who live, work, play, laugh and cry in the midst of everyone else…but with hearts set on heaven.

Ultimately, it is the otherness of Jesus Christ Who, in becoming one of us, did not lose what makes Him distinct from us. Indeed, He became one with us precisely so that He could communicate and bestow upon us what makes Him other. If He were not one of us, He could not enrich us. If He were not other, He would have nothing with which to enrich us.  So we Christians ought to enrich others with our presence…but always bringing that Otherness that truly enriches.

One thought on “Holy Otherness

  1. How do we reconcile this call to be in the world with that religious call for many to be cloistered, and completely separated from the world? Some cloistered religious communities have externs, are helped by those outside of the community, and they interface “in the world” through their invitation to the world to ask them for their prayers. And they do this good work very well. But there are two extremes: 1) religious who are actually out in the world (person-to-person) but not of the world and 2) religious who are cloistered (letter-to-letter or prayer request-to-prayer prayed) but not of the world. Both are necessary: the first tugs at those that are of the world to try to bring them to be “other” and the second tugs at those religious who are out in the world, and who need an example to draw them back to center with God.

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