Among the “Tools for Good Works” in RB 4, St. Benedict writes: “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are, but first be holy that you may more truly be called so” (v.62). Nearly every time I hear these words read aloud or quietly read them to myself, I am blown away by the infinite wisdom contained in this simple statement. Verses 63 -73 of Chapter 4 provide concrete ways to “be holy,” which are quite helpful; however, the deeper insight of St. Benedict is contained in verse 62 all by itself.
The Latin verb velle means “to desire” or “to want” and is translated in RB 1980 as “aspire.” So, in this particular tool for good work, St. Benedict seeks to redirect the desire of the disciple’s mind and heart away from external appearances and toward cultivating authenticity from within. To remain focused on how others see us or whether they judge us as good, holy, or worthy of recognition is to be absorbed with our own ego. We are reminded of the Pharisee in one of Jesus’ parables who stood in the temple area praising his own righteousness (Lk 18:9-12). He was grateful not to be like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest and adulterous—or like the tax collector standing at a distance. Desiring the positive regard of others, whether it be deserved or not, leads us in the wrong direction. Persons who “strive to be called holy before they really are” tend to be so full of themselves that they have little room in their lives for God or for anyone else.
Being holy is an internal job, not an external one. It is a matter of an integrated mind, heart, and soul that seeks a genuine expression of godliness in thought, word, and deed. It is respecting others and treating them with loving kindness because they are seen as God’s own beloved daughter or son. There is no self-interest involved—no mark on the wall keeping score, no return of kindness expected.
Hyper-religious individuals excessively emphasize their own righteousness and regard it as an excuse to demean others who are not like them. (Remember the Pharisee described above.) Their religiosity is primarily external and ego-driven. Truly spiritual individuals, on the other hand, are deeply grounded from within by a genuine encounter with the Holy One; they have no need to impress or influence anyone else. Filled up with the being of God that dwells within them, they are driven into action through forms of service that utilizes their God-given talents and abilities for the good of others.
In truth, holiness is about be-ing much more than it is about do-ing. It is our vocation to be holy as the Lord God is holy (Lev 19:2). It is the be-ing that determines and directs the do-ing. St. Benedict, like all true spiritual wisdom figures, recognized this.
Holiness is not measured by the quantity of our prayers or the quality of our religious artifacts and sacramentals. Holiness is not about possessing titles or positions of power within religious circles. Holiness is about being inwardly aligned with the truth of who God is and what God desires for all of humanity and for all of creation. Holiness is a quality of being that is energized by God’s own being. Striving to be holy rather than to be called holy is a most precious tool for anyone serious about the spiritual journey. Thank you, St. Benedict for sharing this wisdom.
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB