When I was teaching at Montrose a decade ago, one wonderful student posed a challenge. She was smart, accustomed to getting A’s without much work. In class, she often pulled out a mediocre novel she was reading for fun; asked to come on back to class, she said she had done the reading, and asserted further – accurately – that she was ready to write an excellent essay on the assigned reading. I didn’t pull rank; I argued. I said that the first time you read a great book is a good start, but no more than that; subsequent re-reading gets better and better. Then I said I could offer a new and interesting insight about the same short reading every day for 30 days.
Maybe I cheated: I chose the reading from today’s Gospel, the “Magnificat.” It is a simple and moving song of love, attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, when she visits her cousin Elizabeth, and the two pregnant women share insights and joy.
Around day 28, I came to class unprepared, and had to wing it. I had had a glimmer the night before, but my mind was blank when we started the passage. I had 60 seconds to get it together.
What I said was, Mary says that God’s name is holy, but I have almost no idea what “holy” means. A Georgian firebrand (that’s Caucasus Georgia, not America’s South), Boris, promptly offered a dictionary definition: “dedicated to God, belonging to God.” Great, I said, but what doesn’t belong to the Creator of everything? That definition seems to cover every single thing that exists. So it’s not a particularly helpful definition. I need something else.
Mother Teresa is (was at that time) not physically attractive: knotted hands, twisted feet, outsize nose. But when people look at her face, especially her eyes, they talk about her beauty. What are they talking about? I am not sure, but I think they are talking about her holiness. When you look at her face, you see that she sees joy and beauty.
So for now, I take “holiness” to be a subset of beauty, referring to a visible quality that is related to a perception of joy. That’s not a satisfactory definition; it’s a stumbling first step. But it’s better than pious fuzz.
One student responded: “Best yet, Mr. O.”