What does it mean to encounter the holy? Most of us know that it has to do with God in some form or fashion. At least, God is the primordial instance or example of the holy, and likely the source of whatever other forms of holiness that come across our path.
We know that a genuine encounter with the holy begets a sense of respect in us, and reverence, in a way that we don’t experience in our other encounters. It’s different from the wonder we feel at something new and strange, or the sense of bewilderment before the incomprehensible or exotic. There’s always a personal component to meeting the holy, but the personal factor in the holiness experience is different from that associated with coming upon a highly gifted person in the arts or sciences or the professions. In these latter instances, admiration is the more likely component of what we undergo on such occasions, but, again, that’s different from the peculiar and very special features of happening upon the holy.
Usually an encounter with the holy puts us in a passive mode. We back off from taking a leadership or aggressive stance, and choose rather a quiet, low-key, reverential attitude. We judge quiet to be more conducive to holiness than noise and loudness. We regard aggressiveness (“pushiness”)on our part is out of place, and suspect that an attitude of waiting or expectation is more conducive to a holiness event than one of barging in or trying to take control. The agency in the holiness event comes from elsewhere rather than from us, whose appropriate mode of behavior is one of waiting and watching.
So “the holy” often “breaks in” upon us like the surf washing over the beach. The beach doesn’t go out to meet the water; the water breaks in upon and floods the shoreline. All of these expressions of what the holy encompasses would be comparable to what a novelist such as Flannery O’Connor did in her frequent efforts to depict what “the holy” is, especially in her arena of interest, the personal encounter. She was gifted in highlighting the interpersonal features of a holiness episode. It did not present itself to her as an architectural or artistic event, but as an encounter with “another”, often a bizarre and unusual “other”, quite different from what we would expect a “religious” person to be.
The characters appearing in her stories are “strange” in the extreme, in fact, the last type of candidate in the world we would ever think of calling “holy”. They are bizarre, strange personifications of holiness, the likes of which we would find beyond anything associated with the holy. They look strange, their speech patterns are out of the ordinary, their modes of behavior are off the beaten path, their dress styles are ill-kempt and out of style. The last thing in the world we would think of calling them is “holy”. They are, to say the least, “different”. They move and behave outside the boundaries of what we would expect were we forewarned about meeting a holy and religious person. Her religious person would catch us “off guard”.
So, the prim, proper, orderly, and predictable are inadequate ways for her to describe what “the holy” is. She doesn’t employ a stance of reverence, respect or politeness in presenting her candidates for holiness to us. Rather, she catches us unprepared, surprising us and leading us to exclaim: “Well, I certainly didn’t expect THIS. Whoever would have thought that this character exemplifies holiness!!” He/she looks funny, talks funny, dresses funny, walks funny, behaves unpredictably. That would likely be our reaction, should any of her characters emerge from her stories to engage us. In short, they would be STRANGE.
And that, in the last analysis, is the best way of reminiscing on her presentation of “the holiness event”, should we ever have the occasion of encountering it. It is likely we could not have prepared ourselves to handle her version of a religious experience, for it would have fallen outside the framework we employ in thinking about the holy.
But, in many ways Jesus Christ epitomizes her version of the holiness event, from His birth as a baby in a shelter, to the puzzlement He induced in the temple guardians, to the “street” people He befriended in the course of His short life, and especially to the twelve unlikely candidates He invited to be His apostles, and then onto the final hours of His life, excoriated as a breaker of the law and a criminal, suffering public execution. Some of us might have thought twice about accepting the invitation to buy into the meaning of holiness in His terms. For they were indeed quite STRANGE.