Digest of terms

holiness

quality associated with closeness to God or degree of personal perfection. This is reflected in the word 'hierarchy', with 'hieros' meaning holy/sacred, and a rank ordering of nearness to or distance from the most sacred. Although the idea of the holy may include some other ingredients, an element of moral worth is commonly there. This sits alongside an element of separateness which is also there, reflecting the sense of difference from more usual being and behaviour.

The 'holy man' in Indian tradition is invariably a solitary individual, whose austerities in life-style and bodily discipline attract attention and deference. They are in pursuit of a higher state of awareness. In Biblical tradition, holiness is centrally associated with a sense of moral unworthiness as experienced by the succession of prophets in their being called by God - from Moses (Exodus 3 and Isaiah (6:1-6) through to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-17). Combined with asceticism, this is carried over into the Christian 'cult of saints' in Late Antiquity, and analogous figures feature too in Islam.

Though historical records contain more references to holy men than holy women, there is no reason to suppose that the adjective is actually more applicable to or earned by one gender more than another. In fact the words holy and holiness have largely fallen out of current usage. They may have developed too 'precious' connotations and be 'odd' sounding. Technically, both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have both criteria and formal processes for designating someone as a holy saint - 'canonisation'. Outside their bounds, it is worth pursuing the question what if anything would warrant the use of this term of another human being and to whom it might properly be applied. Popular candidates would no doubt include people such as Gandhi or Mandela, yet here it is primarily specifically moral character and conduct that are being highlighted rather than holiness as such. Is there perhaps also a 'more than moral' quality being senses?

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