Wholeness and Holiness

Portrait of smiling young businessman with armcrossed at office

At first blush, wholeness and holiness might seem miles apart. Wholeness typically refers to physical and psychological well-being, evidenced by a healthy balance of social interaction, exercise, healthy eating, sleep, etc. “Whole people” have somehow come to terms with their personal issues. Words like “integrated” and “organic” come to mind when we think of wholeness. Who can you think of that exemplifies wholeness?

Holiness, on the other hand, involves a close relationship with God and brings to mind prayer, fasting, the Bible, going to church and avoiding sin. “Reverence” is a big concept in the holiness word lineup. People such as St. Francis or Mother Teresa come to mind when we think of holiness.

Wholeness might be viewed as the world’s ideal for human striving, while holiness that of God or the Church. In truth, both wholeness and holiness are necessary to live a truly integrated life. When both wholeness and holiness are joined in one individual, it is truly marvelous to behold!

But how do we become both whole and holy? The key lies in our heart.

Within the Catholic Tradition, holiness can be measured by the intensity of the “fire of love” for God and others burning in our hearts. Each of us is called to enkindle this “fire of love” in our hearts: “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, n. 39).

This striving for holiness is very important. Jesus Himself tells us: “You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). But this is a pretty high bar. In fact, absolute perfection in this life is an impossibility (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, q. 184, a. 2). And yet, this is the crazy-making standard that many Christians understand to be the roadmap for a life of holiness.

If we take another look at the word “perfect” in the scripture passage above, things begin to make more sense. Going back to the original Greek, we see the word teleios is used. Instead of “perfect,” a better translation would be “complete” or “mature.” With this translation, translation, the passage reads: “Be complete” or “Be mature” in your actions “as your heavenly Father is complete (or) mature.” Jesus is making a profound statement about “psychological wholeness” or “heart wholeness.”

By striving for this wholeness, we fulfill Jesus’ command. Without it, we cannot achieve true holiness.

If we try to achieve holiness by focusing merely on the external aspects, but neglect whether our heart is whole, we’ll quickly find ourselves in a spiritual logjam. Yet, because we live in a broken world, we all have wounded hearts. These “heart wounds” are caused by real or perceived (felt) instances of cruelty, personal trauma, lack of love and other experiences that have wounded the core of our being.

These wounds directly affect our spiritual lives and make us far more susceptible to sin.

For example, people who were verbally abused by a parent often have issues with authority figures. They will likely struggle with areas of sin involving disagreements and anger. This issue isn’t necessarily evidence of a lack of holiness, but rather a lack of “heart wholeness.” If the verbal abuse heart wound is healed, the disagreements and anger will subside, allowing the person to grow in holiness.

I recently realized that a number of the sins I confess over and over stem from a situation in my childhood. Until I faced that situation and allowed God to heal that heart wound, I was stalled in my spiritual progress. That wound was like a faulty part in a car engine, causing all kinds of trouble. My habitual sins were not going to disappear through sheer will-power. No. I had to go to the root and fix the engine.

Noted Catholic speaker and author Matthew Kelly challenges us to take a new look at how we think about holiness. He describes the goal as “becoming the best version of ourselves” which involves wholeness AND holiness. It involves loving ourselves and taking care of ourselves – physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially AND spiritually. It includes tending to the needs of our own hearts.

We are ultimately of little use to anyone if we do not keep gas in the tanks of our own heart. It’s tempting to spend all of our time helping other people fill up their own gas tanks. And it’s easy to feel guilty about taking care of ourselves. But this unbalanced approach to Christianity can make us forget that taking care of our own needs is as important as taking care of the needs of others. In fact, the two are linked: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31).

What are your own heart wounds? What are the sins you commit over and over again? What do they tell you about how you’ve been wounded? If you feel stuck in your spiritual life, discovering and healing these wounds can help you get back on the path of spiritual growth. Since we are often blind to what is going on inside us, a wise (and trusted) friend or mentor might be able to help us see things we are completely unaware of.

How are heart wounds healed? Sometimes the help of a Christian counselor can be a huge gift in a person’s life. There are also great books and CDs on healing life’s hurts. Further, certain people have special ministries of prayer for inner healing. One-on-one healing prayer typically involves walking through painful memories with another, asking Jesus to touch these memories with His love. While God often chooses to work through others in this healing process, He sometimes chooses to do it directly if we ask Him and are open to it.

By identifying, addressing and resolving your wounds and keeping the gas tank of your heart filled, you can speed far more rapidly along the highway of charity (love) – and you too can become something marvelous to behold!

For further reading: Michael Scanlan, Inner Healing; Francis MacNutt, Healing; Dennis and Matthew Linn, Healing Life’s Hurts; John Eldredge, Waking the Dead (subtitled: The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive).