They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Make them holy in the truth, your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I make myself holy that they also may be made holy in truth.
The only English translation of this passage that I knew as a child spoke of “consecration” rather than holiness. “Consecrate them in the truth.? At least for me, the result of this translation was mystification. I knew that this section of John’s gospel was called “the priestly prayer” of Jesus, so somehow, as far as I could understand, all of this had to do with being “consecrated” in a way that required being taken out of the world and somehow made a different being. To be taken out of the world meant to be taken out of life as I knew it, out of the difficult and painful experiences that my very being and the events of life created in and for me.
Holiness as Jesus sees it, however, is quite a different matter. He prays that the disciples also “may be made holy in truth.? In his commentary on this passage, Francis J. Moloney, SDB points out that “in truth” in verse 19 could mean as little as “indeed.? Yet, he says in the context of verse 17 that is unlikely. “Make them holy in the truth, your word is truth.? Holiness is not separation and dissociation but, rather, integration of one’s life in the word of God. It is living, as Russbroec says, in the “valley of humility,” so that, in the deep ground of one’s humble truth, the light of God may shine on us ever more brightly.
In the gospel of John “the world” is not reality; it is illusion. Jesus and those he loves are not of the world because their lives are not conformed to the world’s demands, to the norms of any time and society that are inauthentic and deformative. The pulsations of a culture, of a historical period are not determinative in the form they give their lives, but are rather appraised in the light of the truth of the word of God. Some years ago, the food company Hebrew National used as an advertising slogan, “We answer to a higher authority.? The holiness of which Jesus speaks comes from answering to a higher authority than the pulsations of this world: “your word is truth.?
As far as we know, it is only human beings who are able to make choices about the form that their lives take. Our lives do not take shape spontaneously but rather by choice. St. Paul writes to the Romans (12:2): “Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” To be holy is to give form to our lives not by merely mindlessly going along with the norms and directives of the world as mediated by the pulsations of our culture but rather by discerning “what is the will of God.? The emphasis on conscience which we see in Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia speaks of the need for a discerning heart that refuses to give one’s life form based merely on the outer pulsations of any given social, cultural or even religious population.
Jesus makes clear that holiness is for the sake of being sent into the world. It is for the sake of humanity. Thus, holiness, while a separation from a mindless conformity to human society, is not a dissociation from one’s own humanity. It is rather a life-long process of living in, and more fully appropriating, “the truth” of one’s life as illuminated in and by the word of God. Many years ago a teacher of ours suffered an almost fatal heart attack at the age of 60. After a long recovery and rehabilitation he returned to his work of teaching, thinking, and writing. He began to speak of his experience as “the grace of a coronary.? What he meant, I believe, was that this catastrophic physical event was a powerful reminder of the truth of his bodily life, of what he was able and not able to do, and thus, of how to form his life more in accord with its Divine direction. After the heart attack and from the point of his early 60’s he went on to do his most serious thinking and research, publishing several volumes of work.
Holiness, as living in the truth, is required if we are to fulfill our mission in the world for which we have been created and for which we have been sent. We are sent not as the one we should be, or would prefer to be, or who would be more acceptable and significant. It is only the one whom God has created and called who can fulfill the mission he or she has been given. The good news is that if we are awake, our lives are always revealing to us the Divine directives of our call. To discern with a “renewed mind” formed by the word of God is to recognize and realize these directives for our ongoing formation in all that happens to us, in all the persons, events, and things that are potential “graces” for us. But this requires of us a purification of our hearts and our desires. As Jesus, we must come to do only what we see the Father doing. We must desire above all else that our life take form in accord with God’s will for us. We do this by being, in the words of the liturgy: “Taught by our Savior’s commands and formed by the word of God.?
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8: 31-2) To abide in the word is the way to know the truth. To do this, however, we must first be willing to give up the designs of our own superegos. To live in the truth requires that we live detached from our own demands about our lives and our own likes and dislikes about the person God has created. It means living our lives and, as best we can from moment to moment, giving “the little that we have.? As we give away what we have and who we are, we receive in turn from God the gift of the way we are to go. This may sometimes feel to us, conformed as we are to this world, to be wasting our lives. Perhaps, however, the truth lies in the way of the poor widow who is realizing the kingdom as she spends all that she has without anyone but Jesus to notice.
There follows the third point, which concerns the living essential being in which we are one with God above and beyond all exercise of love in a state of eternal enjoyment—that is, above works and virtues in a state of blessed emptiness, and above union with God in unity, where no one can work except God alone. God’s work is his very self and his nature, and in his works we are empty and transformed, becoming one with him in his love. . . . There we have no demands or desires and we neither give nor take. There there is only a blessed and empty being, the crown and essential reward of all holiness and all virtue.
But when we are embraced and enveloped by the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit above all exercises of love, then we are all one, just as Christ, both God and a human being is one with the Father in their fathomless mutual love. In this same love we are all brought to perfection in a single state of eternal enjoyment, that is, in a blessed and empty being which is incomprehensible to all creatures.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, III,D