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Holy Unholiness

There is a kind of holiness which is actually unholy as well as an unholiness which can lead to holiness.

Personal unholiness which is both known and repented of can lead to greater holiness. While, on the other hand, holiness which is merely presumptive, in the eyes of Scripture, is simply unholy. St. John speaks of the latter this way:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 Jn. 1:9-10).

In effect, all sins can be forgiven except presumed sinlessness. Scripture demonstrates the point also by parable, as we in Luke 18:

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other…(Lk. 18:9-14).

If we consider ourselves to be already holy, we may set aside the pursuit of holiness, which might have actually made us holy.

Thus, drawing from the wisdom of Scripture, let us construct a holy, “unholiness-mirror” through which we might see the blemishes of our heart, and through wholehearted repentance, endeavor to become holy. 


The first part of our mirror reveals the heart through words:

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks (Lk. 6:45).

Even if we can’t immediately see the condition of our heart, we can see the quality of our words and Jesus says the two are connected. According to Christ, just as a tree’s fruit identifies the tree so too our words reveal the heart:

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit (Lk. 6:43-44).

This applies not only to the spoken word but also to the mental word, as St. John of the Cross declares:

Recall what the Apostle St. James asserts: If anyone thinks he is religious, not restraining the tongue, that one’s religion is vain (Jas. 1:26). This applies as much to the interior as to the exterior tongue (The Precautions, #9).

Philosophically, the connection between heart and word illustrates the Thomistic principle agere sequitur esse (action follows being), which means that dogs bark, ducks quack, and an evil heart produces evil words. 

The gravity of this being-acting relationship, as it applies to speech, is illustrated in these last words of Socrates:

I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live (The Apology, 38d).

So where can we begin with our words? 

We can start by identifying the ABCDs: Anger, Boastfulness, Complaining, and Detraction (Gossip) because they often indicate Wrath, Vanity, Sloth, and Envy in the heart.


The second part of our mirror reveals the heart through emotions:

As we demonstrated in Lovely Fear, all our emotions find their root in love, and love finds its root in the beloved good

Therefore, our feelings reveal what goods we love most. In the words of Scripture:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Mt. 6:21).

So to uncover our heart, we need only ask: “What do I dream of? What am I afraid of? What are my greatest joys and sorrows?”

My consistent desires, fears, and joys reveal to me my beloved goods, and therefore the allegiance of my heart: whether to the temporal or eternal. As Scripture says:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world (1 Jn. 2:15-16).

Practically speaking, to see the heart through this segment of our mirror, let us take inventory of our consistent feelings. Then, identify what specific good is the cause of them. From there, we should see where the allegiance of our heart lies, whether it is consecrated to the One or to Legion (cf. Mk. 5:9). 


The third part of our mirror reveals the heart through self-image. We see the connection between the two in this passage from the Book of Revelations:

Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked (Rev. 3:17).

According to the Scriptures, an impoverished heart leads to an over-exalted view of self. In contrast, here is the correct view of fallen man as described by Jesus and St. Paul:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children…(Lk. 11:13)


as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; (Rm. 3:10).

Jesus and St. Paul take it for granted that mankind is “evil,” due to the fall, which leaves us with only two kinds of self-image: a true one and a false one. Dr. Kreeft explains it this way:

…for Christ and all the prophets, there are only two kinds of people: saints, who know they are sinners; and sinners, who think they are saints (Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas).

Listen to how St. Teresa of Avila, an actual saint, speaks about herself:

May it please His Majesty that the immense bounty with which He has treated this miserable sinner may do something to influence those who read this, so that they may find strength and courage to give up absolutely everything for God’s sake! (Life, Ch. XXI).

St. Teresa can call herself a “miserable sinner” and know it to be the case because her sanctity allows her to see herself clearly. C.S. Lewis further defends this relationship between holiness and self-knowledge in his book Mere Christianity. He writes:

This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them (Bk. III, C. IV).


When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right (Ibid.).

However, between various self-images, a distinction must be made between a kind of worldly self-loathing and a saintly kind of self-knowledge.

The man who hates himself because he’s not pretty enough, or wealthy enough, or popular enough is hurt by the world because he is enamored by it. This worldly love bears no resemblance to the saintly sorrow, which arises from an inability to love Christ as He has loved us.

This section of our mirror compels us to ask ourselves how good we think we are. The saints knew they weren’t very good because they actually were.

One More Thing

For an additional look at the heart, see The One Thing Necessary.

Therefore, having constructed this holy “unholiness-mirror,” let us use it. So that, by discovering the cracks in our heart, we may turn ever more fervently to our merciful Lord and Savior, who alone can make what is unholy, holy.

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