A Life Set Apart

I adore commencement ceremonies. Really, I’m not joking. Too few occasions in life present the opportunity to surround yourself with such enthusiasm and promise. It thrills me to watch these events and see so many faces, all blank slates upon which the world will make its mark over the coming years while they busy themselves with the grand task of making their own mark upon it. At that ceremony, in that moment, anything – everything – is deliciously possible. I gratefully attend these ceremonies whenever I can, for the chance to celebrate their accomplishment, marinate in their joy and envy them their hope.

All milestones of achievement and contemplation come with their share of canned speeches filled to the brim with clichés worthy of such events, and commencements are no exception. Follow your dreams… Spread your wings… Make a difference… I felt certain I’d heard most of them, along with other tidbits of empowered wisdom passed on by distinguished guests and faculty members. Until last week when, while attending my nephew’s graduation ceremony, the school’s Director of Guidance stated during her address that she hoped this class would live ‘happy, healthy, and holy lives.’

WHOA! What did she just say? HOLY lives??

Since my nephew graduated from a Catholic school, this remark should not have surprised me. But it did. And not being a religious person, I didn’t appreciate the significance of the word in this context. But I wanted to. Holy lives… What did that mean? Did this woman wish those graduates a religious life, or was there more meaning that went beyond my understanding of the word?

Holy lives…

I was fixated. I thought of nothing else. Not through the remaining 70 minutes of the ceremony, the 60 minutes of photo opps immediately following, or the 90-minute drive home.  Or all damned night, for that matter. So in the morning, I looked it up.

I checked out several translations of the Bible where the word holy is mentioned over 650 times. And while it is primarily used to describe God’s chief characteristic, several passages attest to this quality being attainable for man. Even God himself is quoted saying, ‘You must sanctify yourselves and prove yourselves holy, because I am Holy.’

A tall task at best, particularly because the book never actually details how one goes about proving oneself holy.  Which is pretty frustrating.  I likened this to reading a book about cooking that did not adequately describe how one goes about being a good cook.

I also discovered that most religious encyclopedias don’t define the word holy at all, offering instead entries for Holy See, Holy Ground, Holy Day and other such terms where holy qualifies as the adjective. So while the context in which holy is used clearly influences one’s understanding of it, this doesn’t give real meaning to the word when stood by itself.

While most dictionaries offered little help beyond the religious presentation of the word, Merriam Webster’s definition was highly informative:

Spiritually whole or sound; of unimpaired innocence and virtue; free from sinful affections; pure in heart; godly; pious; irreproachable; guiltless; acceptable to God.

But the best insight came when I looked up the word’s etymology. Holy appears to be derived from the Middle English holi, or hālig, meaning ‘whole’ – and the Greek word hagios, meaning ‘different’ or ‘to be separated.’ Indeed, the Hebrew word translated into holy is qodhesh (also Kadash, Kadosh or Kadesh), which means ‘to make sacred’ or ‘to set apart.’ In fact, that which is holy in Judaism is set apart. Jewish life is even marked by the notion of Havdalah, meaning ‘separation’ or ‘distinction.’


Holy as in spiritually whole. Holy as in set apart.

But set apart from what?

I may not be religious, but I could figure this one out myself: set apart from bad things. From evil. How? Through behavior, thought, action and proclamation. By way of following religious teachings which, for the most part, are a good set of guidelines, even for those not religiously inclined, on how to be moral, kind, generous and loving. Set apart.  Not in an I-am-better-than-you way, but in an I-desire-to-be-better-than-I-am way. And not just for the sake of being set apart (as in elusive or exclusive), but more for the purpose of being sanctified (as in distinguished) and, hopefully, to serve as an example for others. Why? To be acceptable to God. Or maybe just because it would be the right thing to do.

I must admit that the thought of being spiritually whole and distinguished by following the rules for being a good person is a wonderful ideal by which to live. Even for we heathans.

A holy life.

Holy shit. How I love when I learn new things.

So given this new understanding of these words, I also wish Joshua and his graduating class of 2012 a happy, healthy and holy life. Live it to the fullest and be the very best you can. And keep learning. Take it from your fifty-year-old aunt, it’s a never-ending process that will also set you apart.