Josh, Brian, and I had agreed to meet in a local coffee shop around 10 a.m. Brian and I chatted as we waited for Josh.
"Being a missionary in Alaska was both challenging and rewarding," Brian said as he summed up his three years among the Athabascan Indians. "The winter temperatures and the seasonal changing of daylight were a difficult adjustment. But I gradually got accustomed to both. The welcome and hospitality of the Indians were humbling. The members of this tribe are truly wonderful people; in so many ways, just like us, and in so many ways, very different from us."
"So what are your ministerial plans for the future?" I asked.
"Well, after a sabbatical, I plan to go down to the missions in Brazil for five years. And after that, maybe I will dedicate five years to the missions in Russia," he replied.
I was so impressed with Brian's missionary spirit. I couldn't help but notice how he had the next decade of his life planned out. And I was amazed at how this Franciscan friar was truly becoming a missionary to the world. He's really a holy man, I thought.
We continued talking for 45 minutes. Just as I was wondering whether to be irked or concerned about Josh's tardiness, Josh walked through the door of the coffee shop.
"I'm so sorry for being late!" he announced. "I would have made it on time but as I was driving over here, I noticed an elderly woman pulled over on the side of the road. She had a flat tire and clearly didn't know what to do. So I stopped and changed her tire."
Brian leaned over the table and said to Josh, "Your compassion and charity always challenge me."
I found it ironic that this missionary to the world, whom I considered to be a saint, was complimenting someone who had simply responded to an ordinary need. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: maybe Josh's way was a better example of holiness.
What does it really mean to be a holy person? Do people like Brian exemplify it—those who have long-term plans that include missionary activity on different continents? Is it displayed in the person who says a lot of prayers and performs acts of penance? Or does it mean being a contemporary Elizabeth Fry, the 19th-century woman who founded schools, helped the Gypsies, took care of the homeless, and earned the name "the angel of the prisoners" because of her ministry to those in jail? Is it demonstrated by someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who successfully emigrated to New York but whose commitment to Christ challenged him to return to his native Germany and plot the downfall of the Nazi regime? Or does it mean renouncing power and possessions and living a life of heroic charity and compassion in the tradition of Mother Teresa of Calcutta?
The Concise Oxford American Dictionary gives the secondary and tertiary meaning of holy as "devoted to the service of God: saints and holy men" and "morally and spiritually excellent." However, in this day and age when we are so aware of the way different cultures, education, and upbringing shape each human being uniquely, one person's act of godly devotion can be interpreted by another as an act of terrorism.
Looking to Jesus
I thumb through the Gospels for an answer, since Christian holiness clearly has something to do with the imitation of Christ. But I find myself in a quandary because I'm not sure exactly what I'm supposed to imitate and how far I should go. Am I supposed to go barefoot, become an itinerant preacher, and gather disciples around myself? That seems naive and foolish—and maybe a bit egotistical.