By Fr. John Parker
Editor's Note: Last week Faith & Values wrote about different theories for why Charleston has the nickname "The Holy City."
An airplane tour is not necessary to notice the multitudes of churches on the Charleston peninsula. From the tip of Sullivan's Island, one can see the steeples of many, including St. Philip's (the oldest), St. Matthew's and others. Some report "more than 60 religious institutions" on the peninsula - others "over a hundred houses of worship."
No matter how one counts, Charleston has come to be known as the "Holy City" predominantly as a result of the tourism of recent times, specifically connected to the number of spiritual edifices (how is that for PC?) located within the bounds of the city.
But the quantity of churches in a place no more makes it automatically holy than a gathering of 10 random people on asphalt instantly makes a basketball game.
We might even make the argument that the so-called diversity of churches on the peninsula contributes to the opposite of holiness, witnessing to fractured Western Christianity with its increasing "believe whatever you want" spirituality.
It is likely that we will see even more of this "diversity" - possibly as soon as this summer - as a number of national church bodies attempt to change the Christian teachings on who is ordained to oversee his earthly work.
This point is made all the more clear by the existence of two proverbial churches: the church I attend and the one I don't.
What is it that would truly make Charleston "the Holy City"? Well, according to the Scriptures, holiness is directly related to loving God and keeping his Commandments. Holiness is a manifestation of the grace of God in the life of those who most cooperate with this gift. Holiness is living life as God intended it - as he has revealed it to us, supremely through the life and witness of his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ. Holiness is the result of becoming, by grace, what God is by nature.
Holiness requires an ascetical struggle. Ascesis is a fancy Greek word meaning "training" or "practice," as for a contest. The New Testament is filled with examples of the pursuit of holiness described in terms of completing a race. No runner wins a marathon without first running short distances, and then increasing endurance. The runner also needs to train in the heat and the cold, on hills and in valleys, well-nourished as well as thirsty. By this training, there are no surprises or insurmountable obstacles in the race.
The same is true in the spiritual life. No one becomes a saint simply by reading a book or by accepting a dogma. Rather, once baptized, one must learn to fast as well as to feast. In addition to knowing the Scriptures and living the sacraments, one must practice patience and endurance, periods of silence and long periods of various forms of self- denial, all with the aim of accepting God's will as his own.
Holiness can be attributed to a city when, of one mind, its inhabitants share this struggle in a sincere desire to love God and neighbor. A city becomes holy when its churches do not compete with one another for "warm bodies" by clever marketing, brand awareness, or worse - by catering to the temporal desires rather then the spiritual needs of the people. Charleston lives into a name such as "the Holy City" when it seeks, above all else, to honor Christ in every facet of its life: its tourism, its government, its social life, etc. In addition to true worship, this is most excellently demonstrated, as Jesus himself indicated, in the caring for the poor, the needy, the sick, the imprisoned - those whom Christ called "the least of these my brethren."
Charleston becomes the Holy City when its attitude is that of Abba Sisoes, a fourth-century desert-dwelling monk. Considered to be a very holy and venerable man himself, many drew near to Abba Sisoes while he was on his death bed. In his last moments, he saw choirs of angels and archangels, not to mention prophets, Apostles and saints. Wondering what was going on, those gathered around him asked, "With whom are you speaking, Abba?"
"With the angels," he replied, and indicated that he was seeking to do penance before he left this life for the next. Knowing his holiness, one friend said to him, "You have no need for penance, Father." Abba Sisoes replied, "I have not yet begun to repent." When in our city we realize our spiritual state (regardless of how far we think we have progressed), and can say with true humility, "we have not yet begun to repent," then Charleston will have made a beginning toward becoming the Holy City.
Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.