Boundaries and Holiness

I often surprise people by sharing that I have taken Leviticus as my Lent book two years in a row. When I see a look of disbelief and puzzlement on people’s faces it only makes me all the more enthusiastic. The trouble is that in order to explain why it fascinates me so much I would need to give a mini lecture and would definitely need something visual to be sure of getting my points across. Understandably, nobody wants to hang around that long. The fact remains that I really do love this text.

At first sight, Leviticus reads as a complex handbook for rituals and ways of living that are at best peculiar and at worst very off-putting. But what if we took one verse as our hermeneutical key: Love thy neighbour as thyself (Leviticus 19:18). This verse comes from Ch 17-27, known as the Holiness Code. This code comes at the end of Leviticus and provide a lens through which to view the preceding chapters.

The endless details of the sacrificial system, the food laws and purity laws all have one goal and that is unity and LOVE. Leviticus is edited and shaped into its final form during the period of the Exile. This was a period of soul searching and dislocation for the Israelites. Faced with the feeling of confusion as to what the covenantal promises could possibly mean now, the Priestly circle of writers outline a code that is intended to safeguard love and restore hope. The Israelites are in a relationship crisis.

The writers are of the mind that worship is key for Israelites in their longing to restore right relationship with God. Their worship is to have order, shape and form and these are the hallmarks of holiness. The Hebrew word they use for holiness is kavod, a word that means set apart. Writ through every aspect of their lives is need to create boundaries and to ‘set things apart’. The Hebrew thinking is that the desire and ability to do this mirrors the work of God in Genesis who ‘divides light from darkness’.

Oratory at Turvey Abbey

Probably part of my fascination with Leviticus comes from my years of learning the ropes of the monastic path. Monastic life of its nature places a very high value on order, shape and form. I think it would be fair to describe it as a life ‘set apart’. It is also a life that is intentional. Of course, there are ways of organising that are just sensible, but many of the ways in which we try do things have charity and love of neighbour at their heart.

Having an overall structure for every day of the year more or less ensures that we know what is coming next and what we should be doing. I’ve read a great many posts about how to survive lockdown and all of them mention a routine. Of course, I agree with this in principle, but I would like to add a caveat. Don’t be afraid to change that routine if it isn’t working. In his Rule St Benedict lays out several ways of organising life in the monastery, but wisely adds that if an arrangement is found to be unsatisfactory, the abbot ‘should arrange whatever he judges better’. (RB Ch 19)

You will probably have found by now that you need to factor in some untimetabled time. I think its important to allow some time for ‘freefall’ because it is during that time that your learn about yourself. It seems important that we allow ourselves to experience that restlessness that comes from having spent several hours in escapism. Our monastic ancestors, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, knew this restlessness well and called it acedia. Not only did they know this feeling well, they also suggested a potential cure: clean out your cell. Yes, pretty much every malady could be helped by manual work. It’s just possible that this could be a great help to us during lockdown. Any small area where we can create outer order has the potential to create a little ‘inner order’ and contentment.

I am sure that many of us are learning that having to be in the same physical space with others for long periods of time is a huge challenge. I think this might be where the idea of boundaries and ‘things set apart’ might help us. In the busyness of everyday life many boundaries have subtly been eroded. The pace of life demands for many that they take their ‘lunch break’ at the computer screen and answer emails on their commute. Perhaps this time of lockdown could help us to identify where our own boundaries have blurred and to reset them if that is possible. The idea of boundaries also has something to say to our relationships and how we share physical space with others. I am often sitting with a question myself: How do I make space for others? It is just possible that respecting the physical space of another allows them some psychological space too. These things are rather subtle and no two people are the same.

Whatever our circumstances during this lockdown, there is a deep call to make space for others, to love the neighbours we have discovered and the parts of ourselves that often lie hidden. This is Holiness.

Sr Miriam