Carl McColman: Purity

"Purity does not lie in separation from but in deeper penetration into the universe."

  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I stumbled across this quote from Teilhard while reading an essay by Annie Dillard called "Flying in the Middle of Art." She doesn't provide the original source, and I googled it and couldn't find it that way either. So I'm not sure exactly where or when Teilhard said this. And I suppose it doesn't matter. It's one of those lovely "words" of wisdom, similar to what a Desert Father might offer to his young disciple, that carries its own authority, independent of who said it first or why.

But this statement about purity is provocative precisely because it flies in the face of what the mainstream Christian tradition seems to say about purity. Consider what Thomas à Kempis had to say: "Do not keep company with young people and strangers ... Be not intimate with any woman, but generally commend all good women to God. Seek only the intimacy of God and of His angels, and avoid the notice of men." To be pure requires withdrawing from the world. It ties in with the original sense of the word "holy" - to be set apart. To give ourselves to God suggests we set ourselves apart from the dirt and messiness of creation.

But Teilhard points to a different way, a way I believe was pioneered by Jesus. We do not escape the world in order to keep ourselves unstained, rather, we immerse ourselves in the world in a quest both to find God there and to bring God there. Each of us is the image and likeness of God. As Jesus emptied himself (kenosis) of his divinity to embrace the humanness of the incarnation, so each of us - we who are members of the body of Christ, and who have been given the mind of Christ - are invited to do the same thing: empty ourselves of our own need to be pure, clean, unstained, unsullied, and give ourselves away, embracing the fullness of life in all its messiness and brokenness, not so that we may be conformed to the despair we find around us, but rather that we might bring a different consciousness (the mind of Christ, the consciousness of love) into a world that so desperately needs it.

And as we do this, we find, paradoxically, that our purity lies not in how clean we are but in how loving we are. To be truly loving, we must connect with those we love. Love does not flourish in separation from, but in deeper immersion in, the beloved. And in that, we are healed, we are made whole, we are pure, we are holy.

What do you think? Does this way of thinking about purity and holiness work for you? Why, or why not?

Taken with permission from Carl's blog at