So many conflicting notions.
Whatever it is usually taken to mean, the word 'holy' seems to be derived from kailo which actually means 'whole'. It seems to me that some of the greatest holy people, like Gandhi or Mother Theresa, have been very much engaged with the world and its problems. So you don’t have to get yourself to a monastery to be holy. I think the derivation of the word suggests that a holy life needs to be as much as possible a 'holistic' one – fully rounded. Shared with others and lived in full.
But holiness and asceticism, in the sense of withdrawal from wordly pleasures, are two ideas often linked. Why?
If our lives are choc-filled with work and pleasure there isn’t much time to think spiritually at all, never mind tussle with what holiness might mean for us personally. Asceticism allows for devotion to God and through this devotion some achieve holiness. Hermann Hesse’s ‘Siddharta’ talks about the Hindu notion of withdrawal from life towards its end – a time set aside for the quest for holiness.
A sense of the sacred must be essential for the holy life. This sense teaches that life is a precious gift, nothing should be taken for granted, least of all others, who must always command our respect.
An ability to be trusting (to the will of God if you think that way) and to accept the twists and turns of our destiny seem also essential.
The yoga sutras help http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_sutras – they encompass the quest for bliss through a non-violent dedication to God.
They also include the idea of purity, and this is another key part of the western historical idea of holiness. Respecting the body by not misusing it enables greater devotion to God.
Many holy people (including Gandhi) have chosen to be sexually abstinent. Not because sex is wrong but because it is a distraction from the holy life. If casual sexual encounters encompass love and respect and are part of a life that is fully-lived rather than driven by obsessive need, can they too be part of an existence that is holy?
Christ spoke to children, but he also raged when something was wrong. So courage and determination to fight for the right must also be essential components of the holy life.
The trap is in the phrase ‘holier than thou’. Holy people don’t think they have a monopoly on the truth or that they are superior to others.
And then there’s love. Love for ourselves and for our fellows, and for God.
Quite a shopping list. And no doubt of one thing at least - 'for now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face'.