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Thinking Out Loud

The World Within, Part 2

by Michael Jinkins | Nov 10, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2017-2018 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

World Within Part 2For St. Benedict, the founder of the Benedictine movement, the purpose of relocating himself to the backside of a mountain was not so much to get away from the world around him as it was, like the Desert Fathers before him, to remove any distractions that might keep him from paying attention to God and allowing God to anneal him in God's furnace of grace. In other words, the motives of the Desert Fathers and the motives of St. Benedict sound more like one another, and not so much like the motives that are driving many today to abandon a society that doesn't reflect their tradition, family or religious values.*

Religious Worldliness
The worldliness with which the early monks struggled in other words doesn't sound much like the worldliness I was taught to avoid in the church in which I grew up. I suspect this may be true for you too, whatever your denominational affiliation.

Adultery and fornication were the really big sins of "the worldly," or so I was taught. But avoidance of adultery and fornication seemed mostly to do with not dancing and not drinking. Nobody really talked about wealth, social position or power over others as being aspects of worldliness, at least not in our church; mostly this was the case, I suspect, because these were such remote possibilities to the people in our church. There wasn't a wealthy, well-connected or powerful person in that little rural congregation. Frankly, I think the deacons would have been the first to join Tevye in a chorus of "If I Were a Rich Man," except, of course, the performance would have involved dancing. But there was a long list of other aspects of so-called worldliness. Worldliness also included gambling and cursing.  Smoking tobacco was not considered to be a sin in our church; the dads and deacons did that in the parking lot.

Your church's characterization of worldliness might have looked different from the one I grew up with. But I'll wager (oops!) that the things considered tokens of worldliness were largely external acts that most of the church folk weren't much tempted to do in the first place and found it easy to avoid. Worldliness, in this sense, ironically, was determined by culture, the basic category of social existence in the world. The church in one time and place may reject as chief vices what the church in another time and place encourages as virtues.

In her recent biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle (the remarkable wife of the literary lion and misanthrope Thomas Carlyle), Kathy Chamberlain demonstrates how new models of an emerging feminism in the mid-nineteenth century were causing social and religious ripples throughout European society. A popular novel of that time, written in Germany by Ludwig Tieck, described the conflict between the novel's heroine and the Church. The conflict was over her organizing of salons, evening gatherings in her home bringing together leading intellectuals and artistic figures.

In the story, a group of Cardinals assembled to judge this cultured woman of the Renaissance who had transformed her home into a sort of think tank. Implying that the woman had degraded herself by indulging in such "worldly behavior," one of the Cardinals says that she has made "her home into a poetical academy, a rendezvous for foreigners and authors, a stage for the exhibition of public performances, poetical compositions, music and singing, and all sorts of offensive and unfeminine discussions, to which she gave the name philosophy."** The Cardinals left no doubt that she had committed a grave sin and opened the door to even greater vices.

We Are the World
Worldliness often seems to be in the eye of the ecclesiastical beholder, and the condemnation of some behavior as worldly has always been a handy way for religious people to try to undermine social changes with which they disagree. And, at the more personal level, the religious condemnation of some social changes as worldly, sinful, secular or at odds with "traditional values" provides a convenient way for some Christians to reinforce their own small-mindedness in the name of their faith while demonstrating that they are "holier than" some other "thou."

Condemning the sins of others provides a convenient way to keep score. And this is exactly where the Desert Fathers and other early monks such as St. Benedict are so helpful for understanding our relationship with the world. They fled "the world without" in order to flee "the world within." They knew the world within was the more dangerous one. This is why they were dedicated to relentless self-examination under the grace of God. They knew what dangers they carried in their own hearts.

The monks and hermits were aware that the man or woman who rode through the ancient city market in a litter borne by burly servants might be showing off an ancient version of conspicuous consumption. They understood that the person who wore rich garments of silks might be guilty of wasteful extravagance, that the person who lived enthralled to insatiable appetites for more wealth, finer goods and richer foods might be dangerously self-indulgent. But they also knew that worldliness was not limited to such examples. They knew that the monk who envied the rich and the hermit who hated them for what they possessed were drowning in their own worldly bitterness and sin.

Worldliness is a moveable famine threatening the lives and spiritual health of everyone. Everyone. Everywhere. It follows us home whether home is in a city or on a farm, in a palace or in a cave in the desert. Simply fleeing to a cloister or an intentional community can't keep out the world. And a community of people seeking to live the same values, however sanctified, are in as much danger of worldliness as anyone living anywhere else.

Tools for Living a Christian Life Wherever
Some years after Benedict's initial attempt to escape the degradation of Roman society to live a holy life in isolation, a group of his neighboring monks came to ask him to serve as their abbot. Hesitantly, he agreed. But the arrangement didn't last long. These monks soon rebelled against Benedict and tried to poison him. Now THAT, my friends, is a leadership crisis in a congregation!

Later, another group of monks attached themselves to Benedict. It was at this time that he established twelve monasteries consisting of twelve monks each. But, because of the envy among local clergy, Benedict abandoned this monastic arrangement too.

Finally, he journeyed with a few monks to Monte Cassino, high in the central Apennines of Italy, about eighty miles to the south of Rome, to found his new monastery. This one endured, and became the model for cloistered monasticism thereafter.***

When St. Benedict set down in writing his rules for living in community, he dedicated a chapter to describing the tools Christians need to live the kind of life God wants us to live, a life that focuses our full attention on God. One of the most interesting things about the tools he describes is this: They are as readily available to the woman who sits at the head of a board table moderating a meeting of her company's directors as to the monk who has taken vows to live a cloistered life. They are tools anyone can employ wherever they live and work. They promise to deliver us from the world within, not just the world around us.

The tools start with: "Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself." They include renouncing yourself, relieving the needs of the poor, not repaying a bad turn with another bad turn, and avoiding pride and grumbling. They conclude: "Never lose hope in God's mercy."

My recommendation to Christians frustrated with living in contemporary society is to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" Benedict's "Rule." Here is spiritual wisdom as old as the mountains and deserts to which the monks long ago fled, but applicable no matter where we live and move and have our daily existence. It will repay our efforts a hundredfold. Our biggest challenge as people who want to follow Jesus is not "out there" (wherever "there" is) or "with them" (whoever "they" may be); our biggest challenge is dealing with "the world within."

*As in previous blogs, I highly recommend Benedicta Ward's wonderful collection of The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (London: Penguin, 2003). Also of interest are Thomas Merton's and Henri J.M. Nouwen's books on the Desert Fathers. I also recommend Esther de Waal's Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1984), which provides one of the finest and most eloquent expositions of Benedictine thought available.

**Kathy Chamberlain, Jane Welsh Carlyle and Her Victorian World (New York: Overlook, 2017), pp. 86-100. Ludwig Tieck's historical novel, originally published in German in 1843, was titled Vittoria Accorombona. One of the real world models for the heroine of the book was a fascinating and heroic woman named Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the Jewish wife of a German aristocrat. Her salons were the stuff of legend in nineteenth century Europe.

***The Rule of St. Benedict in English, edited by Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1982), preface, p. 10, and pp. 26-29. I also recommend Brother Benet Tvedten's book, How to Be a Monastic and Not Leave Your Day Job (Brewster: Paraclete, 2006/2013), a resource which would be a great deal of fun to study in a book club or Sunday school class.

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