In the World

Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”

We know this line from John’s Gospel so well that the radicalism of its otherworldliness perhaps escapes us most of the time. We see Christ’s encounter with Pilate while knowing that Christ was about to fulfill the purpose of His incarnation by suffering and dying in reparation for our sins. When Christ says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” one can picture the glories of heaven and raise an eyebrow at Pilate’s belief that he truly stood in power as he “judged” his creator. We know that Christ only suffered at Pilate’s hands because He allowed himself to do so. Had He chosen to end it, in an instant He could have done so.

Yet as followers of Christ we are called to be like Him in being not of this world, but of His Kingdom, and if we think of Christ’s calmness and resignation in the fact of facing torture and death for a nonexistent crime in relation to ourselves, this idea of being of a kingdom not of this world becomes a whole lot scarier. It’s one thing to see Christ, secure in our belief in His divinity, responding to injustice and suffering with the statement that His kingdom is not of this world, but when we are faced with injustice and suffering our instinct is not to think of The Kingdom which is not of this world, but rather to fight back, to demand our rights, and if all else fails to complain and feel sorry for ourselves.

A while back I read this famous quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

Never say of anything, “I have lost it”; but, “I have returned it.” Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? “But he who took it away is a bad man.” What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.

Epictetus wasn’t a Christian, and my first instinct was to see this quote as alien and almost inhuman in its detachment. As I thought about it, though, I realized that although detachment for the sake of detachment is not itself an aim of the Christian life, this view towards this world is pretty much exactly what we are called to if we are to be truly of Christ’s kingdom rather than of this world. “Is your child dead? It is returned,” sounds hopeless and inhuman if viewed simply as a need for utter detachment, but speaking within the context of this world all things (including our own lives and those of the ones we love) are but lent. They are not meant to be clung to endlessly in this world, but they are gifts which we must render freely back while placing out hope in the next. And certainly, the detachment from material possessions which Epictetus advocates should not be alien to a faith in which our Savior told His followers to sell all they had, give it to the poor, and then come follow Him. As Jake wrote this week in the second part of his series on the Beatitudes, the Church Fathers did not see material poverty as sufficient to be “poor in spirit” in the sense of the Beatitudes, but they did see it as a necessary prerequisite.

It doesn’t take much thinking along these lines to realize how very attached to the world one is — and in some cases for reasons which are tied up with trying to fulfill my vocation as a husband and father. I spend my fair share of time just worrying about the job, the house (and the mortgage that came with it), the cars, etc. And as for the kids — I’m certainly not just shrugging and saying, “Well, if something happens to one of them, I will only have given her back, not lost her.”

Compared to times past, in the last hundred years or so the Church has done a lot of thinking about the sense in which all vocations are calls to sanctity. There’s also been a certain emphasis on seeking a more just ordering of economic and social structures. Yet it remains the case that when we take on great responsibilities in this world, we almost invariably become more attached to it. For all the marriage and parenting have taught me a lot about caring for others more than myself, it has also given me very good reasons to amass and worry about and strive for an awful lot of material things, and to work hard to get more. Indeed, the fact that I’m doing all this for others probably makes me willing to go further than I would if I had only my own material well being to be concerned about. (Is it any wonder, in that context, that political leaders with the well being of millions of people on their minds are sometimes willing to go to very great lengths indeed to protect the countries under their care?)

I certainly don’t regret the relationships which tie me closer to this world, but it gives me all the more appreciation for the wisdom of the traditional connection between devoting oneself entirely to God and vowing poverty and chastity.

5 Responses to In the World

  • Yes. I always have to keep reminding myself on a daily basis what Jesus taught while he was on this earth.

  • “As Jake wrote this week in the second part of his series on the Beatitudes, the Church Fathers did not see material poverty as sufficient to be “poor in spirit” in the sense of the Beatitudes, but they did see it as a necessary prerequisite.”

    In general a good post though I disagree with the last sentence of this quote. In this I am reminded of a story told by St. Josemaria Escriva (who I think truly developed a lay spirituality which I think is lacking at times in the Patristics.) In it his discussed a noblewoman he knew who had great gifts – material and otherwise. But she was generous with them, opened her villa for charitable purposes, paid her servents a fair wage and treated them well. Spent a great deal of time with charitable works also.

    This he contrasted with a poor man he saw in a soup kitchen. This man had one possession – his spoon. This man jealously guarded this spoon from everyone. In the former, in spite of the possessions, he saw the true spirit of detachment while in the latter the spirit of being possessed by one’s posssessions – limited as they were. He used this to point out how the spirit of poverty was exactly that – a spirit – and not necessarily a state. St Augustine commented similarly (though I can’t find the quote at this time.)

    I think the layman has to develop this spirituality of being in the world without being of it. That is somewhat different than a stoic acceptance of whatever comes. Yes we need to possess things especially if others are under our care (the alternative is to be completely dependent on others and this is not consistent with Catholic Social Teaching.) This includes long-term planning for education etc.

    At times we may even lose something that we possess. The Catholic spirit of detachment then revels in this share in the Cross that we are given as a share in the Redemption of the world (as opposed to the stoic, self-controlled acceptance.)

    This even includes the loss of those close to us. But this loss is not a positive thing but truly a physical evil. As poverty is a physical evil (and possibly moral if it is brought about by direct human intention) so is the loss of things we need including ultimately our own lives and the lives of those around us. As evils we are right to morn them to the degree of their value. If I lose $20 a little. If I lose my son, a great deal. After all Christ wept not only over Lazarus but also his beloved city of Jerusalem.

    In fact, if we are to change the world, we sometimes must possess more things. Can you imagine an important businessman, official etc. bringing those he wishes to influence to dinner at a shack at the edge of town where his children live in rags. Of course not. These goods are ultimately means, sometimes very powerful means, to achieve good for others and ultimately for God.

  • Philip,

    Thanks for the substantive response.

    I agree with Escriva’s point about poverty of spirit, as a development on the understanding of the Fathers — I guess the one point I’d go further on is that while I think it is at times harder to be generously detached from possessions when one has to scrounge so hard for the few one has, that if one is somehow able to muster the grace and virtue to be generous in the midst of poverty that the person who is able to be both poor and poor in spirit is close to the Kingdom than the person who is materially well off yet poor in spirit. Maybe that’s just because I’m always more comfortable with self criticism, but it seems to me that it is a higher path, though a far harder one — thus the rationale for religious taking vows of poverty.

    Actually, in that sense, it strikes me as much the same as celibacy. As St. Paul acknowledges in a backhanded way, for many attempting permanent celibacy will result not in chastity but in constantly burning desire. Yet, if one can manage it, it is closer to the Kingdom.

    That said, I am myself unwavering in the lay approach to living a Christian life; it’s not as if I were sitting around thinking I ought to be poorer or celibate. And I would agree that it takes a lot of people devoted to living their lives out in the world in order to keep the world in order — I guess I’m just emphasizing (mildly) that the more one lives in the world, the more bits of “of the world” creep in.

  • “Maybe that’s just because I’m always more comfortable with self criticism, but it seems to me that it is a higher path, though a far harder one — thus the rationale for religious taking vows of poverty.”

    Voluntary poverty for the Kingdom (the Religious life) is objectively a higher calling though the subjective reality of vocation also comes into play. That is, what God is calling each of us respectively to. In which case, if God’s call is to the lay state, then that is better for the person.

    “That said, I am myself unwavering in the lay approach to living a Christian life; it’s not as if I were sitting around thinking I ought to be poorer or celibate.”

    As a non-monastic priest said at a retreat I was attending at a monastery “I do not belong here, and you belong here even less.” His point was that as laymen the monastery and its life were not appropriate for us. That included their disciplines. As another once said to me, “Those that idolize the monastic life as the model for laymen wouldn’t last a week in the monastery.” His point again, the lay state, including possessions, is a distinct call which is a call to holiness.

    “And I would agree that it takes a lot of people devoted to living their lives out in the world in order to keep the world in order — I guess I’m just emphasizing (mildly) that the more one lives in the world, the more bits of “of the world” creep in.”

    That’s why God makes laymen, to sanctify the world in all its realities. Not to be possessed by them, but to use them well. The temptations are there as there are temptations in the Religious life. Each has its crosses to bear.

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