Loving and despising the world

How interesting that both the reading for December 30 and the saint celebrated on this day speak to the same virtue: despising the things of this world. How do we reconcile loving God’s creation, recognizing that He proclaimed it “Good”, and the call to despise the world?

Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement for the eyes, and a pretentious life, is not from the Father but is from the world. Yet the world and its enticement are passing away. But whoever does the will of God remains forever.

1 John 2: 15-17

I studied and meditated on a very similar virtue in Buddhism, called nekkhamma, often translated as “renunciation”. It is the active renouncing, or letting go, of whatever binds us to what causes our suffering. I think the same thing is meant by John above. Renunciation is not meant to cause suffering, but just the opposite! Grasping at “the world and its enticement” is what will cause us to suffer, precisely because it is transitory, “passing away”, and can never fulfill our real desire! It can entice us, and in our frailty we can lust after the things of this world, but soon enough we find how empty it all is, and how much we still suffer. If we obtained what we desired, we desire more, and if we didn’t, how miserable we are!

We’re meant to love and enjoy this beautiful creation God has given us, but not attach ourselves to it, and make it the goal, the object of our desires. That leads instead to the ugliness and misery of sin. Separated from God, racing after these created things cannot bring us happiness, and even worldly philosophers recognized this. Renouncing this depressing, hopeless quest will bring us what we seek.

We will realize the truth that Saint Augustine spoke, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” We’ll discover that this world is the reflection, the brief flicker, of the beauty and glory of what will be revealed to us in the world to come, the wondrous gift to “whoever does the will of God…”


Butler’s Lives of the Saints speaks beautifully about renouncing the transitory enticement of the things of this world, in the context of the biography of today’s saints, Sabinus and his companions, who were martyred in the year 303:

How powerfully do the martyrs cry out to us by their example, exhorting us to despise a false and wicked world! What have all the philosophers and princes found by all their researches and efforts in quest of happiness in it! They only fell from one precipice into another. Departing from its true center they sought it in every other object, but in their pursuits only wandered further and further from it. A soul can find no rest in creatures. How long then shall we suffer ourselves to be seduced in their favor! be always deceived, yet always ready to deceive ourselves again! How long shall we give false names to objects round about us, and imagine a virtue in them which they have not! Is not the experience of near six thousand years enough to undeceive us! Let the light of heaven, the truths of the gospel, shine upon us, and the illusions of the world and our senses will disappear. But were the goods and evils of the world real, they can have no weight if they are compared with eternity. They are contemptible, because transient and momentary. In this light the martyrs viewed them.

How I love the beauty of this world, especially because I live in such a beautiful corner of it! 🙂

And, at the end of another year, realizing how transitory is my allotted time here, how much more do I love this wondrous world, knowing now that it is a promise of the splendor and glory to come…


“All have sinned and fall short…”

It’s taken me a long time to answer last week’s RCIA questions, and perhaps you’ll see why:

What has Jesus done to save me?

What is God doing to save me?

Those questions are at the same time deeply personal, and somewhat generic. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Christianity knows the “generic” answer to at least the first question, and many Christians can probably quote some pertinent Bible verses.

It’s only recently that salvation has become personal for me. “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” (Saint Augustine) Although blessed with so much, I felt empty until I returned to God. And that’s what Jesus has done to save me. His saving act upon the cross allows us to return to God, it bridges that separation, it enables that close, fulfilling relationship with God.

Throughout those years when I’d left Christianity and “dabbled” in Buddhism, it was as if I were subconsciously trying to work out my own salvation. I knew I was a sinner, feeling exactly as Paul did when he said (in his letter to the Romans):

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7: 15-20)

I could have said all of that, I was that frustrated with myself! The thing is, Buddhism does not believe in sin or evil, so any wrong thoughts or actions that one does, are supposed to be worked out on the meditation cushion. Calm your mind, and you will eventually no longer react angrily. Be mindful, live in the moment, and eventually you will no longer think impatient thoughts. Meditate on impermanence and you will no longer lust after people or things (because they’re impermanent, after all!) Meditate on your own death, and you will no longer fear death…

Now, I’m not saying this doesn’t work for some people (and I definitely met many calm, peaceful, happy Buddhists!) but I knew it wasn’t working for me. I was the same, sinful me after a decade of daily meditation as I was going in! The only thing different, was my despair at my feelings of emptiness and what I termed “spinning my wheels”. If I could have put it into words, I’d have said, “What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

And I also felt a desperate, almost despairing, need to believe in God! And although I felt the separation from God in my life, I also felt the potential for closeness, often while I was meditating — that thrill when the quiet in a room anticipates a sound, rather than dead silence. After awhile I could no longer deny that Presence. I could no longer deny my need for God. I need God to fill that emptiness and longing in my life. I need God to thank with overflowing gratitude for my blessings! I especially need God so that I can quit the endless, useless spinning of my wheels.

In my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7: 22-25)

We hear as children, “God is Love”, but I needed to experience that first-hand before I could believe it. For the first time I feel and believe I am loved and forgiven by God. I’m not sure what changed, except making small decisions to believe. To believe I could pray to Mary and she would hear my pleas for change in my life. To believe that the Presence I detect, and have been conscious of at moments throughout my life, is God’s Presence. To believe that the voice in my heart that is nudging me in certain directions is God’s Voice. To believe that my prayers and thoughts and gratitude and love for God are received. And to believe that this movement out of despair and lostness and toward God’s love and acceptance will continue.

God's Presence

And it is through Christ’s atoning sacrifice that I can be accepted back! “Just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful kindness rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 5: 21) I am so happy that I finally get it! 🙂

And emphasis on God’s wonderful kindness! It’s: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” Not “for God was so annoyed at the world”, or “for God so despaired of the world”, or “for God was so angry at the world”. Those reactions would have been justified, but I never experienced that from God when I returned to him. I only felt love and happiness! God freely gives of himself! It was Christ’s free gift that saves us! “My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” (John 10: 17-18)

And I recognize that this is an ongoing process. I lay down my sinful self before Christ in the Eucharist, and he atones for my and others’ sins. I constantly try to die to my sinful self, and instead live for Christ in me. I hope to continue to serve him the rest of my days. “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness!”

Prayer as Mind Training

The Buddha instructed his followers:

Do not commit any non-virtuous actions. Put energy into performing virtuous actions. Thoroughly tame your mind.

While I was practicing Buddhism, I came to realize everything within Buddhism is geared toward taming one’s mind — mind training. Meditation, reciting mantras, focusing on one’s breath, is done to keep one’s mind on virtuous motivation and activity. Because practicing virtue is pretty much impossible without taming the mind.

And I think that prayer does the same — trains our minds. The way you train a plant to grow in a certain way, by pruning it and focusing light on it, we must train our minds toward God’s will for us, and focus on doing his will instead of our own. And to do that, we have to pray constantly. Our “monkey-minds” are so easily distracted throughout the day that we have to practice a spiritual discipline just to be sure we are actively pursuing our virtuous wish to follow God’s will. We need something that focuses our minds on God all day.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Deuteronomy 6: 5-9

IDF soldier praying with tefillin
IDF soldier praying with Tefillin

The second question at RCIA the other night was “What are my top five reasons to pray? Are they selfless or selfish?” I don’t know that I have five different reasons for prayer, only about three: Praise, Thanksgiving and Petition (for myself and/or others). But I’m not sure that worrying about selfish/unselfish prayer is really important. Unless you’re pursuing Prosperity Theology, or you find that every single prayer is a demand for something from God, the important thing is that you’re praying. Like tefillin is placed on the forehead and hand, we symbolically place our intention to do God’s will in our minds and actions by constant prayer, a life of prayer“Seven times a day I praise You.” Psalm 118 (119): 164

This is why I love the Liturgy of the Hours, because it is a structured way of training the mind toward God, keeping one’s focus on his will, living a life of prayer. “The purpose of the Divine Office is to sanctify the day and all human activity.” (Apostolic Constitution, Canticum Laudis) I try to at least “bookend” my day with Morning Prayer and either Evening Prayer or Compline. Then sometime during the day I read scripture, pray the Rosary and the Divine Mercy chaplet, and do prostrations. My goal is to eventually pray more of the Hours.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

So, by praying constantly, our lives will eventually be in correct alignment with God’s will — it’s inevitable, because we will have the right focus throughout the day. We’ll have tamed ourselves to God’s hand.