“Our friends were too worldly and too clever at mixing the pleasure of the world with the service of God. They scarcely gave a thought to death…. And I knew that all is fleeting that we cherish here under the sun. The only good thing is to love God with all one’s heart and to stay poor in spirit” (Saint Therese of Lisieux)
“[The Lenten wilderness] helps us to say ‘no’ to worldliness, to ‘idols’, it helps us to make courageous choices in line with the Gospel and to strengthen our solidarity with our brothers and sisters.” (Pope Francis)
Our spiritual warfare is against the world, the flesh and the devil. But of these three enemies, how much time do we spend battling the world? It is worth a moment’s reflection to consider to what extent our values and desires have been influenced by the world.
I bring this problem of worldliness to your attention because it is so often mentioned by the great spiritual writers (it is a constant theme of Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ). Our Lord, on Holy Thursday, prayed earnestly for his disciples to be protected from the world in John 17. Now, here are two quotes that underscore the importance of combating worldliness, one from the great Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the other from Father Faber:
“The shortest and almost the only way to achieve sanctity is to have a horror for all which the world loves and embraces.” (Saint Ignatius of Loyola)
“It is this world which we have to fight against throughout the whole of our Christian course. Our salvation depends upon our unforgiving enmity against it.” (F.W. Faber)
I think these two quotes are of incredible significance. Who can doubt that so many of the challenges the church faces come from worldliness. The world doesn’t mind if you go to mass on Sunday or mumble a prayer or two, just as long as you pledge your primary allegiance to it. It’s not like the world dislikes God: it just feels it can get along fine without Him. The world doesn’t like God to get in the way! I don’t mean to set up a dualism between God and the world. After all it is the same Ignatius who encourages us “to seek God in all things.” And Ignatius wants us to engage the world.
But there is a “strange attraction” in the world which makes us forget about God. We focus on the shopping mall, on endless hours of useless talk radio, on sports adinfinitum, on mindless TV shows, and on many other things that keep our senses so inflamed with superficial information that we simply don’t even understand what it means to be recollected in prayer.
This is why Saint Ignatius is so emphatic that we keep our eternal destiny foremost in mind as we lead our lives, and that we use all created things to further this end rather than to impede it. Created things should be used as God intended them, to give glory to God, rather than to drown us in a sea of fabricated wants and desires that force us to pig-out on things that are of very little value in the final analysis.
Our Lord was born in a cave and his first bed was a manger. He died nailed to a cross. His whole life seems to have been a gigantic testimony against worldliness. The antidote to worldliness is prayer, fasting, love of the poor, detachment from things and, perhaps most of all, constant meditation on our Lord’s Passion. Looking at our crucified Lord is a great protection against worldliness, which is why the cross has always been a scandal and foolishness to those in the world (1 Cor. 1:22-24).
Wishing you a blessed, holy and profitable Lent!
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
Inspiration: Thomas a Kempis, Saint Ignatius, F.W. Faber (see his chapter on worldliness in The Creator and the Creature, one of the greatest books I have ever read).