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Along the Way
The World
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If pilgrimage is an apt image of the Christian life, with its separation from the routines of every day life, inner transformation, and eventual return to the demands of daily living, then we must begin with some understanding of our relationship with the "world". Pilgrimage involves a change in our relationship with the world. What is it that we refer to when we use the word "world"? What are we doing when we change our relationship with the "world"?

Around the year 350 AD a young man named Anthony was sitting in Church listening to the priest preach on the Gospel story of another young man who asked Jesus what must he do to obtain eternal life. Anthony found it difficult to concentrate on the homily. He was not yet out of his teen years when both his parents died leaving him responsibility for a large farm, several businesses and properties in town, as well as the care of his younger sister. He was not interested in these things. He wanted only to serve God. As he listened to the homily, the preacher repeated the words of Christ, "Go, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and come, follow me." The words touched Anthony's heart. He was the rich young man to whom Jesus was speaking. He would not turn away like the young man in the Gospel. In the weeks following that experience, Anthony was able to sell the family property, arrange for the care of his sister with some of it, and the rest he gave to the poor. Then he set off for the desert, abandoning the "world" and seeking God.

The example of Anthony leaving the "world" to find God has been the model for the Christian understanding of the relationship of the Christian to the "world" for hundreds of years. Those Christians who left the "world" sought the Kingdom of God. They sought to single-mindedly serve the Lord through their prayer and actions. Obviously, they did not board some spaceship and actually leave this world. Rather, they left the ordinary routine of buying and selling, of marriage and raising children, of politics and influence. They tried to live with their hearts and minds focused only on God and the Kingdom of God.

It was not that buying and selling were bad or that marriage and family life were not Christian. Those Christians who fled the "world" understood the positive value of work, marriage, and family life. Yet, they wanted more. They wanted to experience God and to do his will with every fiber of their being and felt that even the good things of life, such as Christian family life, would distract them from their quest.

There was also an element of fear involved. While Christian family life was truly a way of perfection for the believer who lead a life of virtue and gave positive example to others, there were so many negative influences with which to contend. There are sharp contrasts between what the "world" values and what is valued in the Gospel. The Christian finds himself or herself living on a battlefield. Much of daily living is carried on in the "world", exposed to values and beliefs that are not Christian. Indeed, there are elements in the "world" that are anti-Christian. Those who fled the "world" for the desert, and later for the monasteries and convents, felt that their chances of experiencing a life of Christian perfection were much better away from the "world" and its temptations than contending with Satan in the confusion and chaos of the city or the market place.

This was not a new battle. During the persecution, a few years earlier before the Emperor was a Christian, many Christians were martyred because they refused to compromise with the "world".

Romans were a sophisticated people. They were patriotic as well. They knew that the Emperors were far from being divine. However, they respected the office of Emperor, as the Emperor symbolized the Empire. In his person the glory and power of the Roman Empire took on flesh and blood. The Romans believed in the divine as the force behind nature, beauty, virtue and fate. This force found expression in the tales of the gods, even though few believed in the gods as literal divine persons. To offer incense or some other small sacrifice to the gods, was to respect the principle they represented. Thus, when the Romans demanded that all people offer a sacrifice of incense to a statue of the Emperor, they were asking no more than a sign of respect for the principle of government authority. It was not an act of worship as much as it was an act of patriotism.

Jews had trouble with this symbolic sacrifice, as did Christians. God was not only the deity of the Jewish people, He was also their king. They could not acknowledge the lordship of an earthly ruler, as this Roman custom implied, without forsaking God's lordship over that part of their lives. The Romans were not happy with this Jewish attitude but as long as it did not produce armed resistance they tolerated it. After all, the Jews were an ancient people with traditions that went back as far as the dawn of history. The Romans respected tradition.

Christians inherited this attitude from their Jewish religious roots. However, they were not an ancient people. They were a mixed bag of Jews and Gentiles, slaves, bond servants, and middle class townspeople. Where the Romans could understand the influence of tradition on the attitudes of Jews, they saw only treason and insubordination in the Roman and Greek Christians who refused to do their patriotic duty in offering incense to the statue of Caesar-symbol of the government. A modern equivalent might be Christians refusing to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag because they can owe allegiance only to God.

The Christian looked at life around him in the Roman Empire and felt that not only could he not offer allegiance to the Empire but that he had to flee from the Empire. He saw a nation where abortion, infanticide, promiscuity, adultery, and every form of abuse was common. Divorce was more common than the faithful and permanent marriage. Corruption in political office was normal. Judges could be bought and sold. Governors and legislators looked out for their own interests before those of the people for whom they were responsible. They saw a society where evil was glorified and virtue ridiculed. For them it was not lofty ideals of virtue which were the principles expressed in the official acts of Roman worship, as it was in the minds of pagan Roman citizens. Rather, judging by the fruit of the Empire, they could see only the demonic as the power behind the Roman Empire. For the Christian, any cooperation with the Roman Empire, except for obedience in political matters as demanded by Scripture itself, was a betrayal of God and submission to demonic forces.

The Roman rulers who understood the beliefs of the Christian community correctly perceived Christians to be enemies of the Empire. Christians were opposed to almost everything that was identified with Roman culture and political theory. The Roman Empire was a clear expression of the "world" that Christians were opposed to and sought to flee. Even after Constantine and the Christianization" of the Roman Empire, it did not take long for many Christians to realize that the Empire had changed little. It was still very much the "world" and opposed in many ways to the demands of the Gospel.

Two thousand years later the Roman Empire is gone. Yet, the culture, values, and political ideals that found expression in the Roman Empire are with us today little changed from their ancient forms. Abortion is back. Virtue is ridiculed and evil glorified. The governments of the world are quite reasonable in their demands, as was the Roman Empire. However, these demands now subvert our faith and our submission to God's demands. The clearest example is when our tax dollars pay for abortions or for questionable military adventures.

What are we to do? How can we be faithful to our Lord and oppose the demonic as it finds expression in contemporary society? Are we able to follow a way of life that places God first and judges everything by God's standard? What is our relationship to the "world" in this last decade of the twentieth century? What should that relationship be?

Within the Christian Tradition there has been a strong tendency to flee from the "world" and its temptations. The "world" has been seen by many as so compromised that no one can function within the "world" without being corrupted. The pre-eminent example of this tradition is St. Anthony and those who followed him into the desert and monasteries to spend their lives in prayer and contemplation..

Yet, flight from the "world" is not the only response that Christians have taken over the years. St. Francis and St. Ignatius Loyola, among many others, sought to battle the "world" with its greed, lust, and corruption. They hoped to bring the "world" to conversion and to defeat the evil that polluted the good creation God had formed. It is this second tendency in Christianity that seems to have characterized the Church in the later half of this century. Allow me to illustrate with the example of another young man.

Two days after the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1941, a young man fled the "world" for the life of a Trappist monk at the Monastery of Gethsemani near Louisville, Kentucky. He was accepted. For the next seventeen years of his life, he was no longer in the "world" in the usual sense. He lived the rigors of the monastic life working the fields, as well as spending hours each day in prayer and contemplation. He wrote poetry, theological reflections and pious articles about the saints with the encouragement of his Abbot. He was the perfect example of the tradition that began with St. Anthony and his contemporaries, those who sought God in the desert or other lonely places. The monk's name was Thomas Merton. His autobiography and other spiritual writings were published and soon became best sellers. He became a spiritual hero to several generations of Catholics and was instrumental in sparking religious vocations in thousands of youth throughout the fifties, sixties, and beyond.

One day in 1958 he went into Louisville on an errand. As he stood on the corner of Fourth and Walnut, waiting to cross the street, he was surprised by the crowds which moved quickly through the streets in every direction. This was only the second time in many years that he was away from the tranquillity of the rural monastery. Merton was overwhelmed with the realization that he loved all those people. He felt a bond with these people that prevented them from ever being total strangers. He began to see that the idea of life apart from the "world" is an illusion. Our world is a given, a responsibility we cannot avoid. He came to the conclusion that, "It is only in assuming full responsibility for our world, for our lives and for ourselves that we can be said to live really for God."

Merton spent the rest of his life in the monastery. He was a monk. However, he was also a writer. The nature of his writings changed in the years that followed. They were much more probing, concerned with responsibility, morality, and social issues. He was a catalyst for the civil rights and anti-war movement of the sixties even though he only rarely left the monastery.

There is a danger that the "world" with its distractions and temptations will subvert our faith. Yet, the danger exists as well that in fleeing from the world we only blind ourselves to the violent and threatening reality that is swirling around us. We can not hide from the "world". We are responsible for it, along with everyone else. What is needed is a way to find a balance; to retreat from the chaos of the "world" for a while, yet continue to engage the "world" responsibly.

We need to flee the "world" at times, before it overpowers us. We need time for prayer and reflection. We need to "smell the roses". We need time to enjoy our relationships with others. We need time to discover who we are and what is important. We need time to be strengthened and refreshed. This is our responsibility to ourselves.

Before long however, we must face the world and its challenges. The ancient Christians went to their deaths as martyrs as their way to challenge the world. Their challenge worked. The pagan world fell. Our world offers its challenges and we must confront them. In Latin America and a few other places, standing up to the challenge may mean martyrdom. Most places standing up to the challenge of the world means living contrary to the dominant values of the community. It may mean standing up for the poor in a community where the poor are left to care for themselves. It may mean being honest in situations where most people lie. It may mean being a virgin until one is married in the Church. It may mean being faithful to your partner. It may mean being sober. It may mean opposing laws and bills that are unjust or favor a few. We must do what ever the particular situation demands as we exercise our responsibility for the world.

Around the time of the American and French Revolutions a strange thing happened which effects us even today. People began to doubt the existence of God. This is strange because for thousands of years people accepted that God existed. They may not have lived very spiritual lives but they at least acknowledged that God existed. Those who were members of this movement called it the "Enlightenment". They taught that about all we can know is our own existence, because the simple fact that we can think about the fact that we exist proves that we exist. Otherwise, if we didn't exist, how could we think about anything?

The ability to think logically was praised as the hope for our future. Logic was seen as more important to humanity than God. Members of this movement argued that people couldn't see, hear, or touch God. If God existed then he only worked through human beings, who in turn were at their greatest when they made good use of their ability to reason. They began to think of God as irrelevant, even if he did exist. The result was that human intellect and achievement were exalted in people's understanding of how the world works and the role of God was ignored. I will refer to this group as humanists, even though there is a wide variety of groups who claim this identity.

This view of humanity did not disappear but continued to develop until today it is very common. We see it in many forms. One form is in the large number of people who are not members of any religion. Another form is the variety of philosophies that ignore the spirit and deal only with what can be perceived by the senses. The way people make decisions is also another sign of the spread of this view.

When people make decisions, they normally try to choose the best option from those available. The criteria by which they choose the best option is important. The Christian is able to choose the best option because he or she examines the situation in the light of the Gospel. Which or the options are good and which are evil? Which of the options are consistent with Christ's teachings? Which of the options are closer to the choice Christ would make? The Christian has specific values that are part of his or her heritage of faith that can be used in trying to decide on how to act.

Those who follow the tradition begun with the "Enlightenment" have fewer criteria against which to make their choice. Will the option produce some benefit? Will the option reach its goal effectively. Will option reach its goal at the least cost. The criteria of judgment are very practical. Is it possible? Will it work? Can we afford it?

The two ways of thinking are not necessarily opposed. The Christian asks questions that relate to the value of a particular course of action. The humanist asks questions that relate to the practicality of a particular course of action. The Christian needs to be practical in his or her choices. However, the humanist needs to understand the broader impact of his or her choices. When the two are joined, the best decisions can be made. When separated, difficulty is ahead.

We see an example of these very different ways of thinking in an interview that the Marianas Variety printed last week with Tinian Senator David Cing and the CNMI Public Defender Dan de Rienzo. They represent the humanist viewpoint. In the interview they argue that prostitution should be legalized in the CNMI.

The values that prompt their position are apparent from their arguments. The Senator sees prostitution as a way to help the CNMI economy. The Public Defender sees legalized prostitution as easier to enforce than a situation where prostitution is illegal and occurs in the "underground". Their motivating values are practical but with no reference to broader issues.

Several months ago Bishop Camacho submitted testimony to the Legislature on bills that dealt with prostitution. His arguments against prostitution saw it as an affront to human dignity in that it treated women as a commodity whose worth existed only in their role as sex objects; it increased the threat of sexually transmitted diseases; it violated the sanctity of marriage; it created an image of the CNMI that might damage family oriented tourism; and, it was opposed in Scripture again and again. These arguments dealt with prostitution both from the level of practical concerns as well as larger moral and ethical concerns.

This book uses the image of our pilgrimage toward God and our heavenly home as its overall theme. Any trip requires that we make decisions. We must follow one path and reject another. The same is true of our lives. We must make choices on our pilgrimage toward God and those choices will effect us for all eternity. We must make choices not only as individuals but as a community as well. Those choices must be made well for they can make this community a wonderful place to live or they can destroy it. A choice that is made in light of immediate and practical concerns alone, without sufficient reference to community values, as well as ethical and moral concerns, is a dangerous choice.

Pilgrimage is never easy. Part of its attraction is that it is a challenge. In the middle ages pilgrims set out with the distinct possibility that they would never see their homes again. Arriving home from a pilgrimage was not only the fulfillment of a spiritual journey, it was completion of an adventure . . . often in the "Indiana Jones" meaning of the word. They had to contend with robbers, warring armies, unstable political situations, corrupt officials, disease, and the demands of traveling long distances on foot.

While we can travel to places of pilgrimage by jet and car today, a pilgrimage of the spirit is as demanding today as it ever was. As we journey toward the Kingdom of God we can expect difficulty. This is important to remember because it is easy to fall into the trap of expecting that since Our Father loves us our journey to heaven will be smooth and painless. Christ's journey to the Father lead him there by way of the cross. We can expect no different. St. Teresa of Avila once complained to God, after a very difficult day, that she was trying to do his will but that he was not making it very easy for her. God responded that he tested his friends with difficulty. St. Teresa thought for a moment and commented back to God, "No wonder you have so few friends!"

Difficulties in life come from a number of sources. Some we can avoid, others will follow us no matter what we do.

There are difficulties that come simply from human nature. The loss of a loved one to death is such a difficulty, as is the weakness that comes with old age or disease. Such difficulties are to be faced with grace. They are painful opportunities from which we can learn important lessons. They can help us grow and mature, as we face the accompanying pain and allow it to make our hearts more tender and compassionate.

There are difficulties that come from evil; which we unleash upon the world through our actions or which others have unleashed. Such difficulties are unnecessary and could have been avoided. Once unleashed however they take on a life of their own and must be opposed. Such opposition includes prayer, action for justice, reparation, reconciliation. The temptation here is to respond to evil with more evil -- revenge. We see such a situation in Bosnia, where the nation is being ripped apart and innocent lives are being lost every day to mindless revenge. The only winners in that conflict are the demons of Hell.

Some difficulties do come from God. They may seem unfair at first but as we gain a broader perspective on events we find them to be opportunity and grace. You may have heard the story of the old rancher whose horse ran away from the corral into the hills. His neighbors came and expressed their sorrow on his loss. He told them not to be too sad, he still needed to see what would happen. A few days later the horse came back home with another ten wild horses following him into the corral. The neighbors went to congratulate the rancher, who told them to wait. Later that day the rancher's son tried to ride one of the new horses and broke his leg in the process. The neighbors came to offer their condolences, to which the rancher gave his usual response. . . wait! A few days later the government officials came to town and drafted all the young able-bodied men into the army and marched them off to training. The rancher's son was excused from Army duty because of his broken leg. Were these events a blessing or difficulties? They were opportunities that God gave to the rancher and his family, opportunities that brought new challenges and new blessings.

The pilgrim does not hide from difficulty. He or she expects to find it as a part of the spiritual journey. The pilgrim prepares for it with the discipline of prayer and virtue and faces it when confronted. The pilgrim may seem to experience the horrors of Hell and see only darkness and despair. Yet, the wise pilgrim trusts in the Lord. There is no difficulty that can not be faced and overcome in the grace of Christ. The image of Christ in the garden of Gethsemeni sweating drops of blood and asking that "the cup" of his passion may pass from him reminds us that struggling through difficulty is part of the human condition, for even Christ had to struggle.

Personal experience has taught me that there are times when hope seems pretty thin. It feels like Christ demands that I walk on water. Yet, every time I have had such difficulties, things did work out in the end.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.