Dr. Alice von Hildebrand Christians and the World

God has given human beings the amazing privilege of speech. Animals  do communicate by means of sounds and smells but they have been denied the use of words, that is meaningful, articulated sounds.

This privilege has its own dangers. The riches of the universe, the incredible variety of experiences, feelings, sensations, by far surpasses the human vocabulary, large as it is. This is so true that when referring to experiences which are particularly deep and sublime, we usually say, “words fail me.”

Great music does better! We often wish our vocabulary would be as rich as the sublime notes we find in Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to mention but a few.

Moreover, we often use the same word to refer to experiences which are radically different:  the word “shame” (in English) refers to things that should make us blush, or to things that are mysterious, personal, sacred, sublime, and call for veiling. Let me quote Sirach; “There is a shame which brings sin, and there is a shame which brings glory and favour.” (IV, 21. London, Catholic Truth Society).

The word “pride“ in English refers both to a  most poisonous vice, and also a compliment: “I am proud of you.” In French, pride (orgueil) is a negative. We should check carefully  the meaning given to words. Failure to do so can lead to grave equivocations. The word “world” is a case in point.

What can we mean by “world?” First, we can refer to the magnificent material universe created by God,  with its awesome beauty, embracing immense  planets, and tiny insects.  When Creation was completed God declared that it was very good. (Gen. 1-31). Great poets have eloquently proclaimed the beauty of the “world.”

The psalms keep singing God’s glory as revealed in nature: “…Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command… (Psalm 148). 

When God calls His creation “good,” He was referring to its ontological dignity, and not to any moral quality. Only personal beings can be “morally good“ or “morally evil.” This clarification is crucial. There is not a single being coming out of the Creator’s hands which is deprived of ontological value, and therefore is not “good.”

But there are many who erroneously assume that this also applies to human actions, and that therefore, everything being good, what we call evil is only a lack of goodness, and that it is a duty of charity to look for the good behind the evil. Moral dis-values entered into the world through sin.

Let us compare this praise of the “world,” with the words that Christ used at the Last Supper as related by St. John (Chapter XIII). He tells us that the world “does not know my Father.” This chapter containing the most sublime words ever uttered by the God-man, is also the one proclaiming the most fearful condemnation of “the world,” found in John 17, verse 9: “I do not pray for the world.”

He, who is Love incarnate, (there is no greater love than to offer one’s life for one’s friends), utters a conviction of the “world” which is so fearful that every time I read it I shudder. Christ goes further. He tells us that the “world” hates Him – the Holy One – and tells  His disciples that just as the “world” has hated Him, it will hate them too. because they loved Him (verses 15 – 18).
What does he mean by these fearful words?  Other passages of the Gospel give us a clue. When referring to the “world,” Christ clearly means the Kingdom of Satan, The Prince of this World, a murderer from the very beginning, the incarnate lie and the arch enemy of the one who said: “I am the Truth.”

It is therefore luminous why He refuses to pray for a world which is Lucifer’s kingdom. One cannot save whoever has solemnly rejected salvation. How right C.S. Lewis was when he wrote that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside. Because they do not want redemption, they hate the Redeemer.

In his monumental work, “The Liturgical Year,” Dom Gueranger writes: “The fundamental rule of Christian life is, as almost every page of the Gospel tells us, that we should live out of the world, separate ourselves from the world, hate the world. The world is that ungodly land which Abraham, our sublime model, is commanded by God to quit. It is that Babylon of our exile and captivity, where we are beset with dangers. The beloved disciple cries out to us: “Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world. If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him.” (Septuagesima, p. 199).   

These words are fearful indeed. Those of us still in this vale of tears, should never lose sight of the fact that we are in a battle field facing the Enemy of mankind who, like a roaring lion looks for a victim to devour. A moment of somnolence, a moment of self assurance, can bring about a grave moral fall. It can ever happen while administering an exorcism: that is a face to face confrontation with the Evil one, while armed with the powerful tools given us by Holy Church.

Our deadly enemy never sleeps. He can tempt monks fleeing into the desert (St. Anthony); it can penetrate into religious orders; he can prey on us while in Church. Sobrii estote et vigilate…

But the message of Christ is luminous: the world in this sense is the Kingdom of Evil. There is a clear Either Or: The City of God or the City of Satan. There is no “both and,” there is no  “in between,”  just as little as there is a middle ground between the truth and the lie. The “world” as the City of Satan, is our deadly enemy.

Finally, we can mean by “world” the society in which we are born and in which we live. Very few of us receive the extraordinary vocation to be anchorites. Their vocation strikes many people as a form of madness. 

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They will accuse these privileged souls of being cowards, selfish individuals, so self centered that their only concern is their own salvation. These are people “refusing” to contribute to “progress” and the material betterment of human conditions. (Joseph, the l8th century Emperor of Austria, waged war on contemplative orders, while respecting “active” orders who were doing something for humanity).

But those blessed with spiritual hearing not only believe but know that silence, contemplation, prayer and penance do more for the world than what “busy-ness can ever achieve. It is often self seeking, garbed with the vestment of “love for humanity.” Behind this façade lurks the pursuit of honor, money and power. It is noisy, but does not create music.

Most of us are called to live in society with other human beings coming from a huge variety of backgrounds, cultures and beliefs. If one lives in an apartment building, one inevitably is in daily contact with a surprising variety of views and outlooks. Some people are believers; some are indifferent; some are atheists. Some are kind and helpful. Some are unfriendly and selfish. A single such building is a “small cosmos” and could be an inspiration for any talented writer.  

This also applies to one’s professional life. Spending one’s life teaching at a university is a most enriching experience. It is true indeed that one finds both “wheat” and “cockle” wherever we go. It is, however, seriously misleading to write that this also applies to the Church and to the world, without making it clear that by “church” is meant sinful members of the church and not to the Church as Holy Bride of Christ, who is “without blemish and without wrinkles.” I know by experience that non Catholics have no clue as to what is meant by the Holy Catholic Church. It is true that the fields of both “church’ and the world share the same fate: a mixture of good and evil. But the consequence to be drawn is that we should wisely pick up the wheat in both fields while rejecting the tares they share.
This claim sounds charitable and fair. To state that we find “weeds” “in the church” (its members)  is sadly true, provided it clearly refers to its sinners who “officially” belong to the Church. Among her members, there are good and bad fish. The Bible, a book authorized by God, tells us that although the Jews were God’s chosen ones and therefore highly  privileged people, there were good and holy ones, and also great sinners.

This also applies to the “pagan”’ world. It gave us a Socrates and some very unsavory characters. When Socrates declared that if someone proved him to be wrong, he would consider him to be his greatest benefactor, our response should be one of boundless admiration. It is a superb “existential“ refutation of the Calvinistic claim that original sin has perverted our nature to its very core. Our modern world would do well to learn from The wise man of Greece, (as Kierkegaard always refers to him) and that Plato called “…the wisest and justest (sic) and the best man I have ever known (Phaedo, 118).”
Such wise men are rare and desperately needed today in our colleges and universities. 

We cannot “flee” from the world in this sense. If God placed us in a concrete situation, this is where He expects us to put our humble talents at His service. Every Catholic, every Christian for that matter, is necessarily “engaged” in the world and is called upon to be a missionary: we have been the beneficiaries of The Good News, and are called upon to share it with others. The radiance of this message of joy can even lead to a conversion in an elevator as I was once privileged to experience !
But we  should not assume that because it is our mission to “engage” in the world, we need not take precautions when entering a “danger zone,” and forget for a single moment that Satan never sleeps.

No man is permitted to practice medicine, if he does not have a valid medical diploma. No one can teach at a university if he does not have the proper credentials. If one does not practice his faith,  does not pray,  forgets that “without God he can do nothing,” and thereby “engages” in our so called culture, and our decadent world, he is like a person visiting a patient afflicted by a infectious disease without wearing protective garments. 

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One cannot give what one does not have. (Nemo dat quod non habet). The endemic ignorance of their faith which characterized most Catholics in the aftermath of Vatican II,  has not equipped them to do “missionary” work. He who has accepted the popular view that everything is relative, and that everybody has a right to his own opinion (why should your opinion be better than mine?) not only cannot help others, but moreover, is likely to catch their disease.

Worse yet are those infected by the spirit of the time, who “believe” that the Church has changed on all fundamental issues, has finally came out of the ghetto of the Middle ages, and are eloquent at propagating heresies, whether they realize it or not.

There are also those armed with a shallow optimism who assume that everybody is good, or at least seeks the good, and are totally unaware of the difficulty of evangelization. The danger is great for the evangelizer who goes about his “mission” totally unprepared for the arduous task lying in front of him, remains unaware that our society is afflicted with some deadly disease,  and refuses to take the  indispensable precautions to protect himself from catching the contagious disease of dictatorial relativism. Before “engaging” with the world, prayer, the sacraments, sacrifice are essentially required.

Alas, many sicknesses are contagious; health is not. Those of us who have had the doubtful privilege of staying long in rehab, and became acquainted with the layout of these places of penance – my name for hospitals – know that there is a special section for infectious diseases. No one is permitted to enter except those who have received the assignment of serving  the sick. But before entering  this forbidden space, doctors and nurses cover themselves with special gowns, wear masks, never touch the patient directly, and upon leaving the room, once again, go through a whole procedure to make sure that they have not caught deadly germs.

Are these precautions taken by those Catholics who “engage with the world,” but they expose themselves to grave moral dangers? There are “red zones” including certain types of bars, movies, dark places where most people should never enter. What of those poor creatures enslaved in such places of harm? Should they be abandoned to their fate? Far from it; we all have the strict duty to pray and sacrifice  for those of our brothers who are “sick unto death.” Moreover, there are extraordinary cases in which God calls some of his children  to penetrate into places of horror because he had given them a special mission. For them it had become “the theme of Christ.” St. Raymond of Pennaford and  St. Peter Nolasco received the  mission to go to the dreadful jails in North Africa where innumerable Christians were held captives by Muslims in the most awful moral, physical and psychological conditions.

They did a great work because they were  spiritually armed and never forgot that without God, they could do nothing. Those called upon to actively “engage” in the world and its decadent culture, need a long novitiate. It is easy to harm our neighbor; it is only with God’s grace that we can truly help him.

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