Wednesday, May 9, 2012

After This, Our Exile

“We have all forgotten what we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget.” 
― G.K. Chesterton

Yesterday's Morning Prayer included the canticle from Tobit, which included a favorite verse of mine: In the land of my exile, I will praise him.

Whether its a beautiful day when I'm loving the world I live in, or one of those mildly depressed days when I'm restless and very  aware that the world is not our true home, I always pause on any scripture verses that reference this world as a place of exile. Other such verses include 1 Peter 2:11--I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.; Levitiicus 25:23:The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me; and, from Psalm 119, your commands have become my song in the land of my exile.

Pondering the whole subject of "in the world but not of the world" has always fascinated me. It's a consoling thought to remember that we don't really belong here, that our true home lies elsewhere. The Chesterton quote above fits nicely here, along with all of what C.S. Lewis writes about joy and longing.
But the next question is this. Okay, we're exiles. This is not our true home. So how does that affect the time that we spend here, in the far colonies of the Kingdom of Heaven? Should lay people live in Amish-like withdrawal from the world? Or should they thoroughly "engage the culture" which they live in? Probably there is a balance to be struck, and this will vary from one individual, or one family, to another.

Today's Office of Readings includes a reading, "from a letter to Diognetus", that discusses the "living in exile" question. We don't know the author of this letter. Some think is was St. Justin, other, Ireneus. It might have been written any time between 170 and 300 A.D. It is perfectly relevant today. Here is the complete text,copied and pasted from ibreviary for you convenience:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.

Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.