At the very beginning of our Christian life, when the waters of baptism washed away the stain of original sin, we (personally or through our parents and godparents) renounced Satan and all his works and pomps, that is, all worldliness and false maxims of this world which would lead us to love pleasure, riches, honors and power more than Christ. It is not that these things are evil, but that, because of the weakness of human nature they easily enslave the heart of man so that he seeks them in a way or to a degree that causes him to disregard the laws of God. By our baptism, then, we have not renounced the world as such, for all that God has created is good (Gen. 1:31). It is the misuse or abuse of what God has created that we renounce, an abuse that draws us away from the love and service of God and neighbor. It is in this sense that St. John wrote “the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19).
The ultimate warfare in this world that has gone on since the fall of our first parents and will continue until the end of time, is that between our divine Savior and Satan. It is a spiritual battle for the souls of men. The ultimate defeat of Satan is already assured through the Passion of Christ, yet in the divine plan the devil and his angels are allowed to tempt souls through their own human weaknesses and the enticements of this world; for it is the will of the Creator that our love for Him be tested and proven in order to attain the eternal beatitude for which we were created.
The danger lies in that the world offers so many attractions that seem to promise happiness; and though many of those attractions are not in themselves sinful, they can captivate the heart to such an extent that one becomes lax, if not outright negligent and forgetful of his duties to God. Then too, many of the world’s attractions are clearly sinful, yet the prince of this world, the “father of lies” (Jn. 8:44), deceives so many in believing that they are not only justifiable, but beneficial to mankind.
So many of the sources that form public opinion (the daily press, television, movies, books, magazines) - deceived by the Evil One - are presenting under the guise of good, practices that are forbidden by the divine and natural law: artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, premarital sex, etc. The more one is captivated by the spirit of the world, the more one is open to this deception of the “father of lies,” and tends to look upon the Church as “old fashioned” and failing to keep up with modern progress. How many are misled by all this, failing to see that the arguments put forth are simply an appeal to the baser appetites and passions of man. The guidance of reason enlightened by faith is pushed into the background, if not entirely blotted out.
Because of all this, there is need to be on our guard as to what the world puts forth as lawful and normal. What we used to refer to as needed “discipline” in certain areas, is now at times looked upon as self-repression and unnatural. Natural instincts, we are told, should not be repressed lest this give rise to disturbances of one’s psyche. In line with this, many restrictions are placed on the correction and discipline of children, even though the Scriptures warn again and again of the ill effects where such discipline is lacking.
For the most part, what draws many away from following Christ, or what makes them lax in doing so, are not the pleasures or practices that are clearly against the law of God; but attractions innocent in themselves when used in moderation, but which have the power to bring one to prefer them to the demands of religion and the benefits of the sacraments. We are told to be “in the world, but not of the world,” that is, not captivated by its spirit. We are to use the goods of this world and its enjoyments for the purpose that God intended, as means in the attainment of our final end, and not to allow them to become the end of all our striving. As St. Leo the Great warns, we must be careful not to become like the man who set out on a journey, but became so attracted by the many enticements along the way, that he forgot where he was going. The Scriptures admonish us to keep in mind that we are but “pilgrims” on the way to our fatherland (l Pet. 2:11), and that here we have “no permanent city” (Heb. 13:14).
So we are on a journey for the few short years of our earthly life, the destination of which is eternal beatitude with God in the life beyond. This journey can be a happy one in the enjoyment of the lawful pleasures of life if they are sought in moderation, and in keeping with God’s word handed down by the Church. But because of the weaknesses of our fallen nature, that moderation will not be observed without applying discipline to our weaknesses and self-denial to our appetites. And the necessary self-denial will be lacking if we do not seek the help of God’s grace through prayer and the sacraments, and reflect often on the final goal of our existence.
A pilgrim traveler carries along what he needs, but does not like to be burdened with things not needed for the journey, or that would impede its fulfillment. And since life is but a journey, it is important that one not become burdened with unnecessary possessions and attachments to the extent that he frequently loses sight of his eternal goal. To safeguard against this, he must achieve a healthy detachment towards the goods and goals of this world, so that they serve and not hinder his progress.
The detachment of which we speak does not imply giving up everything, nor does it mean a lack of interest in everything. It means that one is free from attachment to the world’s goods, giving one the capacity to enjoy the satisfactions the world offers that are in keeping with the divine plan, and to refrain from those that are not.
The human soul, by its very nature, yearns for happiness; and man, in his obscured spiritual vision and his innate self-seeking tendencies, can easily be deceived into thinking it can be found among the pleasures of the world. Yet, the happiness offered by the world is only a temporary enjoyment of some passing satisfaction, that invariably loses its attraction and ends in delusion. It was meant to be so by God, who made man for Himself, that we might turn to Him who alone can satisfy all the cravings of the human heart.
Among the effects of original sin, in addition to the loss of sanctifying grace, man’s lower nature (bodily appetites and passions) is no longer under the perfect control of his higher nature (intellect and will), and this opens the door to conflict in three weakened areas of human nature referred to by St. John.
Insofar as one is affected by this threefold concupiscence, he is imbued with the spirit of the world (worldliness), which rebels against the guidance of reason enlightened by faith. The spirit of the world and the spirit of Christ are irreconcilable; the more one is influenced by one of them, the less he is by the other.
As we have already pointed out, the prince of this world and his countless army of fallen angels are engaged in a struggle to win souls redeemed by Christ. The waging of this battle for souls has been entrusted by Christ to His Mother, who (by the power of Christ) will crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). The point we are stressing is that the more one is influenced by the spirit of the world, to that extent he/she is veering away from Christ, and is gradually succumbing to the enticements of the Evil One whose wish is our eternal damnation. “No man can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or he will stand by one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Mt. 6:24). We will examine briefly these three weaknesses of our wounded human nature.
St. Thomas defines concupiscence as the appetite for pleasure, which is something good when its fulfillment is sought and enjoyed in keeping with the intentions of the Creator. As the author of nature, God has endowed certain actions with pleasure that are necessary for the preservation of the individual (nutrition), and for the preservation of the species (generation). As a result of original sin, however, the appetite for pleasure in these matters, because of its intensity and because of the lack of full control by reason, often makes demands that go beyond the limits placed by reason enlightened by faith. It is for this reason that St. Paul speaks of the combat between the flesh and the spirit. “I am delighted with the law of God according to the inner man, but I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law that is in my members” (Rom. 7:21-23). For this reason Christian mortification has always recommended that one deprive himself at times of certain lawful pleasures, not because they are in any way wrong, but to strengthen the will to refrain from pleasures that are not lawful, and to make reparation for the many times and ways that this concupiscence has led one to seek pleasures that are contrary to the guidance of reason enlightened by faith.
Lack of control in this particular weakness not only distances one from God, but causes one to lose the taste for divine things, as St. Paul explains: “The sensual man does not perceive the things that are of the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). And as St. Thomas points out, lust causes spiritual blindness, and gluttony causes dullness of the spiritual sense. (For a detailed consideration of this see Vol. 50, n.3)
However, just as the appetites of the body for pleasure are not obstacles to salvation when sought and enjoyed in keeping with the intention of the Creator, so neither is the world as such. Many Christians living in the world, some with considerable possessions, live truly saintly lives. Fathers of families must work to secure the good of this world and their increase as needed for the well being of their families. Yet, because of the particular weakness of human nature of which we are speaking, attachment to the goods of this world can become a formidable obstacle to spiritual growth. Today’s society has in many respects created a culture without God; and without the inspiration and motivation that comes from God’s grace, the selfish inclinations of our human nature tend to take over, and cause one to seek this world’s goods not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, so that they become the prime concern of one’s existence, leaving one with little concern about the rights of God and the needs of others. How often does it happen that the more one acquires, the more he desires, and the laws of God do not stand in the way. And this, even though as a rule, the more one has the greater his anxiety about guarding it and his fear of losing it. To such a one, wealth may bring prestige and renown, but it does not bring peace of mind and true happiness.
The Christian spirit of detachment from the goods of this world is inseparable from trust in the providence of God, who is the ultimate source of all the goods of this world, and who provides for the needs of those who trust in Him. Our Lord, in the sermon on the mount, chides those who are lacking in this trust. “Do not be anxious, asking: ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’. . . for your heavenly Father knows you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given you besides" (Mt. 6:31-34).
And for those not wanting in the goods of this world, but in the detachment from them, St. Basil, doctor of the Church, has this admonition. “If you acknowledge your possessions as coming from God, is He unjust because He apportions them unequally? Why do you receive more and another less, unless it be that you have the merit of stewardship?” But none have expressed the need of trust combined with sharing more beautifully than St. Leo the Great.
Of the three sources of worldliness that we have considered, pride is the most subtle, the most deeply rooted, the most damaging, and the most difficult to eradicate. For that reason the proud man is more difficult to convert than the sensual man, or one attached to the goods of this world. It is the greatest of all obstacles to grace, and causes souls to seek their own will rather than God’s, their own glory rather than God’s, their own version of truth rather than God’s. Is there any wonder why St. Gregory the great calls it “the queen and mother of all vices?” Is there any wonder why St. Peter warns that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble?” (1 Pet. 5:5)
One temptation in reading about the three main sources of worldliness, is that we might begin to visualize someone we know who is especially worldly in one or other of those areas. But the fact is that all of us have all three of those weaknesses in varying degrees, and the warfare of the Christian life is the struggle to overcome them. One may make progress against those weaknesses and keep them under control, but the underlying concupiscence will always remain part of our fallen nature. And if one begins to let up on his vigilance, not cooperating with graces received, those weaknesses - no matter how much progress one has made - will again make themselves felt. God has his own way of keeping us aware of our basic human frailty, and of our need of His grace.
The more we make progress against this threefold concupiscence of our fallen nature, the clearer becomes our spiritual vision, and the less our will is impeded in choosing the path that Christ marked out for us. That is why St. Paul admonishes:
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