Retreat from Worldliness
“Flee, be silent, pray always.”
God gave the Church a compass when he spoke these words to his prophet. In the fourth century, a roman aristocrat became disenchanted with the world. Known today as St. Arsenius, famous as a pioneer in early Christian monasticism, the man started out in a life much like yours and mine. Everything changed one day when he looked point-blank at society, listened to the popular opinions, observed the consumerism driving everyone, and had enough. He begged God for deliverance. A heavenly voice replied: “Flee, be silent, pray always.” This is our path too.
Our Gospel reading brings us to John the Baptist. Covered in camel hair and surviving off of locusts, St. John is forever an archetype of being different. He reminds all of us that we must be in the world, but not of the world. Jesus challenged the crowds about John:
What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee” (Matt. 11:7-10).
This is a challenge to us. What drives us? The wilderness is a little microcosm of our lives here on earth. What do we go out to see? Most of the time, we are chasing after something about as unimportant as a reed in the weed. Ecclesiastes states:
“When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:11).
Does this describe our pursuits? The average person spends two hours a day on social media, which amounts to over five years of one’s life. Teens may spend up to nine hours a day. Can this be called a chasing after the wind? What other habits drive us on, not from love or fulfillment, but from mere addiction? Will we live a life pursuing a reed shaken in the wind?
Christ now challenges us in a further way.
“But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.”
If you ever want some excitement in Texas, all you have to do is put up an electric bug zapper. It is remarkable! Instantly, you would think every bug in the world has shown up. They cannot help but dive into the seductive, captivating electric currents, of course, to meet a rather tragic fate. Humans are not so different. We will sacrifice everything to get what our hearts most love: romance, finance, football…Our gods drive all our energy. What are we pursuing?
John the Baptist was not a man clothed in soft raiment. In other words, he was no movie star. He was not worldly good, but heavenly good. In the wilderness of life, are we chasing after the newest fad or something different, something that St. John the Baptist possessed? As Christians, we must move to a different rhythm than the world.
“Go out from their midst, and be separate from them,” St. Paul preached to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6:17). “Do not be conformed to this world…[but] transformed into [his] image from glory to glory” (Rm. 12:2, 2 Cor. 3:18).
John the Baptist is a reoccurring theme in Advent, precisely because of his call to be different.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, was visiting a tribe in Africa. He observed a curious practice in the tribe. Every morning, around 6:00 AM, the men and boys would head off to a nearby field. With seriousness and attention to every detail, they spit on their palms and raised their hands to the sun. He was intrigued and asked them why? Truth be told, they did not know. This was simply what everyone had always done
I do not know if this is a true story or whether he understood all the nuances of the tribe. Yet, it is believable. How much of our lives are simply keeping up with the Joneses? How intentional are we living? Do we eat the same foods as everyone else? Do we watch the same shows as everyone else? Do we arrange our schedules and invest our money the same way as everyone else? If we are, are we truly Christian?
God sent John the Baptist to prepare us. Prepare us for what: to follow the different path. “Flee, be silent, pray always.” It is all the same message. This advice shared to St. Arsenius embodies the whole life of John the Baptist, and it can serve as a sort of mantra for us in Advent.
From what do we have to flee? We have to flee from worldliness. We have to jettison the lie that we can be Christian and be an ordinary American citizen. What worldliness has crept into my heart? What attitudes do I live by – are they built on a scriptural foundation, or have I simply heard them again and again in my TV series, in the classroom, in the daily conversations with my peers? God calls us to detach.
What does it mean to be silent? We have to become professionals of self-awareness. “Attend to thyself, that there be no hidden, iniquitous word in your heart” (Deut. 15:9). Attend to thyself – ‘Hiš-šā-mer’ in Hebrew, means to stand guard, to be vigilant and discerning. It is the same word used in Deuteronomy 12:30: “Take heed to yourself [‘Hiš-šā-mer’] that you are not ensnared to follow them [the worldly]…that you do not inquire after their gods.” What should we be attending? We have to learn to be silent enough to listen to our hearts. Are they consumed with God? If not, how can we change.
We must pray always. Once we detach from the world and spend time in stillness, then we can learn to pray. In a letter to his spiritual daughter, St. Theophan wrote:
“Because there is a life beyond the grave, the purpose of the true life, without exception, must be there, and not here…Make it a rule for your own life to pursue this purpose with all your strength; you will see for yourself what light will emanate from there onto your short sojourn on the earth and onto your affairs…Look to Heaven, and measure every step of your life so that it is a step towards it” (88).
There is only one thing to do: strive for a heart solely driven for God.
“What went ye out into the wilderness to see?”
During this season of Advent, our Church brings us this challenge, to re-examine our lives and determine what it is that drives us. May God find us on Christmas morn with pure hearts and ardent love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.