As we wrap up November and the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell), A classic meditation of St. Cyprian comes to mind. It is a meditation on a fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to truly have God, and the things waiting for us in heaven, as our highest priority.
St. Cyprian has in mind the Book of James, and also the Epistle of St John. Yes, surely these dramatic texts are present in his mind as he writes. Hence, before pondering St. Cyprian, it may be good to reference these pounding and uncompromising texts:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God…..Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (James 4:4,8)
The Lord Jesus, of course, had first said,
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matt 6:24)
And St. John also adds:
Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. (1 John 2:15-17)
Nothing is perhaps so difficult to imagine, especially for us moderns, as being wholly free of the enticements of the world. These texts, so adamant and uncompromising, shock us by their sweeping condemnation of “the world.” Who can really say that they have no love for the world?
We may perhaps find temporary refuge in some distinctions. For, while the adulterous love of attachment, and preference for the world, over its creator is certainly to be condemned. Yet, surely the love of appreciation for what is good, true and beautiful in the world is proper. Does not St. Paul speak of those things which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim 4:3-5).
Our distinction, though proper, cannot provide most of us full cover however, since we also know that the adulterous love of this is still aplenty in our soul, whatever noble love we also have. And the lust of the world is more than willing to sacrifice the good, the true and the beautiful, not to mention God himself, for lower pleasures.
Only God can free us. And while some are gifted to gain remarkable poverty of spirit long before departing this world, for most of us, it is the dying process itself that God uses ultimately to free us from the lust of this world. Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength and looks begin to fade in late middle age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, perhaps the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults, and complications begin to set in.
For those who are faithful, (and I have made this journey with many an older parishioner and family member), it begins to occur that what matters most is no longer here; that our true treasure is in heaven and with God. A gentle longing for what is above grows. Slowly the lust of this world dies, for those who are faithful and let God do his work.
Yet too many, even of those who believe, resist this work of God. While a natural fear of death is to be expected, too many live in open denial and resistance of what is inevitably coming. Our many medicines and creature comforts help maintain the illusion that this world can hold, and some people tighten their grip on it. A natural fear of death is supplanted by a grasping fear, rooted in a lack of faith and little desire for God.
And this is where we pick up with St. Cyprian:
How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!
Instead we struggle and resist like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.
And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here than reign with Christ.
The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?
John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live for ever.
Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be.
Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.
We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.
What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!
There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.
My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently. (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)
As November ends, remember the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Prepare eagerly to meet God, run toward him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious and confident; eager to go and meet God?