As November winds down and Advent approaches, the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell) is still operative. A classic writing by St. Cyprian comes to mind. It is a meditation on the fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to have God (and the things awaiting us in Heaven) as our highest priority.
In writing this meditation, St. Cyprian had in mind the Book of James and the Epistle of St. John. Yes, surely these dramatic texts were present in his mind as he wrote. Hence, before pondering St. Cyprian’s writing, it may be good to reference these forceful 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).
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).
And remember the words of the Lord Jesus:
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).
Nothing is perhaps more difficult to imagine, especially for us moderns, than being wholly free of the enticements of the world. These texts, so adamant and uncompromising, shock us with their sweeping condemnation of “the world.” For who can really say that he has no love for the world?
We may, however, be able to find temporary refuge in making a distinction. The adulterous love of attachment and the preference for the world over its creator is certainly to be condemned. Yet surely the love for what is good, true, and beautiful in the world is proper. St. Paul speaks of those things “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:3-5).
This distinction, though proper, cannot provide most of us with full cover, since we also know that the adulterous love of this world is still aplenty in our soul, however much 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 baser pleasures.
Only God can free us. And while some are gifted to achieve remarkable poverty of spirit before departing this life, most of us are not ultimately freed from the lust of this world until God uses the dying process itself to free us. Slowly, we die to this world as we see our appearance, skills, and strengths begin to fade with age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps our spouse, and maybe our home as well. Our eyesight, hearing, and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults; complications begin to set in.
For those who are faithful (and I have made this journey with many an older parishioner as well as some of my family members), it begins to become clear that what matters most is not here in this world, that our true treasure is in Heaven with God. A gentle longing for what is above grows. For those who are faithful, the lust of this world slowly dies as we let God do His work.
Yet too many, even among those who believe, resist this work of God’s. While a natural fear of death is to be expected, too many live in open denial of and resistance to what is inevitable. Our many medicines and creature comforts help maintain the illusion that we can hold on to this world, and some people try to tighten their grip on it. A natural fear of death is supplanted by a grasping, clinging fear, rooted in a lack of faith and 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 [death] 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 forever.
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 and Advent begins, remember the four last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Prepare to meet God eagerly. 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 meet God?