In the Liturgy of the Hours this week we read a remarkable attributed to St. Macarius, a bishop of the early Church. I marvel at its vivid imagery, and yet at the same time, questions arise in my mind as to the general application of the text. In effect, the text states that if the soul does not have Christ living within, it falls into utter disrepair and a contemptible state.
Allow me to have Bishop Macarius speak for himself and then I would like to pose a few questions.
When a house has no master living in it, it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse. So too is a soul which has lost its master, who once rejoiced there with his angels. This soul is darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame.
Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin. Woe to the house where no master dwells, to the field where no farmer works, to the pilotless ship, storm-tossed and sinking. Woe to the soul without Christ as its true pilot; drifting in the darkness, buffeted by the waves of passion, storm-tossed at the mercy of evil spirits, its end is destruction. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ to cultivate it with care to produce the good fruit of the Holy Spirit. Left to itself, it is choked with thorns and thistles; instead of fruit it produces only what is fit for burning. Woe to the soul that does not have Christ dwelling in it; deserted and foul with the filth of the passions, it becomes a haven for all the vices. (St. Macarius, bishop, Hom. 28: PG 34, 710-711).
This is a remarkably vivid, creative description of the soul without Christ, of one who has turned aside from the faith. To be sure, St. Macarius speaks in a general sort of way. Each person’s personal journey will be affected by any number of factors: how absolute a person’s rejection of the faith is, how influenced he is for better or worse by the people and culture around him, how operative he has allowed their natural virtues to be, and so forth. Hence, we ought not to simplify the lives of unbelievers. They come in many forms and degrees.
If, however, the “person” in question is a culture or nation, St. Macarius’ words are especially accurate. We have clearly seen how our own Western culture has suffered gravely as it has “kicked God to the curb.” It is not an exaggeration to describe the Western world as a house that has no master living in it … dark, vile, and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse … darkened with sin, its desires are degraded, and it knows nothing but shame. Increasingly, this is our lot in the West, our daily fare.
As the recent spate of sexual abuse allegations and revelations demonstrate, we as a culture engage in some degree of self-correction. Too often, however, our outrage is both selective and short-lived. There is little evidence that we are willing to consider the overall “pornification” of our culture as an underlying problem. It seems unlikely that the current celebration of sexual misconduct, confusion, and immodesty in movies, music, and popular culture is going to be included in our national examination of conscience.
Thus our culture remains in great disrepair. As St Macarius describes, we are adrift like a pilotless ship, foul with the filth of the passions, and a haven for all the vices. While lust and greed predominate, it is clear that our jettisoning of the faith and of biblical norms is having increasingly devastating effects on every level. We have become more coarse, base, angry, and disrespectful of one another; we are exploitative, wasteful, and often ungrateful for what we have; we are increasingly impatient, resentful, and sullen at even the slightest inconvenience or problem. By jettisoning the first three commandments that refer to our relationship with God, the seven commandments that regulate our relationship with one another are undermined as well. This is central to St. Macarius’ point. When a house [or culture] has no master living in it [because collectively we have shown God the door], it becomes dark, vile and contemptible, choked with filth and disgusting refuse.
Help us, Lord, to rediscover the beauty of your truth. We have suffered by casting you to the margins. Though even in more religious times we were not free of sin, we have only suffered more by departing from you. Bring us back as a nation, O Lord! Keep us more faithful and help us enjoy more than ever before the beauty of your truth and order. In Jesus’ name!