Thursday, September 18, 2014


Modern Wordling
Archbishop Alban Goodier, S.J.

In every language there are words which have a sense of staleness about them. As soon as we hear them, we tell ourselves, with a shrug of the shoulders, that we have heard them before, that we know all they mean, that those who use them are old-fashioned people, rather dull, and certainly unoriginal. We even go so far, in proof that these words have been worn threadbare, as to use them in some more flippant sense, giving them a kind of galvanized new life since their real life is gone. Thus we will tell our friends, with a touch of self-complacency, that we fear we are a bit of a heathen, or something of a loose fish, or we will use some other sorry title which, we hope, will be equally shocking and gallant.

One of these old-fashioned words is worldliness, and another its concomitant, worldling; to be called a worldling smacks of the unconventional, independent, generous, large-hearted, and suggests, on the whole, a rather agreeable sort of companion. When a man lays claim to the title he means us to understand that he knows a thing or two, that he has found experience at first hand, that he has not feared to drink of life at its sources or beneath the surface of the stream, that he sees more in the world, and in men and women, than the common run of mortals have seen, that he has tasted of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and has found the fruit worth the venture. The worldling, so he tells his friends, can forgive all because he knows all. He has a kind word for every backslider, so long as they slide backward along the way of the world; he pities those who aim at being better, as having no more sense, and as acting out of ignorance, or he twits them for their moonshine ideas, or, if that cannot convert them, he condemns them as prigs, who presume to set themselves above their equals.

And yet there is something behind all this which makes complete deception impossible. The worldling is conscious, while he speaks, that all is not quite as he describes it; at the same time the looker-on, while he laughs and makes a show of approval, knows very well that there are other things beneath the surface. In other words, to be quite plain spoken, both are well aware that worldliness is a lie; a lie in the heart; that peculiarly loathsome kind of lie that is characteristic of a coward. The worldling may affect to be a happy man, he may set himself up as more human than his comrades; but he knows in his heart, without a doubt, that he is a traitor to his human nature, and a mean fellow. He knows that he acts against his right convictions, that he crushes them down beneath his heel, and that he sacrifices that within him which might have grown to something great, for a prize that is beneath contempt. If he did not know it would be different, then he would not be called a worldling, simply because his heart could not prove him a craven. The pig that swills in its trough, even the savage that eats and drinks himself stupid, these may not be called worldly, because they know no better; but the man who does know better, yet is content to swill, wallowing in what this world has to offer, be it gold, or rioting, or luxury, or even base ambition, such a man narrows his margin to that of any beast, is a traitor to the manhood that is in him, and when he affects to find in this the fulfillment of his life's desire, that downtrodden manhood still tells him that he lies. So mean a thing is worldliness, and so mean a creature is a worldling! He determines to be content with his immediate surroundings, and is irritated at the suspicion, approaching to a certainty, that there is something better, more worthy of a man's ambitions, in his reach. This he cannot in his heart deny; to do so in word and deed effects little, so he decides to ignore it, to treat it as if it were not, as one might decide to live content in a haunted house by ignoring the ghost that wandered through it. True, it is a cheap sort of victory; but it serves its purpose; for it turns real life into an elaborate make-believe, that gigantic sham of which so much of this life is made up, and which must be what it is, being built upon a lie.

Being that within, the worldling must adapt all that comes within his sphere to fit into the same perspective. He would like to estimate everything - right and truth, as well as coal and provender - by immediate weights and measures, by their present market value, by their conformity with existing regulations. Right is that which is according to the life he has decided to live, truth is truth in so far as it does not contradict his accepted postulate; and he protests, sometimes to bloody persecution, always with relentless hatred, against those who prefer less conventional scales of measurement. Such men he cannot leave alone, for they keep alive a memory which he hopes he might otherwise learn to forget. Or, again, he would have this life stand still; he would gladly settle down here for all eternity; but since that cannot be, he would at least pretend that it is, and let the end come unawares. So is the worldling a coward, for he has not the courage of his convictions; so is he a mean creature, for, not having the courage of his convictions, he must hide his cowardice by mean devices; so is he a liar, for only by a lie can he justify himself, whether to man without, or to that complaining, questioning voice which warns him of his treachery within.

Nor is this only the aspect of the worldling, considered in the light of the spiritual life; if, indeed, a distinction can be made between the spiritual and the real. Whatever he may say in a flippant mood, yet every man, the more he is a man, the more he scorns to be a worldling; apart from any sense of religion, the very human nature that is in him tells him he has ideals higher than those of the brute. He believes himself endowed with higher powers, made master of the world, for some other end than simply to live a brutish life in a rather more exquisite manner; indeed, here is the essence of that which he understands by character. For character stands for what is right; character slashes itself free from the bondage of its surroundings; character puts duty above convenience. Worldliness knows none of these things ; when unmasked, it is no more nor less than lack of character.

Still, these two are not strictly antithetical. One is but the denial of the other; it is not its opposite. For character is merely unworldly, and unworldly according to its grade. To discover the opposite, it must be remembered what worldliness rightly means. By worldliness we mean this-worldliness; and the opposite of this is the worldliness of another world. Other-worldliness introduces other standards, other ideals, and therefore other perspectives; it does not destroy or lessen the value of things of earth, it does but put them in another and more accurate relation. Other-worldliness begins by accepting the dictate of that inner voice which proclaims the more enduring truth, in opposition to the voice that bids us be contented with the present. It recognizes a broader reality than that which appears to the eyes, or is enjoyed by our other senses. It accepts the principle that a greater end must absorb a lesser, that a greater end ennobles a lesser, that therefore the greater and deeper life of man must absorb and give meaning to the surface life of his little day, and that he should himself, in his nature of man, be master of all that is included in his manhood.

This is the teaching of all wisdom, pagan or Christian, temporal or spiritual, ethical or religious; in whatever else they differ, they agree in condemning worldliness. To live for this world is to degrade our human nature; to live above this world is alone to live like a man. But to live above this world demands another world in which and for which we may live; and this demand is met, in part by a world of intellect, which some men fashion for themselves, in full only by that real other-world, in which we Christians believe. This is the key to the secret of the Saints. Whatever else they were, they were men; eccentric if you like, offensive if you like, fanatical and misguided, but tingling essences of human nature, humanity at its boiling-point. This mere unworldliness could never have produced much less life for this world. It was the acceptance, whole-hearted and unflinching, of the inner truth that made them, and the consequent realization of that other world in which they moved. For that world, accordingly, they lived; living for it, they took this life in their stride; its sweets were only relatively sweet, its barriers were too trifling to hinder them, and while smaller men peep at them to find reasons to condemn, they are staggered by the lives they lived.

Says St. John Chrysostom:
Nothing so wears out a man as to be sodden with the love of things earthly.

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