Saturday of the Christmas Octave.
In the middle of the Christmas Octave, the Church presents us with a theme that is important for monks, but which seems to have nothing to do with a Baby leaving the womb of the Virgin Mary. In the first reading this morning, we heard, “”Do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him”.
The Message Bible paraphrases this as: “Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world – wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, wanting to appear important – has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him”. (1st John 2:15-16).
Monks have often interpreted this passage as a personal call to leave the world, and one monk actually made an explicit comparison between leaving the world and leaving the womb. In one of his letters, John the Elder, a Syrian monk of the 8th century, wrote to a friend:
“My dear brother, do you want Christ to appear to you in prayer as he would to his friend? Let love for him be within you without a moment’s break. Do you want this love to be continually inflamed in your soul? Then remove from your soul love for the world. Do you wish to dwell in that place which is without place, being in God? Leave the world, as a baby leaves the womb; then you will have seen reality. For Christ cannot live with the world. I beg you, listen to him as he demonstrates to you with his own words, ‘I am not of the world’. But he is continuously overshadowing the soul and visiting it, so that if it becomes empty of the things of the world, he can dwell in it”.
For John the Elder, as for the author of 1st John, it is not that the world is evil, but that it is a place of transition which will not last: “The world and its enticement are passing away”. In that sense, the world is like the womb. Every human life begins in the womb, just as Christ took flesh in the womb of Mary. But there is a whole world of reality outside the womb that the baby cannot know until it leaves the womb.
In the same way, there is a whole world of spiritual reality which is outside the everyday world. John the Elder calls it “that place which is without place, being in God”. It is the soul which reaches the place that is God, and it does so by love – but not by love for the world, because “love of the world squeezes out love for the Father”. Instead, the soul must become empty of the things of the world so that it can love the things that will last, and the reward is not just for monks but for everyone: “Whoever does the will of God remains forever”.