The World

According to modern vernacular, to be worldly means to be successful, to have material wealth, to have the means for self indulgence, to mingle with beautiful people, to seek and gain acceptance from the desired social class. Fame, money, self indulgence are all highly prized and glorified in our culture. Although it seems obvious that these are not meaningful, and although most people deep down know these do not provide one with happiness, the world and all its glitter somehow has achieved the highest status and is the aim of nearly all who breathe. The world demands our attention and provokes our affection.

When the saints use the term “world” they are not referring to the planet or the people who inhabit this lovely planet. The term “world” should be understood as that part of the world that is affected by or the object of human thought and behavior—or namely the passions. This definition is best articulated by St. Isaac the Syrian:

“The world is the general name for all the passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world. But when we wish to distinguish them by their special names, we call them the passions. The passions are the following: love of riches, desire for possessions, bodily pleasure from which comes sexual passion, love of honour which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments, the itch for human glory which is a source of rancour and resentment, and physical fear. Where these passions cease to be active, there the world is dead; for though living in the flesh, they did not live for the flesh. See for which of these passions you are alive. Then you will know how far you are alive to the world, and how far you are dead to it.”

--St. Isaac the Syrian

When Christ refers to the world it is also from this point of view. For instance he said:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever”

--Jesus Christ (1 John 2:15)

Our current culture is defined by worldliness. It is impossible to be in any modern station of life without being saturated by all of what St. Isaac described. We are told from our youth to be ambitious, acquire money and possessions, seek fame and glory. The world with all its desires has become normalized and is the goal and aim of the modern man. This makes fighting this enemy seemingly impossible.

When we are subject to the passions we love the world, which supersedes love for God, and love for others. And St. James said in his epistle that pure religion is to keep oneself unspotted from the world (James 1:27). Love of the world and things of the world is a direct inhibitor of spiritual life. Although it seems natural to want to love the world, this attraction to earthly things is not natural for the soul. St. Macarius the Great:

“Whatever a man has loved in the world, weighs down his mind, and holds it down, and will not let him come up.”

--St. Macarius the Great

This is why the battle that we wage with this enemy requires fierce detachment and renunciation of the world. To fight this enemy means to turn away from this enemy. Contemplation of God can only occur when one renounces the world, as beloved Russian mystic, St. Seraphim of Sarov said:

“Fear of God is acquired when a man, renouncing the world and everything that is in the world, concentrates all his thoughts and feelings on the single thought of God’s law, and immerses himself entirely in contemplation of God and in a feeling of the blessedness promised to the Saints.”

--St. Seraphim of Sarov

If we truly desire to love God we must overcome and purge the world that lurks inside of us. This is clear in Holy Scriptures when Christ explains that one cannot serve two masters (Luke 16:13). The world clouds and numbs the soul to the divine.

“Without having freed itself from the world, the soul cannot love God sincerely. For worldly things, in the words of Saint Antioch, are as it were a veil for the soul.”

--St. Seraphim of Sarov

So we are called to be “out of step with the world” and to resist all that the world offers up. All that glitters is not gold. Its shiny things, and silky desires, its fleeting fashions, its empty promises all amount to nothing but an endless cycle of pleasure and pain, desire and depression. The ascetic Nikitas Stithatos wisely said in the Philokalia:

“For when you realize that the result of fame, pleasure, indulgence, wealth and prosperity is naught, since death and decay await them, then you will recognize the blatant vanity of all things worldly and will turn your eyes to the consummation of things divine. You will cleave to the realities that truly exist and cannot perish; and, making these things your own, you will rise above pain and pleasure.”

--Nikitas Stithatos

It is clear throughout the human narrative that is put for in the Old and New Testaments that God desires that those who love Him and want to follow Him be set apart from the rest of the world. This includes worldly desires as well as other people. This is a hard calling--to be in the world but not of the world, so as to sanctify the world (John 17:16). St. Macarius said:

“The world of Christians is one thing—their way of living, their mind, and speech, and action, is one—and the way of living, and mind and speech and action of the men of this world is another.... and the difference between them is great”

--St. Macarius the Great

Therefore, as those living in the world, we are called to be set apart and not of the world or the things of the world. Once we commit ourselves to Jesus Christ and the Christian way of life, and start to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world, we will be tested. In the beginning of our spiritual conversion, or when we are born again as Christ explained to the Pharisees named Nicodemus (John 3:1-21), we are often zealous and excited. This applies to all, whether newly discovering the ancient Church or rediscovering the Church.

“Many are pricked at heart, and many become partakers of heavenly grace, and are smitten with divine passion; but because of the conflicts and struggles and laborers and diverse temptations of the devil to be born on the way, they do not hold out, but are occupied with diverse and sundry worldly desires, because everyone has some worldly thing that he chooses to love, and has not detached his affections…”

--St. Macarius the Great

The weapon of choice for achieving victory over this enemy is detachment. In the great spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus states in the second chapter on detachment,

“The man who has come to hate the world has escaped sorrow. But he who has attachment to anything visible is not yet delivered from grief. For how is it possible not to be sad at the loss of something we love?”

--St. John Climacus