Using This World Well

Oscar Wilde once visited the Sistine Chapel while the choir sang the “Dies Irae,” a classic chant about the Last Judgment that’s still used as a hymn in the Liturgy of the Hours during this last week of Ordinary Time. The ominous words, combined with Michelangelo’s famous fresco of the same scene, didn’t sit quite right with the not-yet-Catholic Englishman, and he wrote a sonnet in response:

Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
each me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner's song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

For Wilde, the beauty of this world was too precious to reconcile with images of coming death and destruction. Our Lord’s return, it seems, should be the gentle perfecting of everything that’s already lovely.

To some of us this may seem absurdly naive. There are some theologians who have argued that maybe Jesus’s original plan was to save the world through moral conversion, and that He only ended up dying on the Cross because the people of His time rejected His message. Our faith should make clear, however, that our fallen human nature requires a total transformation from within. We must be remade by the grace of God, through constant death to our selfish ways and ultimately through literal death united to the Cross in Baptism. For those of us living in darkness, the final breaking forth of God’s light will necessarily be a disruptive event.

At the same time, Wilde is right to recognize that God has already revealed something of His goodness in everything He has created. As Pope Francis reminds us in his encyclical Laudato Si’, by taking on our human nature, Jesus has already gathered a portion of the material world into His divine self, “planting in it a seed of definitive transformation.” We don’t “look forward to the life of the world to come” because either our individual lives or this whole universe are evil traps to be escaped. Rather, as St. John Henry Newman puts it, “We attain to heaven by using this world well, though it is to pass away[.]” We make our way to the Kingdom of God by doing justice and loving goodness in the only world we yet know - even when that brings us suffering and difficulty. This is our great hope: that beautiful as they may be, the created things we know now are only shadows of an even greater glory to be discovered when the unavoidable trials of life in this fallen world are over.

Br. Philip Neri Gerlomes, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE