God's wonderful world
Pure unspoilt religion in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world. The pure version of our faith, according to St James, is all about two aspects of our relation to other people: first, we are to help them in their need, and, second, we are not to be corrupted by them. The demand that we help people is challenging, it calls out of us love, charity, compassion, when perhaps we are poor ourselves or have enough to worry about in our own life, or among those dear to us. The second requirement, that we not be corrupted is also demanding but seems less straightforward. How might the world corrupt or contaminate us? Why are other people so dangerous? How might they damage us?
When we were children our parents worried about the company we kept. All mums and dads are concerned about their childrens’ friends. They can see all their good work being undone by some playground hero who does all the things they have warned against. Perhaps some of us were the bad boy or dangerous young woman against whom respectable parents warned their offspring? Whatever age we are, if we think about our friends, do we think of danger, contamination, corruption? Probably not. We value our friends for their kind words, their listening ear, their help in time of trouble, fidelity through thick and thin, their being, indeed, friends. Yet most of us would admit that we are susceptible to example and with a blush we realise that not all of the example we have given ourselves has been good or constructive.
We are bad for each other sometimes: we admit it. Now before we head for our hermitages, and decide to live alone in the desert carefully not doing any more harm to other people, we have to pause. Many reading this have responsibilities which would prevent an immediate departure for the South Pole or the Outer Hebrides or wherever we could find sufficient solitude neither to contaminate or to be contaminated. Jobs must be done. Children must be cared for. Courses must be completed. Those orphans and widows mentioned by St James must be helped. Duty must be done. Furthermore we most of us receive good example as well as giving bad. If we stick around we get some more help of this kind. Perhaps we really need it! So, for the moment, anyhow, we must risk being contaminated by the world.
Does the risk of contamination make us too fearful, too nervous of disaster, too suspicious? The world which God has made, the people in it whom He loves, have some of God’s own beauty and goodness and truth. Must we see the wonderful world which God has created only as a threat to the purity of our religion, a distraction from the direct road to God along which we are called to walk purposefully and without deviation? Even as we try to do the helping which we have also been asked to do – the caring and the loving – we find ourselves not only marveling at what God has achieved in others, even the weakest persons, but also invited to trust others, to allow ourselves to be helped, in short, to love the world, not fear it.
The Gospel encourages us in cautious devotion to the world. Our Lord Jesus Christ sees us being strengthened within by prayer, the sacraments, by our life in the spirit. God is within us and empowering us for all sorts of service. The world and other people are involved in this. They are not over against our interior life. They are not its enemies or its rival. Corruption is possible. We know how things have gone wrong in the past and we know what threatens our well-being. Our best protection against what is evil and contaminating is God’s gift to us of inner strength. His own presence within us moves us to help the widows and the orphans and shows us how to love other people without being undone by them. Christ’s way is one of self-sacrifice but the self that is given to God, given to others, is preserved safe to be truly offered by virtue, goodness and purity of faith.
Peter Gallagher SJ