The Rule of St. Benedict advises its adherents “to become a stranger to the world’s ways.” What a fascinating rule! “To become a stranger to the world’s ways.” In the postmodern era, this almost seems like a sin. After all, we live in an age of tolerance and inclusiveness, two values that certainly have a place in the practice of the Christian faith. To be tolerant and inclusive, one must have familiarity.
But I do not believe that tolerance and inclusiveness are exactly what St. Benedict is advising against. The key term in this rule is the word “world.” Just as the Fourth Gospel uses this term in a pejorative sense, so St. Benedict does as well. The term “world” in Christian theology typically symbolizes sinful, wicked, depraved, and, even more seriously, to be following an agenda that is anti-God, anti-Christ, and anti-creation.
There is a fine line of distinction in Christian leadership between knowing how to speak the language of the culture, being familiar with how to convey the gospel in a way that can be heard (see the Apostle Paul in Athens), and being so saturated with the world that one strains to express Christian spirituality in a way that is faithful to the apostolic faith. Sooner or later, the desire to be relevant can lead us down a path where we are no longer relevant (as the Lord’s workers) because we are simply echoing the world’s agenda.
The difference is to love our neighbor. To love our neighbor is to tell them the truth. To love neighbor is to walk so closely with the Lord that the Lord’s ways stand out in our lives as a powerful witness, not the world’s ways. I think what St. Benedict is promoting is not for us to be so much a stranger to the world in the way that we are completely ignorant of what is happening with folks, but to be so immersed in the ways of God that we are completely abandoned to heaven’s agenda and not the world’s.
John Wesley speaks of this concept in his sermon, On Friendship with the World. He takes up James 4:4 as his text: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of this world is enmity with God Whosoever therefore desireth to be a friend of the world is an enemy of God.” (KJV). Wesley defines “the world” not as “this outward frame of things, termed in Scripture, heaven and earth; but to the inhabitants of the earth, the children of [people] . . . You see here ‘the world’ is placed on one side, and those who ‘are not of the world’ on the other. They whom God has ‘chosen out of the world,’ namely, by ‘sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth,’ are set in direct opposition to those whom he hath not so chosen.” Wesley then asks,
“what kind of friendship may we have with the world? We may, we ought, to love them as ourselves . . . to bear them real good-will; to desire their happiness, as sincerely as we desire the happiness of our own souls; yea, we are in a sense to honour them . . . as the creatures of God; nay, as immortal spirits, who are capable of knowing, of loving, and of enjoying him to all eternity. We are to honour them as redeemed by his blood who ‘tasted death for every [person].’ We are to bear them tender compassion when we see them forsaking their own mercies, wandering from the path of life, and hastening to everlasting destruction. We are never willingly to grieve their spirits, or give them any pain; but, on the contrary, to give them all the pleasure we innocently can; seeing we are to ‘please all [people] for their good.’ We are never to aggravate their faults; but willingly to allow all the good that is in them.”
We are to treat the world (that is, those who are not Christians) with compassionate concern. There is a limit to this interaction. “Whatever it cost, flee spiritual adultery. Have no friendship with the world. However tempted thereto by profit or pleasure, contract no intimacy with worldly-minded [people].” Wesley echoes the commands of Scripture for every Christian: be holy and be compassionate to others.
Certainly, for today’s pastor, this can be a tightrope walk between knowledge of what is going on with our people in the culture in which we dwell AND staying connected to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The only way I have found to enact some kind of balance on this tightrope is to assure that I have made the time to pray. As I grow older, my prayer life is evolving to include more listening and less talking, more contemplating and ingesting fewer new ideas, more returning to writings of spiritual depth (both classic and contemporary) and less looking for the latest church growth trend. If I am honest, the fault is not always with the latest trend, but with me. What is my soul desiring when I jump from one cultural fad to another? If I am honest, the problem is within my own heart, which as St. Augustine wisely noted, is a “factory of idols.”
Spiritual leadership, then is a matter of the heart. That is the biggest reason why St. Benedict advised becoming a stranger to the world. That is why Wesley advised Christians to have “no intimacy with worldly-minded [people].” That is why Scripture itself warns Christians against “friendship with the world.” The problem with the “world” is the habits my heart develops if I am immersed in it instead of the Way of the Spirit. Of course, spiritual leaders will know their people. Of course, spiritual leaders will be well informed of the news (especially local news). Of course, spiritual leaders will be acquainted with the places of brokenness in their community (especially the people who are broken by the injustices in their communities). But they will also be so immersed in the Way of the Spirit that it defines their perception of all these things. To be a “stranger to the world’s ways” is not to run away from the world, but to engage it after being engaged by the One who never calls us a stranger, but calls us friends.
Michael “Lanny” Lancaster is a native of Greensboro, NC, a graduate of High Point University and Duke Divinity School. He is an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, member of the Western North Carolina Conference, has served as a pastor for eighteen years, and member of Psi Chi, a national honor society for Psychology Majors. He has a particular interest in contemplative spirituality studying classic and contemporary works, spiritual direction, and teaching others contemplative practices. He is happily married and the proud father of twin sons. He enjoys hiking, playing keyboard in a praise band, and writing poetry.
Header image: Maria Spelterini crosses Niagara Gorge via tightrope. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.