Contemptus Mundi

Fr. Adrian Burke, OSB
Thursday, October 8, 2020

"Yearn for everlasting life with holy desire."

Rule of St. Benedict 4:46

The Christian monastic tradition spans most of the centuries between that first generation of disciples and the present generation. Monastic life begins to blossom in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the late third century, but its roots are already present in the second century. St. Benedict of Nursia comes along in the sixth century and writes his Rule around the year 520.

St. Benedict stands on the shoulders of many men and women who preceded him in the monastic way of life and receives from that tradition important Christian values that he incorporates into his Rule for Monks. One of those values, so central in early monastic life, is a spirit of “contempt for the world” – contemptus mundi, as it is rendered in Latin.

This kind of “contempt” is not a scornful attitude over-against creation, or society, as such. Rather, it is a spirit of detachment with respect to what tempts us to drift away from Christ “through the sloth of disobedience” (RB Prologue: 2).

Thomas Merton, the 20th-century Trappist monk, wrote that it is “intended to give the believer a certain freedom of action … a liberation from care without which any question of love for the people in the world would be completely irrelevant.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 45) In other words, without this quality of detachment from wealth, privilege, power, and such, our love for people is severely hindered.

Contempt is a repulsive force; desire is an attractive force. Desire for eternal life and contemptus mundi are complementary virtues for St. Benedict. Desire for eternal life is one of the “tools for good works” (RB 4:46). It is a quality of spiritual attraction that runs deeper than ordinary human will.

It is a graced (God-assisted) desire that aids us in channeling lesser desires to serve our ultimate goal, i.e., the eternal life of heaven. Both spiritual values increase our freedom to love and thus to realize more fully what it means to be God’s children.

We live in trying times. The American political landscape is fraught with hostility and division; families have been fractured by the politics of this election cycle. It is a season of pandemic and many families have experienced loss from COVID-19.

Many also have experienced economic insecurity from lost jobs and unrest from civil strife. The year 2020 has been like a “perfect storm” that could easily crush even the most resilient among us and cause us to despair.

Thank God for faith in Jesus Christ, who has “overcome the world” (John 16:33). He is our peace!

By cultivating a holy and spiritual desire for eternal life and a healthy contempt for worldly attachments, we will find the peace we need to weather this worldly storm and actively love our neighbor in a way that demonstrates our love for God.

In Christ Jesus, we can be leaven that lifts our world and a light that the darkness cannot overcome. Be leaven, be light!