Wei Wu Wei


The Readings for Wednesday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time (B2)

Et qui utuntur hoc mundo, tamquam non utantur : praeterit enim figura hujus mundi. 
And they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away. 

The Greek in these verses is interesting and a lot of English translators (and St Jerome, as well) build it in parallels:

Those married as not married

Those weeping as not weeping

The same verb is used in the positive and negative form. It’s nearly like Lao Tzu’s “Do Not-Doing”. Cry not-Crying, Rejoice not-Rejoicing. Own not-Owning… So they get to Verse 31 and keep the parallel going: use not-using. Except that’s not in the Greek. Unlike the earlier verbs the writer doesn’t just say something and not-something but rather χρώμενοι xromenoi and καταχρώμενοι kataxromenoi where kata adds the meanings to over-use, to use fully, to use up. The Greek says “Use the Kosmos without using-up the Kosmos” or even use without abusing the Kosmos.

There is a difference between using the good things of this world and abusing them, between blessing God for a good vintage of wine and getting blotto. There are intended uses (the telos) of God’s blessings and then there is abuse of them. CS Lewis covers this in Perelandra. There are fruit so good, so refreshing that one is filling, but a second – when it’s not meal time, nor otherwise needed – would be sinful, an act of gluttony. Food is like that on earth. Sex is like that: for God gave it to us for a purpose and we’ve discovered myriad ways to over use or abuse it. Earlier in Chapter 6, Paul gave us a list of people who kataxromenoi everything to the point of becoming their overuse for Paul uses the verbs as nouns. He adds, “They will not inherit the kingdom of God”.

That’s what it means to kataxromenoi: to use up something so much as to become identified with the using of the thing. 

It is to be noted that “Kosmos” does not mean “the planet, the orbiting stars” etc. It can mean that, sure, but it means “the system”, or, literally, the arrangement. The ordered harmony of the stars but also the system of Empire, the way the world is governed. We’re not to do that: think of people who say “American then Catholic”, or who break it down even further and say “Kennedy Catholic” or some other political styling; anyone who hyphenates. When we let the worldly system define our faith, we’ve drifted into καταχρώμενοι and away from the faith that is described as “Catholic” that is, whole. 

The Catholic faith is her own Kosmos, or rather she is the breaking-in of a new Kosmos on this one. The form of this Kosmos is passing away… as the new one, the Kingdom of God, breaks in. We can use even the political system of this world as long as we don’t become hacks in it. We can enjoy the food as long as we don’t become gluttons, we can have sex adhering to the divine plan. We are to be the advanced, covert (yet somewhat overt) force of an invading army.  We are the spies with Joshua in the Promised Land. We are, as Lewis notes, in occupied territory. We can’t be going native. 

The Tao of Paul


The Readings for 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time (B2): 

Præterit enim figura hujus mundi.
The fashion of this world passeth away.

You wanna know, right? Cuz it’s been 2,000 years. When is this all going to end. Which part of this is passing away? Jesus said, “Quoniam impletum est tempus, et appropinquavit regnum Dei: pœnitemini, et credite Evangelio.” The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand. What is accomplished? Apart from the names of the idols invoked, what has changed at all between Caligula Caesar and Donald Trump? 

As St Paul says elsewhere, “we wrestle not with flesh and blood”. Nothing has changed in 2000 years because we are still sinners living here. So then what has changed, what has ended?

The clue comes in the odd list of things to do (or not do) that St Paul gives us. And it ends with that final note on using the world.

I use a website called Kata Biblon, which means “according to the book”, not in fundamentalist sort of way though. Kata is the way the Gospels are described: Kata Loykan, According to Luke, etc. Kata Biblion, we tell this story “by the book”. Are we playing this game Kata Hoyle? Will this meeting be Kata Robert’s Rules? So I was interested to see that we are to use (chromenoi in Greek) the world but not katachrōmenoi according to use. What a wonderful word play the Apostle has here! Use the world not according to its use! I am reminded of Lao Tzu’s counsel that we do-not-doing or act-non-action, Wei Wu Wei. 

It is possible to read “let those with wives live as though they had none” as some sort of sex-hating near-gnosticness. But that’s a heresy, so it’s not what is there. 

What is here is Paul calling to the readers’ mind all the ways the world looks at stuff like wives, rejoicing, weeping, owning things,  etc… and says “do it but don’t do this like the world does it. Don’t use the world the way the world does. For the ways of the world are passing away.”

The Christian faith makes a very bold claim: that God became man. Which is to say, as I have elsewhere written, see that terrible two toddler over there, running around, squatting, and taking a dump on the ground as his parents watch in bemused embarrassment? That is God. And God passed though this world not lightly, not unbruised, but, in fact, killed by it. And Rose from the Dead. God hacked the code. God got behind the user interface and changed the entire purpose of the operating system from the code up.

Now, we don’t die.

For your faithful people, Lord, life is not ended, only changed.

The way of this world is passing away because now pain is salvation happening. Joy is salvation happening. Suffering is salvation happening. We weep not because the world hurts us, but for our sins. We rejoice but for our life in the Kingdom which is now. Here. We should not use our wives in the way of the world – as property, as Roman entitlements, or today as pornstars and sex objects – but as coheirs in Christ and as the  person to whom we sacrifice our very selves as a mark of our faith. Our jobs become mission, our hospitality is evangelism, our walk down the street a prayer broadening Jesus’ action: incorporating all of the world into the Kingdom. We should not use anyone or anything (even our cellphones) in the way of the world. The things of this world whilst sad, should no longer make us weep or rejoice. We’re not subject to the world any longer.

God has come in and, while the map is the same, the goal has moved. Jesus says, come, I will make you fishers of men. Same skills, same job, different outcome.

The whole world is now changed by faith in like manner. We are in it, but not of it. Use not according to use.