Our brief second reading today follows on in the current little series from the St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. This extract is taken from Chapter 7. We know that very well: it’s the Chapter all about marriage and virginity: so notoriously difficult to interpret. We read it as if listening to one side of a telephone conversation. We hear Paul speaking, but we don’t hear precisely what questions the Corinthians have posed to him, and we can only guess what their issues or troubles are that he’s addressing. So his answers would have been perfectly clear to them, and are often almost bafflingly obscure to us.
Amidst all this, at verse 29, St. Paul seems to stop, stand back, take a deep breath, and then deliver, or maybe even sing, these verses. The language here is high rhetoric; purple prose; almost poetry: with the five times repeated structure “those who ... as though not”.
Perhaps at first glance, especially if we only have the Jerusalem Bible translation, we might think that St. Paul is merely offering us bland moral truisms. They could almost have come from the teaching of contemporary Stoic philosophers, or perhaps from the Jewish sage Qoheleth, in the Biblical Book Ecclesiastes. But actually no. What St. Paul says here is absolutely to be distinguished from the teaching either of Greeks or of Jews. He speaks entirely as a Christian, in the light of Christ. What he gives us here is not philosophy or moralising or worldly wisdom, but Gospel, and we need to listen to what he says.
Brethren, Paul begins, our time has been shortened. That is: we are now living in the period between Christ’s Resurrection and his Second Coming. So our whole attitude to time, and to everything pertaining to this transitory world, must be radically transformed. History is not circular, as the Ancients thought: the same old things going endlessly round and round. We are therefore not to follow the Pagans, whose focus was always on the perpetuation of life through fertility. Nor are we to be merely like the Stoics. They thought of this life as a source of trouble and distress, and taught that we can rise above all that by training ourselves in perfect detachment. Nor is Paul’s point the same as that of Qoheleth, for whom all is merely futile, vanity, and pointlessness. St. Paul would not deny what is good and true in such thinking. But for him, and so for us: this present time is a period of waiting. And we know what we are waiting for. Whether short or long, whether minutes or centuries, we know for certain where all time, and all created reality is going. Christ will come and put it all to an end, when his victory is finally and definitively established. So our life in this world is given us not so much for its own sake, as to prepare us for that. We are waiting for heaven; for the time when all things whatever will be made at last subject to Christ, and God will be all in all (15:28).
Our time has been shortened, says Paul. We don’t have much of it, and therefore every single moment of it is precious. So please don’t waste it! Don’t throw it heedlessly away! What is time, what is our life for? For growing in intimacy with Jesus Christ, and in likeness to him. For receiving and giving love. For being generous, after the model of Jesus Christ, in total self-gift. For prayer; for growth in holiness; for union with God. And on the other hand: life is just too short to waste on things like anger or resentment or lust or hatred or self pity. All these might seem very justified in worldly terms. But not for us! Christ’s love is pressing in on us, and we need to respond to that: in praise and thanksgiving; in loving service; in self forgetfulness and self conquest. As St. Benedict would say: we should prefer absolutely nothing whatever to that love.
St. Paul then hits us with his list of five examples. Of course his point is not that being married, or weeping, or rejoicing, or buying, or generally dealing with this world are bad, or un-Christian, or particularly to be avoided. It’s just that, in the light of Christ, they are all radically relativised.
Are you married? Paul asks. Do you have family ties and responsibilities and duties and worries? Fine: but you still need to live for God, and walk always in his presence, and wait for Christ’s coming, and love him above all things and above all people whatever. Does that mean you’re not allowed to love? No indeed: you are supposed to love! But it does mean you have to love somehow freely, not possessively; always ready to let go, according to God’s will; always aware that the most important thing in life is not the people or situations that daily confront me, but my faith and hope in Christ. Of course incidentally we say that loving in this way means not loving less, but loving more; because loving better; loving in right relationship with the source of all love, who is God.
Are you weeping or rejoicing, asks Paul? Fine! All this is human. But we are not to be so carried away by our current circumstances or emotions, however bad or good, that we forget what is even bigger and more important in our lives, which is Christ, and our eternal destiny in him. Do you buy and sell? Well, OK. But remember we are only temporary stewards of what we possess, and can take nothing with us out of this world. Do you make use of this world? OK also. But do remember that our ultimate happiness is not here, but only in God.
This world as we know it, says Paul in summary, is passing away. And therefore: don’t be attached to it. Don’t be chained down by what’s inevitably passing. Practise detachment from everything that is not God. That applies not only to good things, of course, but also to bad things, which we should not allow to weigh us down. It applies not only to big things, but also to little or trivial things. All alike will come to an end. Instead, we should keep our eyes on Jesus Christ, and pray, long for, desire the coming of his Kingdom!
Back to the context, which is a discussion of marriage and virginity, and to the first example in the rhetorical list, which is that married people should “be as if they were not”. Inevitably, we think here of religious life in the Church, and surely in particular of monastic life. The most direct and concrete way of expressing the truth of Paul’s teaching is through celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Those who are not celibate need to know that some people are, and they need to make their own, the values or principles that drive people to choose life-long celibacy for Christ’s sake.
And here is a little thought. How often do you hear this preached? Surely, more or less, never! Could that be one reason why so few young people are coming forward for religious and monastic life these days, because no one has ever held up to them its abiding and universal value and relevance?
Let me leave you now with St. Teresa’s famous bookmark. She wrote it amid severely distressing circumstances - not as a piece of moralising philosophy, but as a profoundly true and abiding consolation.
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing dismay you.
All things pass.
God never changes.
Patience attains all that it strives for.
He who has God finds he lacks nothing.
God alone suffices.