The ugliness of the world–which is its contempt and its adversity–is a profitable sort of bitterness that heals the just. The world’s beauty is its prosperity; and this is a flattering sort of sweetness, but false and seductive…Therefore, in order to escape the ugliness of hell and to acquire the sweetness of heaven, it is necessary to go after the world’s ugliness rather than its beauty.
Bridget of Sweden, Book of Secrets, c. 1305-1373 AD
This quote from the 14th century christian mystic Bridget of Sweden illustrates a truth that seems like a paradox at first glance. When a person seeks all the beauty that this world has to offer–material wealth, fame, power, influence, and pleasure–they find the ugliness of the world. They find the world to be a ruthless, uncaring place, a “dog eat dog” world, as they compete for these things with those who are of like mind. And, worst of all, they are never satisfied when their goals are achieved.
Jesus, on the other hand, calls us to follow Him, and in a sense, to seek out the ugliness in the world. Jesus sought out the lame man at the pool of Bethesda; He encountered the blind men along the road and gave them sight; He noticed the poverty of a widow putting in two small copper coins–all she had to live on–into the treasury of the temple and praised her; He comforted the widow of Nain and gave her son back to her from the dead. Everywhere He went He healed the sick, fed the poor and taught people about the kingdom of God. He sought out the ugliness of the world–those who were sick, in need, and the despairing. He also said, “If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there my servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.” John 12:26
God loves to help those who cannot pay Him back. Jesus told His disciples, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But…invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you…” Luke 14:12-13.
We, the church, are now effectively the mouth, hands, and feet of Jesus in this world. Scripture teaches us that He dwells within us both individually and collectively (Gal. 2:20, 1 Cor. 3:16). When we seek out the ugliness of this world as co-laborers with God, we will see God touch people’s lives. We will see the humility of God in action. We will see the goodness of God, the grace of God, the beauty of God! And when we allow ourselves to be used by God in this way, there is a kind of healing that takes place within us. We experience the joy of being used by God, and the reality of the presence of God.
If all this sounds new to you, and attractive to you, you may ask, “How do I get started?” The very first step is to become a child of God. This is done by confessing to God that we are sinners, asking for His forgiveness, and believing that Jesus Christ died for our sins, in effect taking the punishment for us, and that He rose from the dead on the third day. When we do this by faith, we are welcomed into God’s family, and the Spirit of God indwells us; this is called the “new birth”.
If you are struggling with being willing to be used by God (and there is no one exempt from that struggle), you might begin by developing the habit of getting up a little earlier each day, open your Bible to the Psalms, or one of the Gospels (Mathew, Mark, Luke, or John), and start the day by reading some scripture and having a dialogue with God about what you are reading, and what you may be struggling with. The important thing is to start the dialogue with Him. Don’t worry about what you are supposed to pray, express to God what you want to say to Him.
Another helpful habit is evening prayer. And although I am not a Roman Catholic or a Jesuit, I have found this habit of reflecting on the day extremely helpful in developing a prayer life.
When you lie down to go to sleep tonight, try this little spiritual exercise the Jesuits call the “Examen”. It only takes about 15 minutes. First, review the events of the day and give thanks to God for the things you experienced that were a blessing to you–even the small things. Then recall the times in the day where you felt God was working or making Himself known to you. Next, ask God to show you any missed opportunities to express love to others or when you may have sinned or done things you are now sorry for; ask for His forgiveness. And finally, ask God for the grace you will need for tomorrow.
May God bless you and attract you to follow Jesus and in doing so, find the beauty of God in this world!