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“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are noble, whatsoever things are right, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are admirable, whatsoever things are excellent and worthy of praise, set your mind on these things.”
Philippians 4:8 is the motto of the university where I teach. Unfortunately, the only sign of this is its inclusion on the back page of the school catalog—like a vestigial appendix from an evolutionary species further down the phylogenetic tree. There was a time when biblical verses were commonly used for university mottoes, but now, apart from Christian colleges, those days are past.
I thought often of this verse as I recently attended a meeting in Amsterdam. The Dutch pride themselves on their culture, the beauty of their cities, their heritage, and their civil liberties. On all of these points they may be ahead of most countries, but, in the last case, I am not convinced that this is a good thing. From the “coffee shops” where drugs are legally sold to the infamous red-light district, it is clear that this is a land that glorifies licentiousness.
Unfortunately, the problems of modern society are not isolated to one city. Although its sins are perhaps more blatant than most, the fundamental problem in Amsterdam is the same as that found in all large cities—the failure to focus on the things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. We have settled for things far less than excellent, and the problem isn’t a new one.
St. Anthony wrote that “Every man whose effort is to become truly spiritual must try to hold himself aloof from noisy crowds and not go near them, so as to be outside the vortex and turmoil of men in body, heart and mind; for where there are men, there will be turmoil.”
Anthony taught that the way to set our minds on the things that are good, noble, and so forth, is to remove ourselves from society. We can remove ourselves in body, to a certain extent, in our homes. When our TVs and radios are off, our home can become a place of solitude from the world and a place to meet God. As St. Anthony continued, “Our Lord showed us an example of withdrawal from people and solitude, when He used to go alone up onto a mountain to pray. In the wilderness too He conquered the devil, who dared to wrestle with Him. Naturally, He was not powerless to conquer him even among the multitude; but He acted thus to teach us that we can more easily overcome the enemy and reach perfection in silence and solitude.”
Even when we are not physically removed from the turmoil of men, we can remove ourselves in heart and mind. This brings us back to St. Paul’s admonition regarding which things we set our minds upon. If we think that our culture will help to set our minds on Christian virtue, then we have a naive understanding of society. If we desire to become truly spiritual we must carefully guard our thoughts and minds and hearts so that we might attain the things that are excellent.
“If we think that our culture will help to set our minds on Christian virtue, then we have a naive understanding of society.”