Mark Hellinger
The Strange and Joyful Life
July 3, 2019 // Perspective

A Year in the Eternal City

Mark Hellinger
The Strange and Joyful Life

It’s hard to believe, but almost a year has passed since I last saw my beautiful homeland (the United States) and came to Europe. A lot has changed in that brief year, and I found myself reflecting on a particular aspect of life that I had a vague idea of before, but now see pretty clearly. To put it simply, a year of integrating myself into a different culture is good preparation for thinking about life as a Christian.

Sounds a little weird, or not really connected: but hear me out.

Ask anyone who has had to spend any considerable time away from home, and I’m sure they will tell you that there was some sort of culture shock that was part of their experience. Even when people go on short trips abroad, they pick up on the ways in which the different culture functions, or at least draws them out of their comfort zone and their “normal.”

In Italy, for example, there are hundreds of ways this American has been challenged to see the world from a different perspective. Sometimes I’ve just had to learn to enjoy something that isn’t done the way I would think it should be done. From not being able to have a cappuccino after noon, to riding a bike in high traffic in Rome, to learning the way idiomatic expressions are made in Italian and not having AC except in the occasional store or shop, there are many experiences a different culture can offer to help you see the world just a little differently.

Why am I talking about this?

This whole experience got me thinking that the same is true for our life as Christians. Part of being baptized in Christ means that we are made new, something completely different. We no longer can live for ourselves, but, as Paul says, it is Christ who lives in us. This means that we need to immerse ourselves into the culture that is the mystical body of Christ. It means that the way we see the world should change, the way we talk should change, and what we find acceptable and are willing to do for others should change.

One thing that stands out in particular is the issue of language. We need to learn the native language of the body of Christ. By learning a new language, we not only learn a new way to say the same words we already use, but more so: We learn a new way of seeing life, a new way of seeing how to express an idea or how to name an object.

By way of example, in Italian you do not say “I spent time.” Time is not a commodity that is spent. Rather, you would say that you “passed” time. The idea here is a little different. It’s these subtle ways that things are different that really draw us out of ourselves to see a different way of seeing the same things.

To really enter into the body of Christ and live there like a native, we need to learn the language. Not only that, we need to learn how the natives live. How do we do this? Prayer, community, service, etc. Above all, it’s in the liturgy that we best learn the language, the culture and the worldview that is native to the body of Christ. Scripture also teaches us as well. Community with fellow citizens of the city of God also helps draw us toward a better living and understanding.

We are, of course, free to not enter into the culture of the body of Christ — just like there are plenty of tourists in cities all over the world who resist the shocking change of foreign cultures. You can, of course, survive for short trips that way, but if you really want to make a place feel like home, you have to be willing to change and be changed.

God desires us to make His home our home. He is already chasing after us, and He desires that we conform our lives to the new culture of our heavenly calling. Let’s not be tourists in the city of God, but let’s make our home there. When we do that, and when we are changed by the culture of true, self-giving love that sums up the whole place, then we will be ready to draw others there, too.

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