The idea of getting away from it all is very appealing in our day. Just the mention of a vacation getaway planned or just completed will usually gain the attention of everyone within earshot. Calvin takes the time in these sections of the Institutes to deal with those who really wanted to get away from it all in his day, not on vacations, but via the monastic life.
Calvin didn’t find anything commendable with monasticism. It required the taking of vows not authorized by God, deprived the church of pastors, and produced decadence more than it did holiness in the lives of those who pursued it, sadly enough. The interesting observation Calvin makes in 4.13.16 is that God is honored more by the life lived faithfully in the daily callings of life, than in the cloistered lifestyle of purported total devotion to God:
By this contrast between ancient and modern monasticism, I trust I have gained my object, which was to show that our cowled monks falsely pretend the example of the primitive Church in defence of their profession; since they differ no less from the monks of that period than apes do from men. Meanwhile I disguise not that even in that ancient form which Augustine commends, there was something which little pleases me. I admit that they were not superstitious in the external exercises of a more rigorous discipline, but I say that they were not without a degree of affectation and false zeal. It was a fine thing to cast away their substance, and free themselves from all worldly cares; but God sets more value on the pious management of a household, when the head of it, discarding all avarice, ambition, and other lusts of the flesh, makes it his purpose to serve God in some particular vocation. It is fine to philosophise in seclusion, far away from the intercourse of society; but it ill accords with Christian meekness for any one, as if in hatred of the human race, to fly to the wilderness and to solitude, and at the same time desert the duties which the Lord has especially commanded. Were we to grant that there was nothing worse in that profession, there is certainly no small evil in its having introduced a useless and perilous example into the Church.
So the truth Calvin has touched upon here is one our generation needs to discover. The truth is not “out there”, to be conquered and uncovered by those to want to believe (as portrayed by Mulder in X-Files). Nor is it to be found if we can just have some time alone, get away from it all and figure it out. Nor is it a hopeless, fool’s errand. Rather, wisdom is always right in front of the discerning, as Proverbs 17:24 puts it:
“Wisdom is in the presence of one who has understanding, but the eyes of a fool are on the ends of the earth.” (NASB)
Calvin could have gotten his insight on God’s appraisal on the pious management of a household (i.e., living out one’s particular calling) from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The first three chapters of that letter deal with the call of God. Most of the last three deal with the walk worthy of that call. Walking worthy of the call involves walking in unity, holiness, love, light, and wisdom. Now if you were going to write a prescription to Christians about the essence of living wisely, what would you suggest? Work for world peace? Start a new missions agency? Become politically active to accomplish X (fill in the blank)?
Paul gave none of those directives. The simplicity of Paul’s prescription as to how to live wisely in light of God’s call is what makes it so profound. In revealing what it means to walk wisely in light of God’s call, Paul gets down to everyday relationships in a typical household (Eph. 5:15-6:9): wives and husbands, children and parents, servants and masters. Who woulda thunk it?
So the way to “get away from it all”, to live above the world while in the world, isn’t by being physically removed from its trying circumstances. Rather, the way to get away from it all is by living in the midst of it all with spiritual eyes that enable you to see what really matters and living accordingly, right where you are, right in the midst of everything. That is the essence of true wisdom. And since no one is sufficient for these things in himself alone, the wise person keeps wisdom at the top of his prayer list. Truly then will wisdom be found near at hand.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: