On Building an Earthly City

In the Breviary (Monday, Week Three, Morning Prayers), we find five intercessions. The first reads: “Man was created to glorify God through all his [man’s] deeds.” This intercession is mindful of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s principle: “Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God and thereby to save his soul.” God, be it noted, does not need man to glorify Him. God expects of all human glorification that it be free, knowing, and loving.

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We can glorify God also through our deeds. We are created so that we might freely glorify God as God. The word “deeds” can also be contrasted with man’s contemplative acts. Even though the principal way to glorify God is through prayer and worship, our deeds also glorify God. Our capacity to act is not apart from God, but deeds are not worship unless we intend that they be. We can be contemplatives in action, as Ignatius taught.

The second intercession reads: “We bless you, Creator of all things, for you have given us the goods of the earth and brought us to this day.” The notion that we “bless” God needs some clarity, lest it sound presumptuous. It sounds like the passage in Daniel: “Cold and chill, bless the Lord.” Unlike men, cold and chill do not do something other than be themselves, gifts of God. In addition to deeds, men can thank. Without the goods of the earth, we cannot get through one day. We are “brought to this day.” We need the help of everything else to be where we are.

A petition follows: “Look with favor on us as we begin our daily work.” We ask God to “let us be fellow workers with you.” So we do not ask that God does everything. We have a “daily work” to gain our “daily bread.” Thus, even though we are created to glorify God, our daily work needs to be looked on “with favor.” We can work in harmful and corrupt ways. The work as work still needs our dedication to a proper purpose, both to its end and to our end as its agents.


Then comes the fourth intercession: “Make our work today benefit our brothers and sisters, that with them and for them we may build an earthly city, pleasing to you.” We have to ponder that sentiment. We want our work to be beneficial to others. What are all of us doing in our work? We are building an earthly city that is pleasing to God. Such a statement has overtones of Augustine’s two cities. This atmosphere should make us alert.

Just what is meant by this earthly city that we are supposedly building? Men have been on this earth for a long time. Many earthly cities have come and gone; we have here no lasting city. Can there be two — an earthly city and a heavenly city — both of which are related to our deeds: a temporal judgment and a final judgment?

Obviously, it is possible to work for an earthly city that is counter to the city of God. Good men in the worst regimes can also achieve their ultimate end, which is not an earthly city. And what is it that men who do not work to glorify God seek to achieve? It is precisely an earthly city that is opposed to what the city of God is about. Thus, we can work for a city that in no way glorifies God.

This intercession seems ambiguous. We can say, with Aristotle, that man is by nature a political animal. This would mean that the city and its proper building is a task we ought to achieve, but it is not the highest thing. That city ought to be built in such a way that, within its confines, we can practice human virtue in such a way that we control our vices. Scripture seems to present politics as a zone that, at its best, leaves us alone to achieve our final end, which is not political.

Whenever building the earthly city becomes our chief purpose, we are close to the neo-absolutism that elevates the earthly city to be itself the city of God. This temptation to reverse the priority of the city of God so that it becomes identical with the city of man is very contemporary. This reversal comes about most often when we want to find no intelligence in nature but our own. This leaves us free to construct our own “city” that has no reference to any transcendent end of each created person, no matter what regime or era in which he exists.

The final intercession reads: “Grant joy and peace to us and to all we meet this day.” We can ask this in any earthly city, even the worst, because our end is not an earthly city.


Image: © The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and The Jewish National & University Library


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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