Originally, it was used by the mothers and fathers of the desert in reference to the flight from a corrupt and persecuting world to live a more authentic Christian life. To be sure, the persecution was extreme, leading to the martyrdom of many early Christians. It was illegal to refuse to sacrifice to the gods of Rome because of one's belief in Jesus Christ. Some Christians fled to the desert for safety.
Once the persecution let up, the empire did an about-face and legalized Christianity. At that point many people flocked to join the Christians, and many did so in name only. The ranks of the Church were flush with new Christians, some of whom were unwilling or unable to embrace a true conversion of life. Some Christians wanted to sell all, give to the poor and devote their entire lives to prayer and gospel-living. They chose to leave the mass of unruly new converts to Christians - to flee the world - and try to live more authentically Christian lives.
This was the historical origin of fuga mundi or flight from the world. Not surprisingly religious life took up this phrase to describe the vocational journey of coming away from society, family, friends into a monastery or religious community. It was a separation from an outside world. Along with that separation came an implicit judgment that monastic life or religious life was superior: a purer and more radical form of Gospel living.
With the renewal of the Church and of religious life occasioned by the Second Vatican Council, the term fell into dis-use and sometimes it was positively rejected. We should not reject or denigrate "the world", but embrace it as Jesus did, reach out to the world in compassion and share the Gospel.
The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. (Vatican II: Gaudium et spes)
There is much to embrace in a world created by God, loved and redeemed by Christ, our common home that we share with our sisters and brothers in the human community. All this I can embrace with love and compassion.
Yet there is also a darker side that I would flee, just like my early Christian sisters and brothers who fled persecution and corruption. I would flee from consumerism, from racism, from wanton environmental degradation, from violence, from sexism and from every form of dis-respect and abuse of the poor and vulnerable.
My flight is not so easy as going to a remote wilderness and absolving myself of responsibility for the ills of 'the world.' My flight requires that I make choices. I am part of this society that perpetuates violence and oppression. I cannot stand by and innocently call others to task. I partake in the ills myself. Every purchase I make, every bit of food I take, every cup of water I drink comes from this society that is both created and loved by God, and deeply compromised in its living. So my fuga mundi calls me to flee every form of violence and injustice, and to call others to the same. My fuga mundi calls me to solidarity with those who suffer from violence and injustice.
My particular call at this time is to free myself from chocolate and caffeine that is produced by slave labor. And some much of it is. Fair trade costs more - so I will have to consume less. But how can I justify buying cheaply, when my purchase is made on the backs of child laborers and underpaid farm-workers and even people working in slave-labor conditions. I love my chocolate! But not at that price. So this is the world I am choosing to flee now. There are so many other choices I can make: fresh, local and organic foods, reducing travel and energy consumption, reducing use of plastics and non-renewable resources, becoming aware of slave-labor practices in the supply-chains of stores and products and avoiding them.
I can flee the world without going to the wilderness. But sometimes it is by taking some time physically apart in prayer and reflection that I find the courage to live my flight in the midst of a broken world.