Part 2: Jesus and the Saints On Detachment.

Continued from Part 1: “Attachment to ‘Freedom’ Is Not Freedom.”

Jesus says “No man can serve two masters: he will hate one and serve the other. . . . You cannot serve both God and money.” The entire teaching of Jesus is about detachment. Jesus tells us “Blessed are the poor.” He tells us “consider the lilies of the field.” He tells us that when a man demands our cloak, we give our tunic as well. He tells us to turn the other cheek in the face of violence. He tells us that the man who saved his surplus grain was a fool and should have given it to the poor. He tells us to be perfect we must sell all we have and give it to the poor. He tells us that any of us who does not hate mother or father, sister or brother, son or daughter is not worthy of Him. He tells us that the dead bury their dead.

Yet we read these passages, and we quickly jump to, “That doesn’t apply to me.” Priests reassure us in our homilies that Jesus’s seemingly extreme teachings must be modified with “common sense,’ and they assure us that the modifications the Church makes for our human weaknesses (such as legitimate self-defense or telling us it’s OK to collect “moderate” interest) are the norm, not the exceptions.

The early Christians understood all this, because they knew they were putting their very lives on the line just by professing Christ. Even today, around the world, more Christians are martyred every year than under the entire history of Roman persecution. The message of the Resurrection–that Jesus raised Himself from the dead, so He was God, and not only that but He opened Heaven to us so we no longer had to fear death–was so fresh in their minds that they were willing to sacrifice everything for it. As the centuries have passed, sadly, we’ve become inured to it. We’re too familiar with it, so we don’t realize how radical it is. We’ve been taught that everyone goes to Heaven.

As Christianity became gradually more accepted in Roman culture, some Christians began to grow more worldly and modify Christ’s teachings to adjust to worldliness. Others, however, chose intentional sufferings to replace the persecution they no longer suffered. They went out into the desert and lived as monks and nuns and hermits. St. Jerome wrote a famous letter in which he said he thought a desert priest who was going back to the city to serve as a bishop was sacrificing his salvation by doing even that.

The saints write about detachment. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, warns us that the angels only had that one choice. They made one choice and merited eternal hellfire for it. We talk about “mortal” and “venial” sin, yet even a single venial sin merits our immediate death and eternal damnation–mortal sin just merits it moreso. However, God in His mercy veils Himself from us in this life so we have an excuse: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We are blessed with lack of wisdom, unlike the poor angels. However, the more we claim to know, Jesus warns us, the more we will be held accountable. But we should not presume upon God’s Mercy. We never know when He will take us.

One person gets hit by a car. Another dies in a terrorist’s bomb. A teenaged boy is shot in “self defense” by a gun-happy “Christian”. A law-abiding citizen is shot to death by a drug-addled teenager out for money. Another person dies in an earthquake. Unlike those who are blessed with a “happy death” and the opportunity to receive formal reconciliation with the Church and God through the Sacraments, these poor individuals are killed suddenly and unexpectedly, cut down in the prime of their sins. Maybe some of them were in states of grace. Maybe some were given a chance to be forgiven through an extraordinary act (Our Lord told St. Faustina He calls to every soul 3 times before death). Maybe not. Is “freedom of choice” worth that gamble?

Yet we read St. Ignatius, or similar warnings in other saints (Bl. John Henry Newman said that it would be better for all the stars to fall from Heaven than anyone ever commit a single venial sin), and we balk at their “austerity” or “extremeness.” “I can’t handle thinking about Hell.” “Why would a loving God condemn people to Hell?” (The real question is, “Why would a loving God force people to go to Heaven who don’t want Him?”)

So when saints, like John of the Cross, talk about detachment, we say, “Oh, they have such a negative view of things.” Yet the process of negation is what this post-Fall life is about. Jesus says so. We have to give up our attachments to everything that isn’t God.


3 responses to “Part 2: Jesus and the Saints On Detachment.

  1. This is where Buddhism and Christianity cross- where the central Truth lies in both. The problem is not detachment- the problem is what do you do with the former attachments.

    In Buddhism and in Contemplative Life Christianity, the answer is “nothing”. You have nothing more to do with the former attachments. You know they exist for others, that they are stumbling blocks for others on their own journey- but to save your own soul (from either Hell, in Christianity, or Suffering, in Buddhism) you merely adjust your own expectations for your own life- and free yourself from the attachment.

    The other road to me, that offered by Active Life Christianity, is harder; for once you free yourself from that attachment, you are expected to dip back in to the same world of sin- and bring your brothers, your neighbor, all who you meet with you. You’re expected to show them the way out as well. And this, to me, is the harder road.

    We are our brother’s keeper, after all. We have the moral assurance (but not the absolute assurance) that both the Contemplative Life and the Active Life lead to Salvation. And for some, the Contemplative Life is, due to other obstacles than sin that are placed in our way, the furthermost some can go.

    It’s an interesting time when the ideal goes from “go out in the desert and live as a hermit” to “take care of your family and if you see a homeless guy on the way home, give him your coat”.

    • Actually, Ted, that’s a *slight* misunderstanding of detachment. At our retreat last month, the priest said there’s a bit of oral tradition in the Order that one of the reasons John of the Cross got “in trouble” was “spoiling the novices.” He would do things like take the novices out to dinner all the time. He said, “How can I teach them detachment unless I give them something to be detached from?”
      Yes, in some cases, detachment means cutting something off completely, like if it’s a sin or addiction or something, but detachment can also be achieved by robbing an experience of its desirability.
      After all, we should be detached from our families, but that doesn’t mean we cast them aside and ignore their needs (that would be “attachment to detachment”). We can–as I’m going to discuss in the next installment–even be improperly attached to spiritual goods (i.e., an obsessive or legalistic use of devotions, or the attachment to Confession that is scrupulosity).

  2. The word “hate” in the Bible is often used to express priority and preference rather than emotional hatred. In other words, if it comes to a decision between God and one’s mother, one needs to choose God.

    For example, in Deuteronomy 21:15-17 the word refers to a preference rather than an emotional hatred. The same is true of Malachi 1:2-3.

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