22 November 2011

Detachment: Letting Go

Desert Spirituality for Reformed People (11)

You greatly delude yourself...if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk.... Because all must rise to the same height.... ~ St. John Chrysostom

An acquaintance of mine is going through all the things her deceased parents left behind in their house. It's been a trying time for her, deciding what to keep and what not to keep, of the things not to keep whether to throw them away or give them away (and to whom), of the things to keep, where to put them. My wife and I have determined to do our best not to keep everything, every photo, every souvenir, every knick-knack, memento, every birthday, Chistmas, or other card. Our possessions can weigh us down. They can be oppressive for our heirs. A certain amount of detachment would be quite liberating.

For the desert monks, detachment was the first step in their new life. Matthew 10.21 was a key text for them: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come; follow me." In response to this the monks left behind their goods. Of course, most of them didn't have much to leave behind to begin with. But even so, whatever they had, as is the case with most of us, meant a lot to them, especially any of those things which had more in the way of sentimental than monetary value. Even the poor can become attached to their possessions, making detachment a struggle even for them.

Whether we are rich or poor, we can still be too attached to our possessions. It may be the case that the more one has the more one has to lose. But anyone who has something has something to lose. And any loss can be uncomfortable, even painful--so painful we might wish we'd never had anything in the first place.

But even in the desert there is no less of a need for detachment. It was still possible to accumulate goods even in the confines of one's cell, a sufficient number of goods to yield a pleasant life even in the desert. The desert fathers were quite aware of this. So even those little things one might collect in his cell had to be surrendered. If I had become a monk as I once thought to do, and assuming I'd been allowed to keep writing materials in my cell, I might have come to a point of being so attached to them that my abbot would have made me give them up. That's a painful thought.

To the desert monks the more of God one wishes to possess the fewer of this world's goods one should possess. We might better put it this way: The more we desire to be possessed by God, the less we should be possessed by our goods. The issue is not our ownership of goods, as much as it is our attitude to the goods, specifically, how attached we are to them. It is possible (however unlikely we may think) to own many goods, to be very wealthy, and at the same time totally detached from those goods, thoroughly unimpressed with the extent of our property.

In the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, it is recorded that Abba Euprepius was held up, he helped the robbers carry things out of his own cell. After the robbers left, he noticed that they had left something behind, so he sent someone after them to return it to them. The Sayings contain several similar stories the point of which is that we can own things without those things owning us. We can easily let them go, even if under coercion.

Perhaps a greater lesson, on the subject of detachment, concerns our reputations. In the battle against the passions, we need also a certain detachment from care about what others think of us. Fear of what others may think of us can lead us into sins no less than our love of our possessions can lead us to sin in order to acquire more of them. The sad fact is, that too often we really care more what other people think of us than we do what God thinks of us. On one hand it's easy to understand: God is more forgiving than humans. As David observed, it's better to fall into the hand of God than into the hands of men. But God would have it the other way round, being more concerned with his opinion than with that of other humans.

Another story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers illustrates what this sort of detachment looks like, and requires:

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian and said to him, 'Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved.' So the old man said, 'Go to the cemetery and abuse the dead.' The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, 'Didn't they say anything to you?' He replied, 'No.' The old man said, 'Go back tomorrow and praise them.' So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, 'Apostles, saints and righteous men.' He returned to the old man and said to him, 'I have complimented them’. And the old man said to him, 'Did they not answer you?' The brother said, 'No.' The old man said to him, 'You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak? So you too if you wish to be saved must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved.' The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Macarius of Egypt, No. 23.


The point is clear enough. Those who have taken up their cross to follow Jesus, who have died to themselves, just really shouldn't care what others think of them. We do too many things to win praise and avoid scorn. The desire to possess a certain reputation, like the desire to possess goods, is something from which we need detachment.

Part 1, Legitimacy of Monastic Life

Part 2, Rise of the Monastic Movement

Part 3, Theology of the Desert

Part 4, St. Pachomius

Part 5, St. Anthony

Part 6, The Goal of the Monastic Life

Part 7, The Walk

Part 8, What's Hindering Us? Understanding the Passions

Part 9, Spiritual Warfare: Battling the Passions

Part 10, Spiritual Warfare: Three Tactical Errors

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 22 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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