The Good of Detachment

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Think for a moment about what you might pack for a weekend trip if you were instructed to “pack light” and “only bring what you need.”  I bet you’d still bring at least one change of clothing for each day, a toiletry bag with toothbrush and other personal items, perhaps a book to read, and of course your cell phone, tablet, and requisite chargers.  Not to mention cash for food and other travel expenses, and/or a credit card for when the cash runs out.  That’s what I’d bring and I pride myself on travelling light.

If this is what we consider the bare minimum, why would Jesus send the Apostles out to proclaim the Kingdom with only a walking stick and a pair of sandals?  He didn’t even allow them to take food or money, or even a sack to carry anything in that they might find along the way.  For such an important mission, why wouldn’t our Lord send them out better equipped?

It turns out, the Apostles had all they needed.  They had God with them, and their lack of material goods only served to heighten their reliance upon Him.

This is a common theme in the New Testament.  It is why St. Paul could write that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10), for in his weakness he was more reliant upon God.  It is why Jesus could say “blessed are the poor” in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3), and why Christ warned that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (Mk 10:25).

Don’t misunderstand me.  I am not suggesting we view the material world as did the Manicheans of the fourth century did, who believed all physical matter was evil and only the spiritual was good.  The Church condemned that heresy long ago.  If we recall the first chapter of Genesis we know that God is the author of all creation, and He sees it all as good.  We, too, are to see God’s creation as good.

But as good as the things of this world are, no created good can ever equal the ultimate, uncreated good which is God.  And this is where we get into trouble.  We can forget about God’s goodness and learn to rely too much on material comforts.  Think of how many of the deadly sins involve the quest for physical comforts, physical pleasures, or physical wealth.  Any time we look to one of these as the source of our happiness, we forget that only God can make us ultimately happy, and so condemn ourselves to dissatisfaction, despair, and (if left unrepented) damnation.

This is why so many of the saints spoke of the importance of being detached from things of this world: not because they are evil, but because they can serve to distract us from the ultimate Good.  St. Therese of Lisieux wrote that “it is only after we have detached ourselves from every creature that we find Jesus.”

Many are familiar with the great poverty of St. Francis of Asisi.  Many also know that he did not begin his life in poverty.  He was the son of a wealthy merchant, but renounced publicly all of his wealth and possessions, including the clothing on his back.  Francis did not renounce all worldly possessions because he thought poverty in and of itself was good.  He renounced them because he wanted nothing that would distract him from his love of Jesus.

We look upon those today who enter into religious orders and take a vow of poverty with admiration.  They follow the example of saints like Francis in their asceticism.  Those of us who remain in the world shake our heads and think, “That’s too hard, I could never do that.”  The truth is the reverse.  The reason why some people take vows of poverty is that they look at the richness of the world and say, “That’s too hard, I could never do that.”  From their perspective, they have chosen the easy path.  Having renounced the goods of the world, it is easier for them to remain mindful of their dependence upon God.

Spiritually speaking, those of us who remain in the world with our accumulated wealth (great or small) have it hard.  We also need to be mindful of our dependence upon God.  We also need to resist the temptations of greed, gluttony, lust and sloth.  We also need to listen for God’s still, small voice in our hearts.  But how easy it is to forget all of things in a world of Facebook, Netflix, Wal-Mart and Amazon?  We can easily become distracted by the things we possess, and obsessed with the things we desire.

I am not saying every Christian needs to be like St. Francis and give away all their goods, even the clothing on their backs.  But every Christian does need to learn to value God above all things.  For some of us, especially those God has called to help him proclaim the Kingdom, that means removing all other distractions.

St. Philip Neri said, “Give me ten truly detached men, and I will convert the world with them.”  It is for this reason Jesus sends the Apostles out with only a walking staff and a pair of sandals.  By becoming detached from the goods of the world, they learn to become attached to the good of God’s love for them.  May we, too, learn this attachment and nourish it in our lives.