Benjamin West, Lot Fleeing From Sodom (1810), oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts
Fuga Mundi – “flight from the world” – captures the meaning of detachment. If the soul is to be fully God’s, it must rid itself of anything creaturely, anything that isn’t God. It means cleaning house, getting rid of idols, reordering priorities.
We spend our lives getting and spending, chasing after things, whether those things are tangible objects – a bigger home, a nicer car, another stamp for the collection – or intangibles such as praise, recognition, honor, and success. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher. ‘All is vanity’” (Eccles. 12:8). Vanity means empty or meaningless. The problem isn’t that houses and cars and success are evil; the problem is that they are empty. Even good things can become attachments that hinder us spiritually. If we see ministry – “serving God” – or prayer or any spiritual activity as an end in itself, it becomes an idol. It becomes a vanity. It becomes empty.
All the things that we think will make us happy never really satisfy, and there’s a good reason for that. God made us in such a way that only He can fill the void that we feel within us. St. Augustine, writing in the form of a prayer to God, put it like this: “You have formed us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (Confessions, 1.1). To experience peace we must let go of everything that isn’t God. Fuga mundi.
Some have fled the world physically, cloistering themselves behind the protective walls of a monastery, only to find that they’ve brought the world with them. They have detached from the world outwardly but not inwardly. Others have fled the world spiritually, staying in the world yet letting go of its attachments. Most of us have done neither. Like Lot and his family we tarry in Sodom, attached to a world that is soon to vanish. Lot’s uncle Abraham made a bargain with God: If only ten righteous men could be found in Sodom, then God wouldn’t destroy it. But there weren’t ten righteous men, so God destroyed the city and its evil twin, Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-25).
I wonder if there are ten righteous people in the world today, ten who have detached themselves from the world and attached themselves fully to God. I don’t know if there are ten, but I think there must be a few. They are the ones who keep the universe from exploding.