Detachment

lot-fleeing-from-sodom-benjamin-west

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.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Detachment

  1. kristilynne

    I love that last line, “They are the ones who keep the universe from exploding.”

  2. Hi, Kristi.

    Thank you for your kind words, but the idea was not my own; I stole it from Thomas Merton. Here’s the original quotation in context:

    “I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don’t believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart” (New Seeds of Contemplation, 203).

  3. Jessie

    About 5 years ago, I made a psychological connection with that Augustine quote when a doctor was talking about Tiger Wood’s sexual addiction on the radio. He mentioned how sex addiction had a common trait with all addictions in that every addict turns towards a vice to try and fill a hole in their lives. Unfortunately, the satisfaction they find through that vice is only temporary, so they naturally crave more of it. And more. It gradually becomes this insatiable cycle of dependency that devolves into obsession. The hole of need that they were trying to fill becomes larger and larger until it swallows them up, leaving them lost, alone, and helpless. A perfect mainstream example of this addictive obsession would be Gollem and the ring in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

    John Ortberg mentions how we all have this insatiable need within us that corresponds to “the hole” metaphor. The hole is an emptiness and need that resonates in our soul. However, we would say that everyone, both addicts and non-addicts alike, have a hole that we are trying to fill. Ortberg parallels our souls to the King on a chessboard. It is the weakest player on the board with the most limited of movement; it’s extremely vulnerable and weak; and at the same time it’s the most critical piece to the game- if you lose the King it’s “Game Over”. The King needs protection and is forever dependent and needy throughout the game for its survival and success.

    Our souls are a lot like the King. Our souls are lot like the hole with and incessant needs and dependency. And at the root of that need and dependency is love and security. Like Augustine suggests, there’s only one thing that satiates the soul; one thing that fills the hole; one thing that brings victory. And that’s the surrender to God’s authority and love in faith. It’s very near and very real. All you have to do is open your heart and mind to Him and surrender the throne of your life to Him by asking for his grace.

    For me, when I first came to Christ it was through surrender on my knees in the form of begging. I prayed something to the effect of, “God, please if there’s anything that you can do to take my burdens from me, I will forever follow you.” Somewhere through that prayer, I broke down. I’m talking about a Niagara Falls form of uncontainable crying and sobbing break down that I’ve never experienced before. In fact, I had always prided myself on remaining fairly controlled and visibly unemotional in the past so this was a new experience for me. And the crazy thing about it was that it…felt…great. It was as if all of the hurt and the pain that was bottled up inside of me was being released at that moment.

    It didn’t really stop there either. The next day I woke up and felt different. I felt like a weight had been lifted, but it was also deeper than that. I experienced a sense of peace (fearlessness over death), joy and a new-found appreciation for life (and creation). It was as if the problems in my life and of the world, while still important, had less of a stranglehold on my thoughts and emotions. I could see past them (or through them) with a deeper, more eternal perspective that transcended my mortal condition.

    It’s also convicting how many Christians, while having their own unique story, have shared in similar experiences when coming to faith. I’ve heard it referred to as the “honeymoon period”…the only difficult part is remaining there. It’s so easy to get distracted by all of the temptations (or fallenness) of a temporal world and withdraw back to self-centered thinking. But here’s the key to remaining there: Consistent Surrender. Daily, hourly, every second we must surrender continuously to Christ in obedience and abide in the “vine” of His blessing. Only then do the holes of our souls feel truly filled.

    On a completely different note, while Merton’s example is focused more on how little it might take from God’s faithful to change the world (which is true), I also feel the beauty of Christ and what separates “The Way” from all other faiths/religions is Christianity’s foundation in grace and forgiveness despite our brokenness. The most contemptible of the world still have a hand extended to them in love, just waiting for them to come to Him and experience the restorative transformation that God called them to be. Just ask Paul.

    Furthermore, it’s easy to start glorifying (like Merton’s “twenty”) or condemning others in a way where we slide back into the pride and shame game of comparison (pride and shame are two major hole-diggers in and of themselves). I’ve found (and am finding) through my own experience how that game only leads to self-righteousness, self-indulgence, and sin.

    Self-absorption is why our surrender to Christ is so important- not just for our own salvation, but for the restoration of all of creation! Everyone and everything in its truest self is connected and operating in perfect alignment with its creator. When we operate outside of that truth in isolation we can’t help but provoke ripple effects that impacts everyone and everything that we’re connected with. Isn’t it interesting that in early Judeo-Christian thought that the word “righteousness” was ALWAYS understood within the context of community?

    Additionally, we all share in our fallen nature and are all sinners that fall short of the mark. We are therefore all dependent on God’s love, guidance, and grace. Given that we all share in stumbling through our own imperfections, we should always forgive and have compassion towards others just as we are forever in need of God’s gift of compassion and forgiveness.

    As Christians we also all share in the belief that we are all loved by God, all created in His image, and all precious to Him- do-gooders and the fallen alike. After all, who did Christ come to save? And given that we are precious to God, we should see each individual as a lost soul just waiting to be restored. We love b/c God first loved us. And then we are one.

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