But woe to you rich people, for you are receiving your consolation. Woe to you who are now filled, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are now laughing for you will mourn and weep.
Luke 6: 24-5
. . . our time is growing short. Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for; those who are enjoying life should live as though there were nothing to laugh about; those whose life is buying things would live as though they had nothing of their own; and those who have to deal with the world should not become engrossed in it. I say this because the world as we know it is passing away.
1 Cor 7: 29-31
Sometimes for us the word detachment has more than a little of spiritual elitism about it. We hear it as something to be practiced by “spiritual athletes” who are attempting to attain a form of self-perfection that most of us have little capacity for or opportunity to be concerned about. Especially in a secular culture, the words of 1 Corinthians, if not the Beatitudes themselves, have something of a spiritualistic or pietistic aura about them. Then, of course, there is the basic literary-historical argument against the relevance of the teaching of Paul we read today, that it is merely relevant to those of his time who held the mistaken conviction that the end of the world was imminent.
Yet, this morning as I watched the news, there was a story concerning the visit of President Obama to Laos. During the Vietnam War Laos became the most bombed country in history. At least 270 million bombs were dropped on that country, 80 million of which remained unexploded. The number of bombs dropped on Laos by the United States equalled the dropping of a bomb every 8 minutes for 9 years. Because of the amount of unexploded ordinance, horrific injuries continue to be inflicted on the population, largely children, to this day.
The news story featured a young man who, as a young child, picked up a bomb thinking it was a ball. The bomb went off in his hands, destroying his hands and lower arms and blinding him for life. This young man, when interviewed, clearly was without hatred or resentment toward the country that had dropped those bombs. As he said, it does not do any good to hold on to anger and resentment. This is detachment in its most significant sense: the ability and then refusal to cling to the gratification we obtain by holding on to our sense of grievance, resentment, or self-righteousness. Why? In the words of 1 Corinthians, “because the world as we know it is passing away.” This man understood that to continue to resent and to hate in the present would only do harm to himself. His task, as that of all of us, is to respond to the call of this moment, realizing that this moment as well “is passing away”.
Much is made in our politics and media of the question, “Should a President of the United States ever apologize for our country’s actions?” The reason given for such a refusal is that to apologize is an affront to our “national pride” and a rejection of our self-identification as inherently and exceptionally virtuous. And so, we must hold onto our illusions at all cost. But be it at the national or personal level, we hold on to our illusions at our own peril. At some point, we shall have to confront the truth. This is what Jesus describes in the “woes” of Luke’s gospel. Those now clinging to what they have both physically and emotionally will be brought to the moment where that is taken away. And then, they will suffer not merely the loss of what they held but the loss of their misspent lives which were devoted to falseness and illusion. At some point we shall all experience judgment and be required to recognize our degree of refusal to have lived out our true call and responsibility to the world.
Detachment is nothing other than the summons to live in the truth. All is given to us for a time, a time that is passing away. If we cling to it as if it is ours and ours alone, we are refusing to live in the truth. We are prisoners of our own fears and illusions. And, eventually, we shall be confronted with the truth — and perhaps have lost our ability to receive it and respond to it in appropriate action.
The young Laotian man in the news story receives and lives his life as it is, including being blind and without hands. This is his life, and he now devotes it to working in the seemingly unending process of clearing as much of the unexploded ordinance as possible, so that other young people may not be maimed and blinded by it. On the other hand, it has taken 50 years for an American President to visit Laos, and for the United States to increase, to a still inadequate level, its aid to facilitate the clean up process. Yet some will continue to see that our nation’s “humiliation” lies in our acknowledgment of our debt to the people of Laos rather than the horror of our inflicting disproportionate injury on a people with whom we were not even at war.
Jesus declares that those who are poor, hungry, weeping and despised will be blessed, and those who are rich, filled, laughing, and self-satisfied will be brought (kicking and screaming) to nothing. For each of us this is a cautionary tale. We are all poor, hungry, weeping, and despised. This is not the problem. The problem is the energy, that becomes aggression and violence, that we use to deny the truth of our actual state. All we have is given to us. It is not ours to claim. It rather belongs to all. When we live as though we had “nothing of our own” and we deal with the world without becoming “engrossed in it,” we begin to live and to act in the spirit of the common good. We recognize and act upon our responsibility to all and to a world that is, as Pope Francis terms it, “our common home”.
Detachment is not mysterious. It is our willingness to recognize the truth of our and the world’s actual condition. It is to come, by reflection and practice, to learn that we are not the center of the universe; we are not exceptional. The love of God, as Jan van Russbroec says, is “common to all.”
It was a delight for me to be among souls so holy and pure, whose only concern was to serve and praise our Lord. HIs Majesty sent us what was necessary without our asking for it; and when we were in want, which was seldom, their joy was greater. I praised our Lord to see so many lofty virtues, especially the detachment they had from everything but serving Him. I, who was the superior there, never remember worrying about the necessities of life. I was convinced that the Lord would not fail those who had no other concern than to please Him. And if at times there wasn’t enough food for everyone and I said that what there was should go to those most in need, each one thought that she could do without, and so the food remained until God sent enough for everyone.
St. Teresa of Avila, The Foundations, I,2