In her bitterness, Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping copiously, and she made a vow, promising: “O Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the misery of your handmaid, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child, I will give him to the Lord for as long as he lives . . . . “
1 Samuel 1:10-11
Recently in our Community we have begun a process of shared discernment, the context for which is the story in the gospel of the rich young man from Mark 10:17-31. At first blush, this may seem a rather strange choice for a group of religious men vowed to poverty with a median age of 78 or so. As some brothers pointed out: “We are neither young nor rich.” But, of course, this literalism is to miss the point. At the core of the story lies the inner conflict in the young man, one who is clearly a very good and sincere person. He expresses his experience of conflict, a conflict sourced by his feeling of lack and desire for more, with his question to Jesus, “Good teacher, what [more] must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him that as he has kept the commandments from his youth, that there is only one thing lacking to him. He is to sell what he has, give it to the poor, and then he will have treasure in heaven. As individuals and as a community, we are attempting to ask of ourselves and of Jesus, to identify what we are holding on to, what we are intent on possessing, that is holding us back from more wholeheartedly following Jesus.
I was reminded today of this ongoing reflection in reading the story of Hannah’s praying to the Lord for a child. It is striking that as she prays for a male child, this greatest desire of her life, she, at the very same moment, makes a promise to give him up. What she longs for, she does not long for as a personal possession but as her gift to the Lord. She longs for this gift from the Lord not to possess it for herself but to give it back to the Lord, “The gift you have received give as a gift.”
Throughout life one of our most basic misperceptions is that our deepest longing and desire is for possessions. This is what leads the rich young man to go away sad: “For he had many possessions.” To be human is to live with the experience of lack, with the unending sense that something is missing. It is to live with a basic insecurity, one developed and fed over the course of our lives by the various deformations and trauma that every one of us experiences. For Hannah it is barrenness. Yet, all of us have our own unique sense of being barren. We live with fear and anxiety of our own insignificance, impotence, and futility.
Our basic mistake is that we think that the way to overcome these fears and anxieties is through possession. So, we relate to the world in a one-dimensional and pre-transcendent way that sees its persons and things as potential possessions that will fill and complete us. We see people, situations, and things in a distorted way because our perspective is limited to what the world can do and be for us. This is why Hannah’s perspective is so striking. She at once beseeches God for what she most desires while, at the same time, recognizing that, if given, the child she asks for is not to be her possession but rather belongs to God. From the very first, she realizes that this child’s life is not hers but his own and God’s. He is a gift to her, but not a possession of hers. The obstacle that his possessions are to the rich young man is that they are, for him, aspects of himself. He knows himself only in relationship to them, and so fails to know the truth of himself apart from them. When Jesus tells him to let them all go, to give them away so that he, as he truly is, can follow Jesus, he is not yet able to do so, “for he had many possessions.” Perhaps what Mark means by this is that he does not yet realize who he himself is apart from those possessions, that is what he has and grasps.
There is perhaps nothing that more complicates our relational lives than this problem of seeing others as possessions of ours. This is true of our spouses, our families, our parents and our friends. Given our very psychology, it is natural enough that our view of others tends to be limited to their relationship to us. It is by the approval and encouragement of others that our fear of loneliness and abandonment and of rejection and insignificance is assuaged. We count on others to alleviate our gnawing sense of insecurity. As long, however, as this is our motivation for relationship, neither ourselves or the others can ever be free. We tie ourselves to them, and then come to resent them for our dependence on them. We look for the healing of our childhood traumas through the self-creation of identities that are constituted by our possessions and relationships.
The polarity of attachment and detachment is a difficult one for us to navigate, precisely because our traumas are so deep and our needs are so strong. We seek externally what can only be found internally, and our cultural values greatly enhance this built in distortion. It is because we are spirit, because our personalities have a transcendent dimension, that we can know an experience of communion with all that is on the other side of our fear and loneliness. From the spiritual perspective, healing cannot come to us from externals, but only from our breaking through to the “boundless presence” that lies on the other side of our experience of absence. Yet, it is our very attempts to distract ourselves from our own experience, including our fear, anxiety, and loneliness, by the accumulation of possessions that become the obstacle to knowing that deeper presence.
These days I am in Rome to participate in a program of preparation for perpetual profession that includes some 24 brothers from two international congregations. This year we are very struck by the ubiquity of the cellphone. As soon as a presentation ends, most people around the room have brought out their cellphones to check for messages or to search the internet. As one of the young men said as we reflected on this at supper last evening, “It’s an addiction.” The young brothers here have come from several countries in Africa and South America. They have come a very long distance from their own everyday lives, relationships, and ministries into a very foreign culture and way of living. There has to be in this a powerful sense of dislocation and loneliness. It is difficult to disconnect, to detach from the familiar, the meaningful, and the secure. The possession of the cellphone mitigates, no doubt, that experience and the difficult feelings that the experience of distance evokes. While this has its positive aspects, does it also perhaps foster a dissociation from the very experience that has the potential to deepen us, to bring us more deeply into ourselves? Are we perhaps succeeding in creating possessions that, by allowing us to evade our separateness and loneliness, may also risk repressing the access to our own depths that entering such experiences opens for us?
It is in the contemplation of life as it is that we access reality, the truth of ourselves and of all things. As Adrian van Kaam writes, we must come to know “the truth that every pain conceals.” At the level of ego, we attempt to carry on, to hold ourselves together, through covering over the deeper passion of life. Be it in the personal or material realm, we believe that we can find security and comfort in our possessions. Psalm 115 reminds us that we shall always be building “idols of silver and gold,” but those idols are dead, as we their makers will come to be if we trust in them. We are, rather, to “trust in the Lord, both now and forever.” In practice, to trust in the Lord requires of us to stay with life, even as it divests and detaches us from what we think we need and must have.
Detachment is not a rejection of the beauty and gift of life. It is rather living in the truth, as Hannah does, that everything is, in fact, a gift to us. It is not a possession of ours, but it is rather given to us to appreciate, reverence, and enjoy, as belonging to God. To do this, however, requires that we not see the world merely out of our own need, that we do not live with the demand of the world that it fill our lack and ease our pain. Rather we must come to know ourselves beyond our need and lack. We do this, not be trying to fill ourselves, but rather by opening to, by contemplating the truth of our lives. As the psychotherapist Mark Epstein writes: “If you go into aloneness without the customary fear, you may be surprised at the sense of unknown boundless presence you will find.” Or, as Jesus tells the rich young man, “Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then, come follow me.” It is in what seems to us as poverty that the true treasure lies.
The Buddha’s most fundamental discovery was that the human mind is, in itself, the relational home that is needed to process trauma. While we all tend to think of ourselves as isolated individuals adrift in a hostile universe, the Buddha ultimately saw this way of thinking as delusional. It may feel as if you are all alone, he taught, but that is not the whole picture. We are relational creatures, our minds reflecting the organizational patterns of our earliest interactions. If you go into aloneness without the customary fear, you may be surprised at the sense of unknown boundless presence you will find. The implicit relational knowing of the mother is hardwired into each of our minds. Obscured by our habits of thought, by our egocentric self-preoccupations, and by the primitive agonies that hold us in their grip, this illimitable awareness is already there for the asking. It is a renewable resource, ever present, accessible to those willing to go through the traumas of everyday life to find it.
Mark Epstein, The Trauma of Everyday Life, p. 202