Lessons From A Monastery: Detachment

Detachment
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”                                 
—Matthew 10:37-39

We all know how monastics detach from the world; they leave home, family and friends, give up personal possessions and share everything in common, their personal ambition is left at the door of the monastery. They leave the world and all that it holds

behind.

As Christians, we must learn to detach ourselves from everything and everyone in order to grow closer in communion with God and learn to love with His love.

Because C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is one of the best illustrations of what unhealthy attachment looks like, I am going to use some of the characters to give examples of this. In this fictional story people take a bus from Hell (or possibly purgatory if they choose to move forward to heaven and not return to Hell) and get off at the far beginnings of Heaven where they face their sins through encounters with people from their past.

Detachment in Relationships

There is a mother in the book who is expecting her son to meet her once she is off the bus. Her disappointment that it is her brother who meets her instead is fierce and she demands to know why her son is not there and when can she see him.

It is explained to her that once she wants someone else other than her son, she can move on towards him. She must have a desire for God and not only her son. At first she agrees, “The sooner I begin it, the sooner they let me see my boy.” Her brother tells her, “Don’t you see you are not beginning at all…You’re treating God as a means to Michael… [you must] learn to want God for His own sake.”

She argues that if he were a mother he wouldn’t say such things. She believes “Mother-love” is the “highest and holiest feeling in human nature.” Her brother explains to her that love is only holy when “God’s hand is on the rein.” Natural love must be converted, not only is it not enough but will turn bad and be a false god.

This mother doesn’t want to accept this. She tells her brother, “I don’t believe in a God who keeps a mother and son apart. I believe in a God of Love. No one has the right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine…forever and ever.”

This mother is the exact opposite of the Theotokos. Mary accepted the Father’s will and taught Jesus to do the same. She accepted her son’s death on the cross, accepted that her son was not only for her to cherish but was meant to save the world. She loves with the love of God.

Natural love is not enough. In our natural relationships it is very hard to distinguish between our natural affection and agape. The brother in the story tells this mother, “You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer.” Understanding this is key to healthy detachment in relationships.

It is normal to become attached to others and to build up an identity for ourselves based off of our relationships with other people, especially our spouse, children, parents, and close friends. However, as Christians we must work on this. A healthy detachment helps us to see other people as our brother and sister in Christ, as a fellow member of the body of Christ, and as a fellow pilgrim to the eternal kingdom.

Seeking God’s will in relationships (and not our own) and understanding that our purpose in relation to others is to help each other reach heaven, will enable us to have healthy detachment and learn to truly love others as we should. Then, we will be able to endure a spouse’s betrayal, or a child’s death, a loved one’s selfishness, or any of the other crosses we must carry in our relationships. As we learn to love God and understand the love He has for us, then we can reflect that love to others.

As long as we cling to people, and have our own plans and desires for their lives, we will never learn to love as God loves. The monk who leaves the world does not stop loving his family and friends or God’s people, but through ascetic practices and detachment he can learn to love without condition—with a pure heart. Through his prayer and sacrifices he loves the world entire.

Detachment regarding Possessions

One of the souls we see in the book is a man who has not acclimated to his new surroundings as he has taken the bus from Hell to the beginnings of Heaven. The very grass hurts his feet and he cannot move easily. There is a tree with apples on it. He wants these apples desperately and endures pain to get to the apples. He wants to gather as much as he can and load them in his pockets but he isn’t strong enough. He tries for two but can’t lift them. Then he reaches for the largest one he can find. But no, he cannot lift it either. Through painful effort he finally picks up the smallest apple and attempts to carry it back to the bus. He is told that he cannot take the apple on the bus, “There is no room in Hell for it. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood delight to teach you.” He pauses but ready to endure agony again, tries to walk to the bus.

What pain have we endured for our own “apples”? Possessions can dominate our life, causing us much agony to attain them and keep them. We can ignore the needs of others; worrying only about our own needs. Hurt others over our love of our possessions—as a parent how many times have I been angry over broken belongings and loved a thing more in the moment of anger than my child who broke it? We can worship things instead of God: neglecting our relationship with God to chase after the world instead.

There are stories of monks who give up everything but then become attached to the little they own and end up fighting over rags. There are also stories of kings who use all at their disposal for the good of their neighbor. How we relate to things says a lot about our relationship with God and others. Detachment from possessions is about being a good steward of the abundance or the little that we have. It’s about knowing this world is passing and the storing up of treasures on earth is to love the world more than God and neighbor. We must use what we have for service to God through His people. Are we willing to learn to eat the apples as God intends for us to, or do we want to horde what we can for our own delight even if it is in Hell?

Detachment from Our Thoughts

There is a Bishop in The Great Divorce who stopped believing in a literal heaven and hell (so much so that he didn’t even know he was in Hell). He is attached to his intellect—to his own ideas about religion and God. He is blinded by his desire to be free and to pursue truth according to his own definition of it. His friend who has come to try and help him to move on to heaven tells him:

“You think that, because hitherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect. I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.”

The Bishop has no desire for this kind of truth. He chooses to return to Hell where he is due to deliver a paper at the little Theological Society where he feels he can do great work among the people. He is going to be discussing the tragedy of Christ dying at such a young age before he, “reached his full stature!” He wants to go where he is useful and needed, and his talents can be fostered. He has no need for forgiveness and a lover who does not need him but only wants him.

Some of the hardest things to let go of are our own thoughts about God and the Church. We can fool ourselves into thinking we understand the mystery that is God. Understanding what is in the depths of our own heart will be a lifetime pursuit (nevermind knowing what God is thinking). Holy Tradition, the scriptures, and humility, can guard us from our ideas that are false.

We have to have detachment from our own intellect when our thoughts go against what God has revealed to His Church. We also cannot believe God needs us to save the world; He has already saved it. We must humbly seek to do God’s will and not our own, going where God wants us and not only where we think we are needed. We must have a real relationship with God through His Church and not worship an idea—the idol of God we have created in our mind. If we do not learn to do these things then we may end up like the Bishop, not knowing heaven or hell when we are right in the thick of it.

Losing Our Life for the Sake of the Kingdom

Detachment from the world is carrying our daily cross; seeking God’s will for our lives and the world; keeping our eyes focused on heaven; learning to love God and His creation with a chaste heart. A heart that does not seek its own desires, that does not force its own will, that wants to live in communion with all the gifts God has given and people God has created. Detachment is about being selfless. In doing these things we die to ourselves and will rise in heaven, “…those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

 

This article was originally published at Catholic Exchange.

2 Comments

  1. This is so beautifully and clearly stated. I just came across your blog and love it! I am a Catholic convert and huge fan of all things monastic. I spent a weekend at a convent this past June and had a wonderful experience. Thank you for you words. They have blessed me today and given me much to think about.

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