26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.Wondering what to write about in my new life as an essayist, rather than a journalist, I decided to begin with an extremely difficult subject for lay people-detachment.
If poverty and being alone with God has taught me anything basic, it has been the virtue of detachment. Detachment must be one of the most misunderstood of all the virtues offered to us by God for the salvation of our souls.
In the history of the saints, detachment runs like a constant theme, from Christ Himself down to the latest canonized saints, such as St. Joseph Vaz, who left his Sri Lankan family to become a missionary and Oratorian priest.
But, what does detachment really mean, besides leaving all to follow Christ, leaving one's family, one's talents, one's prospects in life? And why is it that so many Catholics struggle with their spiritual life, not looking at the tangles of problems which are caused by a lack of detachment?
I first maintain that one reason why Catholics do not understand or even desire detachment is that they are too influenced by the Protestant ideals of married life over celibacy. Once celibacy is no longer valued in a family or society, the logical result is a lack of celibates. Celibacy demands detachment from family and close friendships.
Many Catholic see this idea as perverse, cruel and even un-Christian, when the opposite is true; that one cannot become a mature Christian without detachment.
The Desert Fathers and the great Doctors of the Church, are quoted by Father Alphonsus Rodriguez at length on the subject of detachment from family and family affairs. In fact, Rodriguez writes that vocations are lost when families demand too much time and attention from those men who are studying for the priesthood. Discipline and detachment must be characteristics of the parents, as well as the adult child who has chosen a vocation to be a priest, brother, nun, or sister.
The tenth commandment condemns the sin of covetousness, and most Catholics think this sin has only to do with avarice, with money, or with lust. However, one may covet one's family ties to the point of putting family before God. I have labelled this in the past as "family idolatry".
In my life, I have seen the great evils of family idolatry, leading to manipulation, a lack of freedom of choice, even spiritual and psychological incest, if not actual physical incest--a hidden sin among Christians of all denominations. I have come to realize that the inordinate number of Peter Pans and Peter Pams may be directly related to possessive parents, parents who do not want their children to become adults, and, therefore, healthy, independent adults.
Coveting not only leads to avarice and envy, but the too common dependency on people for emotional comfort, which some Catholics seem to think it friendship.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to poverty of spirit as the opposite of covetousness. Poverty of spirit demands an objectivity, demands boundaries between friends, even spouses. In our American and Western society, we see an epidemic of false friendship and false love based on a deep drive of self-love, or narcissism, instead of the true dying to self in real relationships. Many people are caught up in not only unhealthy relationships of co-dependency, but unnatural relationships, such as lesbianism or homosexuality, which involve a lack of physical, as well as spiritual boundaries.
We now have two generations, if not three, of children who have been bought love, bribed to love, and not taught to serve in the selfless manner of not expecting anything in return. I recall a man in my parents' life, a friend of theirs, who was always available to help something who had real needs. He was unusual in that his help was completely free of expectations. He honestly did things out of pure charity, with not the slightest desire to be paid back either monetarily or emotionally. His type has almost disappeared from our culture of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" expectations.
Some of us have a gut reaction when we meet someone who has so many unspoken needs that they cannot love freely. Sometimes we call these people "intense". Sometimes we call them "clingy". Our culture has created new dependencies which past generations never imagined. Emotional bondage seems to come with a lack of relationship with God, Who alone can give the love necessary for life.
God demands that we discipline our emotions and put Him first in all things, in all relationships, that we each learn to love freely both God and our neighbors.
But, God calls us Catholics to take a step further. Father Rodriguez notes that once the young man has entered religious life, such as joining the Jesuits, he no longer can be involved in any of the affairs of his family. In other words, as a man totally dedicated to God and God's Church, he is "dead" to his family. God has taught me this lesson the hard way, by letting the work of my hands fail and putting me into extreme circumstances which have forced me to be apart from those I love the most. The reason for this discipline has been to wean me from the strongest loves I have had in my heart, mind, and soul and place in my heart, mind, and soul only the greatest desire to love Him. I honestly can say that I desire little and want to be completely without desire except for God alone.
This is the way of the ascetic. The ascetic flees family and the world not to avoid conflict, or responsibility, but to be alone with God. This desire for oneness with God usually means giving up position, as in status, money, companionship, even natural and good loves. This desire for God does mean giving up wanting to be the one to convert the members of the family who have fallen away, or to be the one who brings fame and fortune to the family. One must die to all desires, desiring only death of self for the sake of finding the love of God in one's own self. He is there, waiting to be found, but so many desires block one's ability to find the God within.
The more one becomes detached, the more experiences true discernment, insight, counsel, (a gift for others), true love, and compassion, being able to suffer with others. Most importantly, detachment brings clarity as to what is love and what is not love. One begins to see one's sins of self-love, desire purification, and want only the suffering which brings one into sharing the life of Christ. Even venial sins reveal a lack of real love and the desire to avoid suffering. Love involves suffering, the dying of self hurts.
Nothing else matters but God. Those who are detached can love in a new way, with the eyes of Christ, suffering with others, but with an objectivity and freedom. To love freely, one must ask God for two graces: one must beg God to love Him, asking for real love. And, one must be humble enough to recognize that without grace, one cannot love anyone, one's self, or God.
Humility is the root and detachment is the stem which flowers into true celibate, Christian love. We must all become celibates in this way-that is, loving with detachment. Celibacy is the natural result of discipleship.
So, why do not Catholics desire this love? One answer-the lack of trust in God. Without a strong reliance on Divine Providence, how can one leave mother, father, brothers, sisters? Christ does not speak poetry in the above pericope, but a basic truth that natural love must be replaced by supernatural love.
But, the call is even more radical. No one can pretend to be a disciple of Christ without this detachment. If one manipulates another to gain love, or tries to buy love, or puts family first before God, one will never become a true disciple of Christ. And, that is what all baptized Catholics are called to be.
Freedom to follow Christ remains within the grasp of all Catholics-all. Freedom to love as Christ loves, without expectation, with the loving and true acceptance of suffering, can be experienced by all baptized Catholics. We have been given the gifts which transcend hurts, failings, even abuse within families. Heroic virtue makes saints. And, heroic virtues grows from the virtues and gifts given to each one of us in baptism and confirmation. We have all we need to be free to really love as Christ loves.
Many, many years ago, God impressed upon my soul this psalm. I had forgotten,until yesterday, this command from God to forget my father's house and follow Him with all my heart and all my soul. In the silence of my day, I seek the Bridegroom Who waits.
When He lets Himself be found, I experience a quiet joy, the joy of being loved by God Himself. I no longer look at me or my faults, as these melt away in the knowledge of being loved. It is only through detachment that God will allow Himself to be found. He is a jealous God, and will not tolerate other loves. If He decides that one goes out and loves others, that is His decision as to when, where, how, and who.
I can hardly wait to rush back to my silent chapel, my place of meeting Love Who waits for a clean heart, a clean mind, a free spirit. But, in this silence, I recognize that God Himself must be the Agent of this cleansing.
The Desert Fathers remind us that some people can be in the world, work with others, marry, have children and be detachment. For some of us, this way of life remains impossible. God creates the person to fulfill the vocation to which He calls that Christian to live. But, the end of all vocations remains the same-complete detachment and a pure love for God.