Recently, someone I know intimately was told he had a terminal illness. He had been divorced for years and was somewhat estranged from his daughter. Sadly, he faced the realisation that his life would be much shorter than he had thought.
My friend, Joshua, did something strange. He began to spend his money on things which he had in the past when he was married. He had collected fossils, and decided to do that again. He had collected certain genres of art work, and began doing that again.
I did not question him, gathering things about him when he, perhaps, should have been divesting himself of things and preparing for imminent death.
One day, he contacted me and shared with me an interesting insight, which he felt was from God. I repeat his words.
“Jamie, I realised that I was trying to recreate the past, the happy past, which I remembered. This was the past of my happy days of marriage, when Catie and I loved each other and set up a home for our baby, Megan. I was buying all these things I shall never use, as I have so little time left, because I was attached to the past. The past kept me a prisoner. I needed to be free of things and I was dong the opposite, instead of creating freedom, creating clutter.”
Joshua’s honesty began to haunt me. I understood his desire for a happiness which had ended too soon. Left without a family, he was using things to console himself. He needed to break with a certain type of sentimentality which lures one into thinking that happiness can be had again by creating the same environment in which one was happy.
Joshua told me that he had a sort of “enlightenment.”
“I realised,” he said, “that I wanted to live in that cocoon of the past because the present was too painful to face. I had to face dying, the real relinquishing , the real detachment from not only things, but my own history. I had to give up my dreams, my unsullied longings, even my memories.”
Of course, Joshua’s insight reminded me of St. Ignatius’ famous Suscipe, which another of Jay’s friends referred to on this blog two weeks ago.
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
Joshua realised that he was trying to live in the past instead of the present. A mutual friend of ours, Francis, also wants to live in the past. He keeps recalling all the hurts of his traumatic childhood, repeating the failures of family and friends, in a litany of bitterness and unforgiveness. Francis lives in the past because he cannot forgive those who did not love him in the past. He is a prisoner of the past because he cannot forgive.
I hope someday that Joshua can speak to Francis about detachment. Staying in a cave and licking one’s wounds not only does not allow for the healings of the heart, mind, and soul, but also creates a person who is full of bitterness and even self-hatred.
To fully live in the present demands great courage and detachment. Joshua will fight his detachments, while Francis will be stuck in his anger and bitterness.
Detachment is necessary for a person to live in the here and now. Joshua can move on and think about life after marriage, beginning new creative projects, learning more about himself, taking time for prayer.
This objective state allows him to be free. Joshua admits it took him a long time to be detached. However, God is faithful if we are serious about becoming new people in the Lord. Joshua’s enlightenment one day totally freed him from his buying frenzy. He now understands that he does not “need” things and that he can live in the present unencumbered.
I have several married friends who have lost their spouses, mostly through death. Their houses are crammed with stuff, stuff from those happy years, and stuff from their children. I asked one of them why she hung on to all that clutter. “It is too hard to deal with cleaning it out,” she said.
When we die, we go before God with nothing. All our things become the property of other people, family, or even the charity shops. We end up with only the clothes in which we are buried, and if we are Catholic, maybe a rosary around our cold, cold hands.
Joshua knows that he can face death more easily being detached. His anxiety level has decreased. He told me he wished he had this insight earlier in his life.
Some people think detachment is a moral failing, like some sort of suppression of emotional attachments. Joshua now believes that one cannot be a saint without being detached. I think he is correct. Awareness of how we are attached to things is the begging of healing and purification.
We can be attached to people, in friendships which are not good for us. We can be attached to a place, or things, or even our own health. If we do not let God detach us from things or people now, He will do so in purgatory. It is not only Carmelites who must be detached from the world, from relationships, but also us members of the laity. In other words, detachment is a necessity.
Once Francis is free from his past hurts and traumas, from past betrayals and sins, he will be free indeed.
Another friend of mine, named Hector, reminds me of the stupidity of all these time travel movies. Not only are we creatures of time, but there is no future…it does not exist. We look to the supposed existing future and become attached to our dreams of a better life for all people. This type of utopian fantasy leads to an attachment to unreality by concentrating on the future. We only have today, not even tomorrow. Joshua’s detachment has led him to a type of minimalism. He knows he will not need all the things he bought in the future, as the future is a nothing yet to be made by God and by Joshua’s own decisions.
Detachment begins to become easy when one contemplates one death. Joshua has been diagnosed with an incurable illness. He feels freer than he ever has in his life. He prays for our mutual friend Francis, who is tied to the past and wishes for some type of perfect future. Joshua states, “I have wasted my life with so many trivial things, and life is short.”
He prays and waits for his daughter to come back to her Catholic roots. However, he prays for her as a child of God. He prays not for her worldly happiness, but for her soul.
I close this little essay on detachment with the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI:
History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour. The missionary task, which is linked to Christian worship and should determine its structure, becomes more clearly visible. The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power, but in order to lead them to themselves by leading them to him of whom each person can say with Saint Augustine: he is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III,6,11).
By Jamie Hunter
JMJ, pray for us!
God is good,