In the 7th century in the Sinai desert, specifically at the Monastery of St. Katherine, lived a blessed holy elder of Christendom. After living for most of his monastic life as a hermit, and being entrusted with the care of this large community, Saint John composed the Ladder of Divine Ascent at the request of another John, the superior of a nearby monastery at Raithu. The second rung of his ladder, titled “On Detachment”, begins with these words:
If you truly love God and long to reach the Kingdom that is to come, if you are truly pained by your failings and are mindful of punishment and of the eternal judgment, if you are truly afraid to die, then it will not be possible to have an attachment, or anxiety, or concern for money, for possessions, for family relationships, for worldly glory, for love and brotherhood, indeed for anything at all.
His words are reminiscent of those expressed in the later part of the 4th century by those who fled to the deserts and wildernesses of the Mediterranean, Egypt, Palestine, Sinai, Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor and greater Europe. Refusing to adapt to the more worldly character of the newly established Church under Constantine, individuals fled society to lead what could be considered an angelic life. These men and women detached themselves from the cares and trappings of the physical world, instead claiming citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Another way of expressing their separation from the physical world, at least in a term familiar to the spirituality of the desert, is apatheia. Apatheia as summarized by Laura Swan in the Forgotten Desert Mothers is “the quality of the interior spiritual journey in which the inner struggle against inordinate attachments has ceased. Grounded in profound interior freedom, the ascetic was free of the strong pulls of worldly desires.”
Detachment from the world then is not a physical exercise, but a spiritual reality. Regardless of one’s locale, it’s living in the world but not being of the world. In the words of the 6th century hymn of the Divine Liturgy, chanted prior to the Great Entrance, detachment is “laying aside all worldly care so that we may receive the King of all invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.”
Imagine “…letting go of the inner attachment to material objects, personal reputation, position in society, attitudes and emotions.” Imagine owning possessions without being possessed by them. For as Abba Zosimas explains, “It is not possessing something that is harmful, but being attached to it.”
The ammas, that is the desert mothers, according to Swan, “teach us to intentionally let go of all that keeps us from the single minded pursuit of God: feelings and thoughts that bind us, cravings and addictions that diminish our sense of worth, and attachments to self-imposed perfectionism. Apatheia is nourished by simplicity grounded in abundance of the soul. This simplicity is in balance and harmony with the human community and the created world. To cultivate apatheia, we must be uncluttered in mind and heart and continue to be watchful and vigilant about those ‘seeping boundaries’ where we can be deceived out of simplicity and into complexity under the guise of a good.”
Abba Zosimas, explains: “In time, through neglect, we [can] lose even the little fervor that we are suppose to have in our ascetic renunciation. We become attached to useless, insignificant and entirely worthless matters, substituting these for the love of God and neighbor, appropriating material things as if they were our own or as if we had not received them from God. ‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, then why do you boast as if it were not a gift?’” (1 Cor 4:7).
There is a simple yet beautiful story of Abba Agathon, which illustrates the danger of these “seeping boundaries.” One day Abba Agathon was walking with his disciples. One of them, on finding a small green pea on the road, said to the elder: “Father, may I take it?” The old man, looking at him with astonishment, replied: “Was it you that put it there?” “No,” said the brother. “How then,” continued the elder, “can you take up something, which you did not put down?”
If it’s not a pea in the desert, there are equally as insignificant things in the world for which we have not worked, yet run the risk of claiming ownership. Even those things that we have worked for, are any of us really so bold to think that any of these items were attained without the blessings of God? If God and His Saints are not considered the great benefactors of the individual, the family, the Church, the city, or a nation, we have chosen poorly, putting our trust in wealth, in things, in people of this world – yes, each of these are blessings to an individual, a family, a Church, a city or a nation, but without God they remain entirely worldly matters that do not bring us closer to Christ, but instead keep us enslaved to Mammon.
The Greek word for saint, “ayios”, is literally one who is removed from the earth. To be “holy”, one must then be detached from things – from Mammon. One must also be able to be detached from people. To this point, Father Christopoulos, a brother priest in Colorado insightfully writes:
When we relate to [people], we [are to] do so in the context of God’s love. Therefore, their love or lack of love towards us is understood in the context of God’s eternal love for us. We of course love people with kindness, respect and care. To do so is to be Godly. However, when someone praises us for doing something (presumably) well, we detach – offering the praise to God. Conversely, when someone criticizes us, we accept it and then let it go, in humility to God. If we do not detach and hang on to either a praise or a curse (criticism), we are in danger of placing too much attention on either the praise or criticism of an imperfect person. This in turn can take us to either vanity – thinking of ourselves more than we should — or worthlessness — thinking of ourselves less than we should. I should add that it could also lead us to judgment and bitterness of the person judging us. We then place ourselves above them. The sin in these three cases is pride. It comes from claiming our worth based upon imperfect and worldly opinions. Detachment places our trust in the Perfect God who provides the context for relationships and love.
Detachment is quite simply about balance and having the proper priorities in life – God first, others second and things third. If we desire to attain apatheia as those in the desert, we must pray, fast, the read Scripture and the lives of the Saints, and experience a rich liturgical life. The Christian must learn to give from his or her things, not begrudgingly out of excess, but joyfully from his or her first fruits to create a life of moderation. An uncomfortable yet necessary step in becoming detached from worldly items is tithing, giving a tenth of everything back to God. As I mentioned prior, what belongs to any of us that is not a gift of God - time, talents and wealth are not our own, but gifted to us by God to be managed wisely and unto salvation.
In a like manner, as children, as siblings, as parents as godparents, and or as grandparents, we love the members of our family, but first we love God. To those who are in the Church, our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as those who are outside the Church, retaining the familial identity of being sons and daughters of God, we express our love, but first we love God. When we are praised, we thank God for only He is worthy of praise. When we are criticized, we remain humble and look to God to perfect our imperfections.
In the words of St. John with whose words I began, by being detached from money, from possessions, from family relationships, from worldly glory, from love and brotherhood, indeed from anything at all, we have chosen to love God and to long to reach the Kingdom that is to come – the Kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.