Sunday, September 23, 2018

Detachment: what it is, how we gain it and why we need it (Sunday homily)

Flannery O'Connor

This homily is going to be all about one concept, one virtue.

That is something called “detachment.”

What do I mean by “detachment”?

I mean that freedom that comes from 
not being overly concerned with stuff, material things; 
or with pleasure, or food, or with success, 
or with the opinions of other people, or with having our own way.

In the second reading, St. James tells us: 
you have conflict because of your passions, because of greed and envy.
You want things too much, or in the wrong way.

Detachment is learning to dial down those passions and wants.

In the Gospel, Jesus confronts the Apostles 
over their longing for importance, for being admired and respected.
He puts a child in front of them and says, 
learn how to slow down, and pay attention to a child. 
That takes great patience and a certain lowliness.

I admit I have changed very few diapers, 
but I am very confident that when we think of heroic greatness, 
changing diapers is not the first thing we think of; or second, or tenth!

In other words, Jesus is telling them to learn to be detached 
from their dreams of glory and grandeur. 
Because if they don’t, they can never be his disciples. 
His disciples, Jesus told them, would take up the very same cross 
and go to the same crucifixion as he would. 
That was an image of shame, not glory – at least as they could grasp it.

Detachment means freedom. What you own, owns you.
What do we call it when someone is married, has a family, 
and builds a business? That he is “tied down.” 
Detachment is being free of these things.
That freedom means the ability to say “yes” 
where otherwise the answer would be “no.”
“Yes” to others; “yes” to opportunities for ourselves. “Yes” to God.

There’s a reason why young people are more likely 
to drop everything and go off on adventures and missions.
So much less to lose. They aren’t tied down yet.
And when we get that faraway look, longing to be young at heart, 
isn’t that part of recall fondly? That freedom? That detachment?

Let me add here that this is why all this talk 
of ordaining married men to be priests 
is not going to be the great solution people think.

I was 35 when I decided to enter the seminary. 
I had a good job and I owned a house. 
That was hard enough to leave behind.
What if I’d been married, and had a couple of young children?

So how do we gain this virtue of detachment?
Well, there are several ways it happens.
One path is that of suffering. Pain. Crisis. Loss.
Many of us have been there: 
nothing can so narrow our sense of what truly matters, 
as when we are in trouble, or someone we love is.

Another – and I am not recommending this – is the path of humiliation.
I think of Chuck Colson, who worked for President Nixon, 
a powerful man. Then he got caught up in the Watergate scandal. 
He went to jail. He was disgraced.

But in that abasement, he found God and he found his vocation.
He spent the rest of his life as an advocate for prison reform.
He changed a lot of peoples’ lives and brought about a lot of good.
But only after being detached from his pride and position 
all that he thought his life was about.

Now, we don’t want either of those paths, 
but we may get them nonetheless.
There is, however, a third path that we choose; and our Faith, 
and Jesus himself, have always told us to take this course.
It is the way of voluntary self-denial and penance.

You and I do this for six weeks of Lent. 
That’s the reason we give up things like 
candy and beer and video games. 
So that we don’t love them too much.

But where did we get the idea that we only need to do this in Lent?
Every Friday is supposed to be a day of penance. 
For Christians, penance is a feature of everyday life.
That’s what our parents meant by “offer it up.”
And, parents, I know you live this, 
when you rarely get a hot meal or a full night’s sleep. 
In addition to those dirty diapers!

Underneath all this is something else, and that is grace.
Grace is the help God gives us – in uncountable, constant ways – 
to help us grow in holiness, to help us become like him.
To become a saint, which is what God has planned for each of us.

Bishop Binzer told me something once I never forgot, 
and I have found to be true:
Be grateful for those people who drive you nuts, 
because they are helping you get to heaven.

We might also keep in mind something I learned 
from the great American author Flannery O’Connor, 
who wrote strange stories about bizarre people, 
and often times her stories were dark and violent.
She explained once that all her stories were about grace!
God’s grace!

The point she was making is that God’s grace, which will save us, 
isn’t necessarily something pretty or pleasant.
So it was for Chuck Colson, as I mentioned;
Or for Flannery O’Connor herself, who suffered terribly 
from chronic illness and died fairly young.
Or, of course, with the Cross itself that Jesus took up freely.

Nothing pretty, nothing charming. 
Totally frightening. Often overwhelming.
You and I don’t really know why this is the way it happens;
But…this is the way it happens.
To be free of what attracts and delights us in the world, 
as good as it all is – and it is all very good! –
But to be free: of the fear of pain, of death, of loss;
To be detached from stuff and pleasure, to be able to let go of it all:

Is to have hands and heart free to grasp and hold and possess 
the one thing, the only thing, worth having, 
that makes everything else worthwhile:
And that is Jesus Christ! 
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever, amen!


Anonymous said...

GREAT HOMILY! So, so grateful as always for your witness to the Truth, Father.
We had a non-homily here, from an African missionary who tried her best to speak English with almost no success...
(But of course we gave to her $ appeal). Blessings on your Holy Ministry!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Father. This is the sort of homily one can pull out and look at again and again; meat, not milk -- substance, not fluff.