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It is usual in the language of the mystics – which is more like the language of the bedroom than that of the lecture room – to speak of detachment. Detachment from everything leads us into the free enjoyment of more than everything but only after it has shown us we are nothing. Annihilation, what Sufis call fana, the passing away or total annihilation of the self, is the small price we pay for realising we are nothing. We will see the totality of this disturbing prospect better on Good Friday.  So, let’s allow Lent to get us ready.
Experiencing this mystical wisdom needs a container of sorts, which is usually provided by a spiritual tradition underpinned by religious belief. Today, in our secularised, untrusting and individualistic age, both of these are rare and problematical. Most of us do want to find union, enlightenment, nirvana and God and we often take the first step. It’s the next steps that form a spiritual path deeper than our own wanting and our far greater than our egos. However, as soon as we sniff fana or the Cross, we are tempted to cash in our losses and run back to the starting block.
Together with the goat eating the road, let’s see how we can get into this challenge. The mystics say we need to detach from images and life-goals that stop short at physical or emotional fulfilment: a good partner, good income, good health and low-cost air travel. They say that these images should be replaced by the images we find of God in the ‘imaginary’ of scripture and other spiritual teaching. They wait for us, for example, in the words and stories of Jesus that translate the mystery of God, that is way beyond our understanding, into the mystery of human existence with which we are quite familiar. Secondly, after these sacred images, the church or sangha offer religious ‘practices’: rituals, devotions, big and little ‘sacramentals’. With both the images and these practices, there is still desire; but spiritual desire is a different and higher form of desire. It changes our lifestyle and lived values. We might choose a week’s retreat rather than a week in shopping malls, a pilgrimage rather than a package tour, a charitable donation over a tax-free investment.
In the hands of Christian moralists, detachment can be twisted to become hatred of the body, rejection of sex and other natural pleasures and seeking God can become like a safari hunter chasing a beautiful animal as a trophy. This misreading of detachment has badly defaced and damaged the Christian brand. But, in the hands of the mystics, the spiritualised imagination detaches us from low-level fantasy. It prepares us for what the great medieval mystic Jan van Ruusbroek calls the ‘bare imagelessness’ of God. Jesus calls it the ‘Father’ or the ‘reign of God’.
In the Beatitudes, detachment is called poverty of spirit. It is the track through the desert to the oasis of true happiness awaiting us in the Reign of God. It is not cheap but it is a bargain. The big question is, how do we find it in our tempestuous lives? In economic language, perhaps, as a balance between austerity and growth-investment.
Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2023
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