By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Practicing Detachment

The writings of the late Jesuit priest from India, Fr. Anthony de Mello (d. 1987), veered away from Catholic teaching in several significant, major, and fundamental areas, as explained by a warning to the faithful authorized by Pope John Paul II in 1998 (see this EWTN link). Yet, even the official warning acknowledged some nuggets of value in his reflections:

His works, which almost always take the form of brief stories, contain some valid elements of oriental wisdom. These can be helpful in achieving self-mastery, in breaking the bonds and feelings that keep us from being free, and in approaching with serenity the various vicissitudes of life.

Source link (emphasis added).

Having given the above necessary caveat, let me focus on one of the nuggets of wisdom that does not in any way conflict with Catholic teaching:

Another false belief: If all your desires are fulfilled you will be happy. Not true. In fact it is these very desires and attachments that make you tense, frustrated, nervous, insecure and fearful. Make a list of all your attachments and desires and to each of them say these words: "Deep down in my heart I know that even after I have got you I will not get happiness." And ponder on the truth of those words. The fulfillment of desire can, at the most, bring flashes of pleasure and excitement. Don't mistake that for happiness.

de Mello,
The Way to Love (Image Books, 1995), p. 9 (published with imprimatur dated Mar. 18, 1991, about seven years before the Vatican warning noted above).

Now, the Buddhist approach to suffering, as I understand it, is to kill all desire. In contrast, the Christian approach is to channel desire to God, who is the only one who can fulfill the great fundamental, restless desire to be loved and to love that He implanted in each of us. Not surprisingly, the Psalmist captures this simple but profound biblical idea:

Psalm 37:4 (ESV) "Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart."

The "desires of the heart" are, in my interpretation, the deep, fundamental, basic desires whose fulfillment will indeed give us happiness. They are not the desires that conflict with the God who is self-sacrificial love or agape.

The rest of the Bible and the great tradition, including St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, also point to the desire for God as resolving our restlessness in the world. In this Judeo-Christian sense and context, de Mello's nugget of wisdom quoted above can be of great help to many of us. As noted in his little book, from which I take the above quote, our Western society keeps urging us to acquire various things from academic degrees to relationships as ways to become happy and fulfilled. The failure rate in these pursuits is astronomical when we look around us with penetrating, honest eyes. It is a failure that transpires even if many or most or all of the things our society points to as sources of happiness are in fact successfully acquired. Too often, as the Gospel says, we gain the world but lose our souls and thus our happiness, even if we get all the toys (including relationships) celebrated and marketed by our culture.

The quote from de Mello also reminds me of the noble, ancient Stoic philosophy which has had some influence on the Christian tradition. The Stoics sought relief from suffering through detachment--at times, through a sort of dehumanized, impersonal detachment. In contrast, the Gospel proposes radical love as the key to liberation from detachment to persons and things that leave us unfulfilled. This radical love is robustly passionate and never icily impersonal or inhuman.

The bottom line is that it can be very good to examine our attachments and free ourselves of illusions and delusions about their power to make us happy and flourishing. The result is freedom.