Today we commemorate St. John of Sinai, that great teacher of the acquisition of purity, without which, as our Lord taught in the Beatitudes, no one shall see God. (Matthew 5:8). Of the many means to acquiring this purity none can be more basic and necessary that the practice of detachment; that is a chosen separation from anything that would hinder our union with God. Detachment is not just from “bad” things that we might call temptations, but from good things also. After all, food, money, marital relations are all good but we handle these things differently from the worldly throughout our lives and with greater intensity in the Great Fast. Detachment from good things is necessary simply because in times past we have learned through fear to hold on to good things in case we lose them. This is what St. John says about detachment; two sayings from the second rung of “The Ladder.”
Step 2: “The Ladder” by St. John of Sinai - On detachment
The man who really loves the Lord, who has made a real effort to find the coming Kingdom, who has really begun to be troubled by his sins, who is really mindful of eternal torment and judgment, who really lives in fear of his own departure, will not love, care or worry about money, or possessions, or parents, or worldly glory, or friends, or brothers, or anything at all on earth. But having shaken off all ties with earthly things and having stripped himself of all his cares, and having come to hate even his own flesh, and having stripped himself of everything, he will follow Christ without anxiety or hesitation, always looking heavenward and expecting help from there ….
If anyone thinks he is without attachment to some object, but is grieved at its loss, then he is completely deceiving himself.
Consider then what might grieve you at its loss and you will find much to work on in your own soul in order not to lose Christ who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6). Better to lose everything than to lose Him.
Some people underestimate just how difficult it is to live a detached life, wholly cleaving to Christ, so they try harder. Others, perhaps most, delude themselves thinking this easy and settle for a semi-detached life. This is a deadly condition, for he who is only “semi-detached” and thinks all is well is already on the road to perdition. He is facing the loss of Christ even if this is an imperceptible loss by small degrees. The end is the same; the love for God grows cold and a darkness falls, chosen by wilful neglect and self-delusion. Jesus taught in uncompromising terms about those who lose their vision, their commitment, their detachment.
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road, that someone said to Him, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go.”
And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”
Then He said to another, “Follow Me.”
But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God.”
And another also said, “Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.”
But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Some may think that such uncompromising talk is appropriate only for monks who dedicate themselves to having no attachments but this Gospel quoted makes no such distinction for those who must take up their own cross and follow Christ. The monk faces a different battle in the desert, but the battle against the world, the flesh and the devil carries on in the cities as well for that majority of us which lives ‘in the world’, so to speak. As Christ taught on another occasion
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
Narrow gates do not surrender to “fat bellies” – and I am not primarily thinking of food here but all those other “things” that we won’t give up in order to be slender and agile enough to pass through to salvation and eternal life.
‘Rome was not built in a day’ as they say but we do need to make a start somewhere; or having started, to purify even more our desires and strengthen our wills. This, of course is what the Great Fast is for. Today, Thanksgiving Sunday, we have an extra and highly relevant focus for our endeavours – putting a proportion of our financial resources at God’s disposal through His Church. We make this commitment of course every year, reviewing it with thankful and faithful prayer. This should not be seen as “helping out” but rather practising Orthodoxy – true worship, sound faith – putting God and His Kingdom first. It is a call to move out of semi-detached living with all its anxieties and compromises into the glorious liberty of a life offered to God without reserve or condition, both in love and thanksgiving. Jesus spoke of this fully detached life, trusting in God’s provision and without anxiety in these terms.
Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
So, let us embrace not a semi-detached life with all its fatal compromises but a fully detached life with God as our only hope, security and strength. He will not let us down so let us take up courage in our faith and strike out afresh for that Kingdom “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:20).