Chapter 4: The Sayings of the Fathers on the Freeing of the Soul, pp. 127-131

Warm greetings in Christ, my friends in prayer. I wish you all many blessings in your struggles and prayer, despite my less frequent presence here.

I have decided to comment a bit differently this time around. Rather than providing a summary of this section’s content and questions, I will trust that you have read it and simply write a short essay of my own.

(I may not do this every time but I fear that my format may have become tedious and therefore am trying something different. If I both ask the questions and post my own answers to them, surely anyone left reading will find me tiresome!)

As I was reading the wise words of the Fathers on freeing the soul, I found myself wondering, “How does someone like me who is in the world, i.e. not living behind monastery walls, practice this? What is this world that I am leaving totally behind when I submit completely to God?”

Certainly there are many “worldly” things I do not partake of, some of which probably no Christian should, and others of which I simply feel called to abstain from. However, if I withdrew from all that was of this world, I would not be typing this message.

For someone with spouse and children, I can only imagine this being far more complicated. A spouse’s needs and desires cannot be ignored. It is detrimental to young children to be raised as though they were little monks, not attached to their toys or not allowed to seek comfort from parental embrace.

However, I have even considered something as mundane as my butterfly garden. I put considerable time and some money into trying to develop a habitat for my little winged friends – but they are of this world, with life spans of no more than a few days. Should I not “cling” to this activity?

In conversation with a Buddhist the other day, I spoke of “attachment”, a concept that is part of their tradition and, I believe, vital to what the Fathers are attempting to convey. Aside from things that are intrinsically evil, there are a great many thoughts, feelings and activities that are harmless in themselves but can serve to separate us from God if we cling to them.

What of my hobbies, my healthy pastimes, whether they be hiking, gardening, painting, playing games or sports or any of a multitude of other wholesome activities? Our time must be occupied in some fashion – but are these part of the “world” we must not cling to? I know from experience that most any of these activities can become an obstacle to my soul – but they can also set it free to fly into the arms of God. Who am I doing them for? Would I, could I, drop them in a second if God called me to something more important but less enjoyable?

What of my health? I cannot help but notice and feel concern if I am in pain or feel other symptoms of illness or injury. However, I can be overly attached to how I feel and allow this to become a preoccupation. On the other hand, I may notice my symptoms, take any needed action and trust that God will provide me relief at the time He knows is best for me.

What of my legitimate worries or setbacks with work, finances or relationships? It is inevitable that my attention will turn to such matters “of the world” when there are troubles. Still, I can easily become too attached to my security in any of these areas, focusing on my fears more than God. Yet He knows my situation and understands it better than I do.

And then there is my prayer, my spiritual life. Certainly, I cannot be too attached to that, can I, unlike my hobbies, health or worries? And, of course, I can. I can become too attached to how I want to feel when I pray. Spiritual joy is a great grace – but I must not cling to it, for it is not the goal of my prayer. Commitment to regular prayer is vital but I must not cling to any prayer or plan to pray such that I will not allow it to be interrupted for someone’s greater need. I can be too attached to my imagined spiritual “progress”, to my perceived holiness and so on.

The sad truth is I can become overly attached to anything because I am overly attached to me.

In the total submission of my self to God, nothing else matters but Him. I will notice and experience the comings and goings of physical, mental and spiritual sensations. Things will happen in my world and in the larger world around me, some of them very serious. But all of these things will be seen and understood in the light of His power, dominion and overwhelming love over all and for all. Over me and for me.

I cannot cling – I must go to Him. But I can only do so with His grace and in His time – for to try to do otherwise would be but one more clinging to my perception that I am in control.

I am not. Nor do I want to be.

All glory to Him forever.

Amen.

3 thoughts on “Chapter 4: The Sayings of the Fathers on the Freeing of the Soul, pp. 127-131

  1. I can relate. But I don’t know, maybe there is more to say about this idea: “Our time must be occupied in some fashion – but are these [hobbies, sports, gardening, pleasureable activities in general] part of the “world” we must not cling to?” It is a strange situation–that things that are good could be a cause of separation from God. Even “good works.” Even prayer itself! (Well, our concept of and expectations about prayer)

    A long time ago, as a student, I learned something from the Jesuits that seemed helpful, though I’m not sure that I understood it then, or even now for that matter. The concept was called “holy indifference,” according to which one accepts success or failure, pain or joy, health or sickness (and so on) equally as gifts from God. One example they often used was that of a young Jesuit seminarian, I believe it was St.John Berchmans, who died of illness years before becoming a candidate for ordination. He didn’t do anything exceptional, unless being a good student and following all the guidelines that Ignatius had set up was exceptional. But evidently it was his simple adherence to the life pattern that God had offered him that made him a role model. And this is the example that illustrates the point. While playing pool during recreation time, a friend asked him, probably in jest, “John, what would you do if you knew that you were going to die within the next few hours?”. His answer, “I’d go on playing pool.” (Did this really happen? we all wanted to ask, but didn’t, out of respect. And because we understood that it was the lesson that was important.

    Now in general, it sounds a bit too easy, doesn’t it. Besides, a person who is indifferent doesn’t make a very good companion, not to mention parent, lawyer, police officer, lover, etc. Anyway, it seems to work for some as a way to avoid “clinging.”. I myself am more attracted to Francis of Assisi’s enthusiasm and joy, but of course that was a gift from God and we have to welcome and work with our own gifts. It seems that one of yours is to share in writing your thoughts about God’s presence in our lives. I for one am grateful.

  2. Thanks, Al, for more to ponder.

    I don’t think that “holy indifference” is much like “indifference” as we understand the latter – though I’m not claiming to understand any of it particularly well.

    My sense from reading here and elsewhere (as well as observing my own tendencies) is that the more we “cling”, the LESS joy and enthusiasm we experience. Hence, I suspect that St. Francis of Assisi was a master at holy indifference, though he would not have called it by that name. And I think someone who practices it could be an excellent parent, spouse, professional, etc. – if I am understanding it correctly.

    The “indifference” is not that nothing matters. It is more that I don’t seek anything for myself, e.g. I don’t seek to maximize my pleasure/comfort or to minimize my pain/discomfort. I accept both and even welcome both as God knows what is best for me and can work through both. In not prioritizing myself and my inner states, I am actually freer to find joy in what is given. It was thus that St. Francis could call everything brother/sister – even “Sister Death” (from Canticle of the Sun).

    This is the ultimate in submitting ourselves completely to God – we embrace all that He gives or doesn’t give, without “grumbling”, as said elsewhere. Yet this does not mean that we submit anyone else! We do not stop caring whether others feel comfort or pain – in fact, quite the opposite. As we become free of our self-preoccupation, we are MORE able to love others – to delight in their happiness, to seek relief for their sufferings.

    It is a minor example but this made me think of how my love of butterflies has changed through my life. When I was a child, I caught them, killed them and proudly displayed them in a case with labels about what kind they were. (Clinging, to the extreme, though normal for a child of that era.) Then I got so that I didn’t want to kill them anymore in order to preserve their beauty for myself. Then I gave away the butterfly collection. Then came digital photography and I began to “take” pictures and “pursue” butterflies.

    Before long, however, I learned about contemplative photography that does not pursue and receives what is given. I am still a student of this. But when I ask a butterfly if I may receive its image, it is a sort of spiritual acknowledgement that my desire, my will, is not in charge. If the butterfly flits away, I assume the answer is no and I am still grateful for having received its beauty in my heart. There is greater joy in this than all of the stages that went before it. However, I believe there is still greater joy to come as my soul becomes more free and submits completely to God in all things – with the help of His grace.

    P.S. Thanks for the link.

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