Any fool knows that a person is not defined by his or her possessions. Far more important and interesting than what belongs to me is the question of what I belong to—that is, What am I attached to? For the Christian, it comes down to the question: What attachments keep me from following Jesus more fully?
As we know, the ideal in our faith and many others is detachment. But I am not at all sure what this means for me now—as father, husband, son, brother, homeowner, neighbor, friend. Let’s face it: I’m attached to this world, no matter how much I reject its folly and ephemera. Isn’t that true of most of us? And, finding ourselves attached, what then?
To belong—as distinct from having belongings—is a basic human desire. I never took a vow to be detached, but the profession of my faith is an implicit willingness—is it not?—to uproot and go where God leads me. At another time in my life this was not a troubling matter, but an altogether inspiring one. Something has changed—call it midlife conservatism, spiritual torpor or failure to love God with all my heart, soul and mind. At what point, I find myself achingly asking myself and God, does failure to follow Christ constitute failure as a Christian? At what point does conditional Christianity cease to be Christianity at all?
When I’m being honest with myself, I find these questions frightening and intimidating. And since I don’t believe God is a harvester of fear, I know I must be doing something wrong, allowing some basic and obvious truth of my faith to escape my attention. It’s called distraction and, needless to say, comes in many forms. But attachments, while they can be distractions, are not all bad. Whatever and whoever else we believe we are, we are earthly creatures, and the identity and roles we have here—no matter how impermanent—give shape and substance to life as we know it. The world is God’s gift to us, not his snare. Thus while life’s evanescence tempers its value, that very same quality can concentrate the mind and lend a certain intensity, even urgency to the relationships and joys we cherish most. This is why, for instance, it’s natural to fear and dread estrangement from one’s child or spouse more than from God: God isn’t going anywhere.
Depending on one’s circumstances, renouncing all attachments and taking up the cross can sound noble, extreme, preposterous and nothing more or less than exactly what every putative Christian must do. At one time in my life I felt strongly attracted to voluntary poverty and the life of a radical (i.e., literal) follower of Christ. The pull was made all the more powerful by the very fact that such a life would require me to repudiate most of the personal and professional decisions I had hitherto made. Much of what I had been pursuing on an interpersonal and intellectual level assumed a trivial cast. On every level that mattered most—spiritual, religious, human, political—it was the purest, most righteous decision I could ever make. Anything less than full commitment would be tantamount to choosing self over other, comfort over service, the world over the Way.
As I wrestled, I sought the counsel of an older, wiser friend, who introduced me to the concept of illuminations. Here’s the gist of it. Every choice of any consequence that we’ve made goes into making us who we are; each represents a bridge by which we cross, stream by stream, into something and someone new. It does not mean we leave behind the old; on the contrary, at any given point, we can see and understand ourselves as the product of all those choices that have led us to this moment, not randomly or haphazardly, but in a most meaningful, revealing way. Those choices can be seen as illuminations of who we are. Of course, we are more than the sum total of the decisions we have made along the way, and at any point the potential for a radical break—a decision setting us on an entirely new course—is part of our makeup. But such a consideration ought to be made in light of all prior illuminations.
The concept of illuminations reminds us to trust the work of the Spirit, no small feat when one feels the weight of heavy questions about matters of the soul. It also urges us to “loosen our helmet,” to use another expression of my older, wiser friend. In other words, grappling too deliberately for too long, even with the most deeply important kinds of concerns, is counterproductive. It can lead us into a spiritual cul-de-sac. Instead of gaining revelation, we can end up navel-gazing, which may be the most foolhardy attachment of all.
To be sure, material comforts can and do keep me from practicing a purer and more authentic Christian faith. So does being a father, husband, brother, friend and so on. The fact is, I crave attachment. Some of the very things that come between me and pure Christianity represent choices I have made because I want to belong. Longing for God and desiring to be a Christian of unusual quality are feelings that seemed to flow more naturally before I was as attached—both to people and to things—as I am now. The old fire is no more. What I have to discern is not so different from the question every follower of Jesus has always before him or her: not so much where did God go and how can I get back there, as how is God revealing himself to me now, in all this?
Illuminations aren’t always bright.