We all struggle with attachments. Such attachments can transform perfectly harmless or even commendable relationships and activities into spiritual hazards. That is why Christians are called to be detached. Without the freedom that detachment brings, we will be unable to follow Christ in a sacrificial way.
In a way, the modern world is very detached. The average American moves frequently, leaving behind family, friends, and neighborhood to start fresh in a new location. Friendships tend to last only during a particular phase of life; college friends are likely to drift apart as life goes on. We’ve become much less likely to make long term commitments of any sort.
Such rootlessness undermines the possibility of authentic community. The absence of community, in turn, makes a fully Christian life impossible. In this way, the rootlessness of the modern world erodes Christian practice. This leads to a seeming contradiction. The rootedness of community is a direct challenge to the rootless detachment of the modern world—and yet detachment is essential to the Christian life. Should Christians value the ties to particular people and places that are formed in community? If so, how are such ties compatible with Christian detachment?
The Identities Shaped by Love
Thinking about the nature of love and identity can help us to answer these questions. Our true identities are shaped by what we love. Casual acquaintances might know my name, and my hair color, and where I live; but they don’t really know “who” I am. To know “who” I am, they would need to know about my loves: my attachment to particular persons and places, my religious and social commitments, and even my hobbies and interests. All of these relationships represent different kinds of love.
Love is an inherently risky thing that is almost always accompanied by suffering. We suffer when those we love are harmed or threatened, because we’ve given our hearts to them. We are also willing to undergo suffering for the sake of love. “Compassion” literally means “suffering with”. Being near a suffering person is uncomfortable, since their suffering tends to “rub off” on us. Those who lack love tend to move away when another is suffering, while those who love draw nearer in solidarity.
Our relationship with Christ is the ultimate source of our identity as Christians. Christ isn’t content to take second place in our lives; rather, he demands our whole heart and soul. We can’t wall this relationship off into a tidy category labeled “religion”, side by side with other categories labeled “work”, “politics”, “family”, and “sports”.
Given the all-embracing nature of the Christian identity, it might seem that we shouldn’t have any other loves or identities in our lives. It might seem that we shouldn’t give our hearts to anyone else, or at least that such gifts of love should be seen as merely an indirect way of loving Christ. For example, parents might participate in some game or other activity merely to show love for their children. They might privately think the game is boring and interminable, but go through the motions to please the children. Similarly, we might see human relationships as mere ways to please Jesus. He has told us that whatever is done for others will be taken as done for him. Obviously, we need to act in a generous and charitable manner toward all. But should we let our hearts become entangled in the messiness of mundane reality?
While some Christian thinkers have indeed disparaged natural human relationships, such disdain is not part of the authentic Christian tradition. Instead, we are called to truly love others. In doing so, we are imitating God himself. He loves creatures so fully and so intensely that they are maintained in being by his loving glance. There is no need for him to create; but he freely gives his love. In Jesus Christ, God even experienced the suffering that love so often entails. Out of compassion, he suffered in solidarity with his creatures.
Of course, we can love creatures inordinately; such inordinate love becomes an obstacle to the love of God. Our loves need to be properly ordered. But the heart has an infinite capacity for love. Just because we love created beings does not mean that we have less love “left over” for God.
Christian detachment does not oppose an excess of love; rather, it opposes a lack of love. The miser, for instance, is attached to his money; he hoards it carefully and refuses to give it away. The spendthrift, by contrast, is detached from his money; he scatters it about in a prodigal manner. We are supposed to be prodigal with our love. We should throw it about recklessly, just as God did when he created the universe.
Of course, such reckless love entails suffering—which is why we are tempted to avoid it! Giving our hearts to another is dangerous! Instead, we tend to give our hearts to others with a string attached. We try to drag hosts of other creatures about on such strings in a possessive manner, to inflate our egos and make ourselves seem bigger. By doing so, we avoid the risks and sacrifices that come with true self-giving. Such consumptive and possessive attitudes, however, have nothing to do with true love. It is this counterfeit love from which we are called to be detached. Detachment breaks the string and allows us to give love freely, without counting the cost or demanding a return.
Voluntary Poverty, Love, and the Christian Community
In fact, without detachment we are unable to love. Attachments are not solely an obstacle to loving God; they prevent us from freely loving anything. St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest Christian example of voluntary poverty. He gave away everything he had, so that he could freely follow Christ. For that very reason, he was able to love everything around him with a boundless exuberance. He was able to rejoice in things simply being themselves, without plotting ways to achieve dominance and mastery over them.
This highlights the difference between modern rootlessness and Christian detachment. Modern detachment is actually an attachment to the power and freedom of the self. The modern world tells us to carefully remain detached from anything that would hamper our individual freedom of choice. The modern world opposes commitments and roots in favor of self-seeking and so-called “self-realization”. For this reason, our society promotes “freedom” from connections to family and community, and even from religious and marital ties, to protect the free choice of the individual from any exterior constraints. Christian detachment, by contrast, is all about giving oneself to others. We’re called to be detached from our possessions so that we can give them to the poor. We’re called to be detached from our own will for the good of others. Both in religious life and in Christian matrimony, detachment is paradoxically expressed by binding oneself.
We can see how different these two attitudes really are by looking at the differing results. As we’ve already noted, Christian detachment leads to monasticism, life-long marriage, and care for the poor. It promotes care for creation because it leads individuals to see the natural world as something inherently worthy of respect, rather than as something merely intended to serve individual desires. It leads to thriving local communities because Christian detachment promotes unselfish love and cooperation. At the same time, it also leads individuals to leave their own communities and families to bring the good news of the Gospel to the poor.
By contrast, the modern kind of “detachment” leads to a breakdown both of the family and of monastic life. It creates a mass of isolated and disconnected individuals, each pursuing individual goals and personal satisfaction. Family breakdown leads to the warehousing of the elderly in “old folk’s homes”. A lack of care and love for the gifts God has given ends up covering the landscape with landfills. Local communities wither away and can no longer support individuals through times of crisis and need.
Love in the Christian Community
Christ didn’t come to teach ethical principles, but rather to found a community: the Church. In the Gospels, he uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. The New Testament also uses the analogy of a building to describe our unity with one another. If the elements of a building are detached from one another, the structure falls into ruin. In the concrete reality of a local Christian community, we can practice detachment from our own egos so that, like living stones, we can become attached to one another in the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)
Moving van picture by amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Charles Moore and Rick Burke from the Bruderhof. They discuss their personal stories, the history of the Bruderhof, the connection of poverty and communal living to the Gospel, and the tension between culture and intentionality in the Christian life.
The Bruderhof (the name means “the place of brothers” in German) is a network of communities that originated in Germany in the 1920s. With the rise of Hitler the community fled, going first to England and then to Paraguay. Over time, the community grew, and now has over 3000 members in 29 different locations. They are dedicated to living out the Gospel as a group; among other things, this means that individuals in the group don’t own private property.
Love in Community
Rick pointed out that two Bible verses highlight the importance of living together as a community. In 1 John 4:20, we read “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” It is easy to fake love of God, but not so easy to fake loving care for brothers and sisters in Christ!
Similarly, Rick pointed out that 1 John 4:12 says “No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is truly in our hearts.” That “but” is significant. The world is supposed to see God in the way Christians love one another. How can they see this if Christians don’t live in community? Our message is not just a bunch of words, but a concrete reality: the Kingdom of God.
Why do the Bruderhof members hold everything in common? Why is communal living important? As Charles said, because it is important to God. The Bruderhof sees communal living as a way to live out Gospel poverty and to imitate Acts 2 and 4. Charles and Rick explained that if we see ourselves as one body in Christ, then we ought to hold our goods in common, just as a married couple do. Avoiding private property helps members to be detached and free to follow the Lord, and sharing material goods is a concrete expression of love. We discussed the importance of Christian unity, which can often be reduced to a philosophic or theological concept. In reality, unity should be demonstrated in daily life.
The communal economics of the Bruderhof community is also a protest against the corrupting influence of Mammon in the world, and the violence and inequality which this influence causes.
Following Jesus as the Sole Motivation
Charles stressed that he didn’t join the Bruderhof to gain community. (In fact, he pointed out that he isn’t communal by nature!) Nor did he join the Bruderhof to “live differently” or to “escape the world”. He lives in community because the Gospel tells Christians to do so. If we see community as goal in itself, or an escape from the world, or as a means toward the success of a cause, it will fail. Only the love of Christ can support us in the daily task of serving one another in a community.
Family is Sacred, but not Sufficient
In any community, there can be tension between family life and the life of the community. The Family is instituted by God, and so is sacred; a community which tries to override family life is heading for disaster. On the other hand, we see from the Gospel that family is not sufficient. Families need to be integrated into a greater whole. Charles and Rick explained that in their experience, children adapt well to community life . . . in some cases, more easily than adults!
Community Can’t Replace Commitment
Community can’t replace personal commitment, whether for children or for adults. One of the dangers of Christian community is that it can obscure the need for each individual to make a choice to follow Christ. We can’t depend on social pressure, custom, or tradition, nor can we assume that because we fit in well with a community we are following Christ fully.
Similarly, a child who grow up in the Bruderhof has to make a personal decision to remain with the community. Charles and Rick explained that parents in the Bruderhof can’t assume that their children will remain members; they may have a calling elsewhere.
A related danger is basing a community on merely human strength or virtue, or seeing community as a gathering of one’s tribe or type. This will produce a clique, not a true Christian community. We’re all flawed, but in a community we can help to strengthen and support one another.
Attachment Comes in Many Forms
The Bruderhof emphasis on a communally economic way of life helps to avoid a certain kind of attachment, but Charles and Rick pointed out that another form of attachment is a particular danger for those living in community. Members of a Christian community can become attached to their traditions and customary ways of life. Charles emphasized that he didn’t join the Bruderhof because of the Bruderhof; he joined it to follow Christ. Communities have to remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, always ready to drop aspects of their culture if they are no longer a help to living the Christian life.
More Information on the Bruderhof
You can find more information about the Bruderhof at their website.
As I discussed in my last blog post, Catholic progressives and reactionaries are mirror images of one another. Neither faction has the humility to remain loyal to the message of the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church. Instead, each faction claims power over the Gospel message.
The Local Bishop
How can we be sure that we really are staying loyal to the Church? Today the Church is full of factions, each claiming to speak for the Magisterium. What does loyalty look like in this situation?
In such difficult times, we can learn from the saints of the past, who also wrestled with these questions. Early in the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters to Christian churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. A persistent theme in these letters is the importance of unity, which, according to Ignatius, is to be guaranteed by staying close to the bishop of the local church.
For instance, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes:
“For we can have no life apart from Jesus Christ; and as he represents the mind of the Father, so our bishops, even those who are stationed in the remotest parts of the world, represent the mind of Jesus Christ. That is why it is proper for your conduct and your practices to correspond closely with the mind of the bishop.”
And further on, he writes:
“Anyone who absents himself from the congregation convicts himself at once of arrogance and becomes self-excommunicate. And since it is written that God opposes the proud, let us take care to show no disloyalty to the bishop, so as to be loyal servants of God.”
Similarly, in his letter to the Magnesians, he writes:
“Allow nothing whatever to exist among you that could give rise to any divisions. Maintain absolute unity with your bishop and leaders as an example to others and a lesson in the avoidance of corruption. In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of him, either in person or through the Apostles, so you yourself must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.
Of course, the local bishop is a sure guide only insofar as he is teaching in union with all the other bishops, and particularly with the Pope, the bishop of Rome. In the late second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wrote Against Heresies, in which he said that it was a matter of necessity that every local church should agree with the Roman church due to its greater authority.
This does not mean we have to agree with every single thing the Pope does. Obviously, Popes can make mistakes in practical matters, in who they appoint, and so on. It does mean, however, that we have to remain respectful in our attitude toward the Pope; and that we have to “give religious submission of mind and will” to his official teachings. Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This … Continue reading
St. Catherine of Siena is a great example of the correct attitude toward the papacy. She saw that the decision of the popes to live in Avignon was doing grave damage to the Church, and she worked tirelessly to convince the Pope to return to Rome. At the same time, she remained unswervingly loyal to the Pope, and never attempted to alienate her fellow Catholics from him.
A similar stance can be seen in the life of St. Thomas More. St. Thomas lived under some scandalous popes, and he was not afraid to oppose corruption in the Church. Yet he ultimately gave his life in defense of papal supremacy.
From Theory to Practice
To imitate the fidelity shown by the saints, we need to be mindful of our speech, careful in our media consumption, discerning in our choice of guides, faithful in our prayers, intentional in finding inspiration, and concrete in our charitable action.
We should avoid speaking in a negative way about other Christians, but particularly about the Holy Father.
Personally, I like Pope Francis. I am inspired by his teaching, and I hold that most of the controversy about what he says and does has been stirred up by the media for political reasons. If you’ve got questions about things Pope Francis has done or said, I’d be happy to pass along resources that I’ve found to be helpful in understanding him. In particular, I think it is important to realize that his teaching is in continuity with the teaching of previous popes.
But even if I disagreed with him, I would still think a Catholic should not speak negatively about the Holy Father. What good can we do by speaking ill of him? What harm does it do if others think well of him? By speaking negatively about the Holy Father, critics are setting themselves in judgment over him and run the risk of doing serious damage to the Church if their necessarily limited assessment of the situation turns out to be incorrect.
Speaking in general about the dangers of rash judgment, St. Thomas Aquinas says “He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.” Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.
Certain kinds of Catholic media make it very difficult to stay attached to the Church and loyal to the Pope. Any news outlets that exist primarily to retail gossip, scandal, and outrage should be avoided. In general, it might be better to read less about current events in the Church. (If you do follow Church news, it might be better to read the blandest, least opinionated news site you can find.) Instead, read solid works of Christian spirituality, the lives of the saints, the Bible (and Bible commentary), The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church Fathers . . . there are so many worthwhile things to read! In contrast, the latest controversy will probably be entirely forgotten in a few year’s time, with nobody being any better off for it. The definitive take on any event or person is written after all the players are dead; reading current events is always less informative than reading history.
I’d also propose three questions that can guide discernment of whether Catholic writers or speakers are speaking with the mind of the Church.
- Do they stay loyal to the Pope? As discussed above, this doesn’t mean they have to agree with every single thing he does and says. But if they are trying to turn public opinion against him, or talk about “resisting” him, they have crossed the line. This sort of talk only produces schismatic attitudes and infighting, which makes sharing the Gospel with others more difficult. Who would want to join a Church when those inside hate their leaders?
- Do they stay loyal to Church teaching? Would they accept everything laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Many Catholics who claim to stay loyal to the Pope refuse to accept Church teaching on various issues. But if they are not loyal to the teaching, then they are not really loyal to the Church.
- Do they stay clear of partisan politics? This test is primarily relevant to the USA. Since both of our major political parties are out of line with Church teaching on certain points (I outlined this in my “cult politics” article), a writer or speaker who is too tightly associated with either of these parties is less likely to be able to preach the Gospel in its fullness.
Pray with the Church
The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church; by praying it, we join countless other Catholics around the world in prayer. The Office of Readings provides daily selections from the Bible and from our rich Christian heritage, a sort of daily theme suggested for our reflection. Of course, most of us don’t have enough time to pray the whole Liturgy of the Hours every day, but it is fairly easy to pray one or two of the “hours”; despite the name, each is only about ten minutes long.
Personally, I was really moved when I watched Pope Francis’ special Urbi et Orbi blessing during the pandemic and again when I watched the Holy Week Services live-streamed from the Vatican. Watching these events really helped me to feel connected with the Holy Father and the Church around the world.
Try to seek out and read inspiring stories about Christians living out the Gospel, instead of depressing stories about scandals and infighting. From missionaries spreading the Word of God to charitable organizations caring for the homeless, Christian heroes are out there. They just don’t make as much noise! For example, I recently came across the fascinating story of John Bradburne, the most prolific poet in the English language. He was a third-order Franciscan who spent the last ten years of his life caring for lepers in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). When war broke out, he refused to leave the lepers and was shot by guerrilla fighters.
Love your Neighbor
Beyond all these more theoretical and spiritual practices, it is important to really live out the mission of the Church in daily life. We’ll ultimately be judged by what we do, not by what we think about the latest controversies. By serving the poor and evangelizing with our lives, we are making contact with Christ who is present in the least of his brothers and sisters. Pope Francis calls us to renew our commitment to loving service of the poor, and that’s something all Christians should be able to agree on. As C. S. Lewis put it, “one usually gets on better with people when one is making plans than when one is talking about nothing in particular”. By participating in the mission, we’ll not only find it easier to stay spiritually in union with the Church but we’ll also be working to actually solve the problems of the world.
Header Image: Portrait of Thomas More by Holbein in the Public Domain; Pope Francis, Casa Rosada CC BY-SA 2.0; Catherine of Sienna, Uffizi Galleries, CC BY-SA 2.0
References ↑1 All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth. ↑2 Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” ↑3 Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.