Detachment and Prayer
Life was good and prosperous and then everything fell apart. The Roman army swarmed into Jerusalem with spears and torches. The temple, towers, and homes were demolished. The people were murdered or forced into slavery. Only weeks before, the Jewish citizens celebrated in luxury. How could the tides turn so suddenly? When we are most comfortable, it is easiest to forget God. When we are most confident, we are most sure to fall.
“In the days of good things be not unmindful of evils” (Ecclusiasticus 11.27).
In our Gospel today, our Lord stands weeping outside the gate of Jerusalem. All the promise, all the sweat and blood of generations, the entire history of a people were wrapped up in those walls. God singled out Abraham to be the father of a holy nation. He guided his people through slavery in Egypt, an odyssey through the desert, battles with the Philistines, and liberation from Babylon. Everything was against them, but they flourished because they were faithful. Finally, God sent his only son to them. What more could he give to his children? Yet, when the time came, the people no longer wanted God. They had turned in on themselves. Blinded by pride and prosperity, their comforts became their gods.
Jesus gazes at Jerusalem and cries, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44). Everything Jesus prophesied came true. In the year A.D. 70, Emperor Titus conquered Jerusalem. Every stone was turned over and a civilization was stamped out. As far as history is concerned, this was a cataclysmic moment. Yet, for the human soul, it is far more significant.
“Listen, you heavens, and I will speak” (Deut. 32:1).
The thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy tells the story of the human condition. It is written specifically about the Israelites, yet it describes all of us from birth to death.
“Listen, you heavens, and I will speak; hear, you earth, the words of my mouth…The Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. In a desert land he found him. In a barren and howling waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft. The Lord alone led them… (v. 1-12).
God is described as a kind of mother, caring with sweetness and tenderness.
“He fed them with the fruit of the fields. He nourished them with honey from the rock, and with oil from the flinty crag, with curds and milk from herd and flock…You drank the foaming blood of the grape” (v. 13-16).
The language here used to feel outlandish to me, until I began to picture the fat that I enjoy in my food: fresh, soft butter, a good marbled steak, creamy froth or icing. The scripture is painting a picture. It is walking through all the comforts and luxuries in our life that come from God’s bounty.
Now, the chapter takes a sharp turn.
“[They] grew fat and kicked; filled with food, they became heavy…They abandoned the God who made them and rejected the Rock their Savior…You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth” (v. 12-18).
All the good things are from God. Yet, as soon as we begin to get comfortable, we become spiritually fat. We start to get lazy and forget God. It is no wonder that so many people today do not believe in God. We are so stuffed full of food and noise that we don’t have room for God. We live in a sort of food coma, or rather, a stimulus coma. In Jewish language, it could be said of our times, “You grew fat and kicked; filled with food…you forgot God.”
So you see why our Lord’s weeping at the gates of Jerusalem comes so close to home. Where is our heart? Do we have room to let him in? In his letter, St. John Chrysostom gives advice to parents:
“If a child learns a trade, or is highly educated for a lucrative profession, all this is nothing compared to the art of detachment from riches; if you want to make your child rich, teach him this. He is truly rich who does not desire great possessions, or surround himself with wealth, but who requires nothing.”
We should enjoy life. All things were given to us to be cherished and for giving praise to God. Yet, all these things have a way of clinging to us and possessing us. The happy man is detached and anchored on God.
Tolstoy tells a story about a man who discovered the meaning of life in a potato. Pierre grew up with all the luxury of a prince. That ended when Napoleon’s army marched through Petersburg, and Pierre found himself thrown into prison. He had just avoided execution and was starving, when a fellow captive took pity on him. He handed him a small potato. Pierre grabbed it ferociously and was about to gorge himself, when his friend chided him. ‘No, no. Not that way. You won’t be able to digest it and certainly won’t enjoy the potato. Never had he enjoyed food so much, nor known such happiness. Eat it slowly. Savor every tiny morsel.” Somehow, it is when things are worse off that we can best appreciate the gifts in our life. In the same way, when we are hurt and broken, we tend to rely more on God.
So, what can we do when things are going well? The answer is given to us in our gospel today. “He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers’” (Luke 19. 45-46). It is very simple. We have to make our hearts houses of prayer.
Nothing cleanses the soul as much as prayer. Nothing frees us from addictions and obsessions as prayer. If we can learn to pray, we will finally wake up from the stupor and forgetfulness that feels overwhelming. When we pray, we invite Christ into the temple of our hearts, where he can finally throw out the thieves and robbers. Only with prayer can we find a proper detachment from the things on earth, and anchor our hearts on God.
May our Lord and Savior give us the strength to turn our hearts to Him.