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Happiness and Detachment

In rain and snow, with shackles on his hands, St. Patrick learned to pray. He was captured by Irish pirates. He was torn from family, home, and luxuries, and subjected to the cruelest slavery. Yet, in the thick of poverty, he encountered God. Jesus Christ calls the “poor in spirit” blessed, because it is only in inner poverty that we can learn to pray. It is only when we learn to pray, with depth, with heart, and unceasingly, that we can truly be alive. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matthew 5:3). Nothing else really matters but to discover this secret.

In his Confessions, St. Patrick describes the beginning of his life in prayer.

“After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain.”

St. Patrick’s words echo those of countless saints. Roman arenas and communist gulags produced saints by the hundreds. Others discovered holiness after fasting in the desert for days on end. St. Patrick learned to pray while starving. They say chamomile grows better when trampled on frequently. Prayer works by the same principal.

Yet, what does this offer us? Most of us will never step foot in a gulag nor be forced into slavery. We live in one of the most affluent and comfortable countries in the world. The household that earns over $10,000 a year is wealthier than 84 percent of the world. With our supermarkets, vending machines, and hundreds of mind-numbing television shows, how can we relate to a man like St. Patrick? If poverty is required for paradise, how can we hope to enter?

Our Lord gives us a clue in the Gospel of Matthew. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Our souls have a ferocious appetite. We are vacuums, constantly pulling in and filling up. We are searching for satisfaction. This is because God made us to hunger for him. Yet, we replace God with every manner of substitute.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen…[yet] they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:19, 23). The Babylonians “praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (Daniel 5:4). We praise the gods of entertainment, Iphones, autonomy, egoism and self-entitlement. Obsession and anxiety all stem from idol worship. There is only one solution: when we learn to detach.

I spent an hour this week visiting with a tax consultant. We talked for a long time about tithing. He has overseen the finances of dozens of Christians, and shared his sadness about how many people fudge tithing. In our culture, we have a spiritual disconnect with our money and possessions. If God only wanted us to tithe ten percent of our time, why would the scriptures again and again talk about money? In the Old Testament it was made clear. You cannot sustain a godly society without the people giving the minimum of ten percent to support the Church. We will not need money in paradise. We do on earth.

The entire point of the New Testament is that God has called us to give our whole selves, all that we are, everything that gives us meaning. When we isolate spiritual matters from finances, food, or anything in our day-to-day life, we have jettisoned everything Jesus Christ died for. Even so, there is more to it.

The scriptures ask us to tithe ten percent of our wealth. Why? We tithe to be happy. Money is precious too us. We work hard to earn our wages and then struggle to make them stretch. Yet, money has a way of enslaving us. It is the primary cause of divorce. It keeps us up at night. It has tentacles that reach down to our hearts. “Where your wealth is, there is your heart” (Matthew 6:21). Why give up something so precious? Until we can let go, we can never be free. The less we give, the more we are burdened. The more we tithe, the richer we become. All Christian duty is for one, fundamental purpose: to teach us to be free. St. Patrick in Ireland and the martyrs in the gulags learned a lesson. We encounter God in inner poverty.

Christ’s sermon now moves on to one of the most beautiful passages:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry” (Matthew 6. 24-34).

These words always strike me in two ways. They sound absolutely delightful and free-spirited. They also sound incredibly unpractical. A voice inside yells, “What in the world are you talking about?!” In reality, this is the most practical and down-to-earth wisdom in the gospels.

Most of us are not St. Patricks. Most of us will not leave the world to fast in the desert or be starved in prison. Yet, we can all live in this world with all our stuff and not be addicted to it. There are only two ways to live. We spend our lives trapped in the endless noise of the modern rat race, chasing our tails. We can live a life driven by our careers, money, reputations, and schedules…never arriving at peace. Or we can follow Christ’s simple words, and be happy.

What is happiness? Happiness is nothing more or less than inner prayer. Matthew the Poor writes, “Nothing throughout man’s experience in his spiritual life is more delightful or enjoyable than contemplation [inner prayer].” True happiness, he writes, “the exquisite happiness and joy, which baffles one’s mind, is the happiness that comes from drawing near to God.” Happiness is a life abandoned to Christ. Yet that comes with a cost. We can only draw near to God when our hands our empty. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom explains:

“We cannot live a life of prayer, we cannot go ahead Godwards, unless we are free from possession in order to have two hands to offer and a heart absolutely open – not like a purse which we are afraid of keeping open because our money will drop out of it, but like an open and empty purse…the moment you reach rock bottom, the moment you are aware of your utter dispossession of all things, then you are on the fringe of the kingdom of God…He is upholding you by His love.”

Happiness is standing before God empty and open, and saying, “here I am.”

Everyone has a different path. Everyone can give in a different way. Yet all of us must follow the path of inner poverty. We have to learn to cut off our addictions, to fast a little, to give up a little, to rearrange our priorities a little, so that we can walk through this life without chains. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” May our Lord and Savior give us strength to let go and become children once more.


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