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Of Spiritual Detachment

IN the coming reconstruction of theology the builders will seek both their ground-plan and their materials in the region of the spiritual laws. These laws, which operate throughout the universe, focus and realise themselves in man. All the revelations, all the external facts that make up human religious history, have their origin and their interpretation here. Some of the laws lie very deep down, and yield themselves only to a very careful investigation. Of this number is the principle of spiritual detachment, with which we propose now to deal. How difficult its trail is to discern is evident by the numbers who have lost their way in trying to follow it. The Indian devotees who give themselves up to voluntary tortures, or who leave their families for a solitary, homeless life in the forest, are types of these bewildered explorers. But their very aberrations point to a something beneath, which is distinctive not only of the devotee but of every man of us, and which must be taken into account if we would reach any proper comprehension either of history or of ourselves.

The law of detachment lies close by the side of the law of association in religion. The two co-operate in defining the soul's movement somewhat as the centripetal and centrifugal forces co-operate in defining the orbit of the earth. The operation of detachment is by a constant breaking away of the mind from the objects of its earlier attraction in search of what is wider and higher. The spiritual movement here has a close parallel in the mental progress of a country-bred man who has after-wards seen the world. In his earlier years his view has been confined to the parish he was born in. He knows no other scenery and no ether opinions. He applies to everything the parochial standard of measurement. He

Thinks the rustic cackle of his bourg
The murmur of the world.

But the later years of travel and observation snap the cables which tie him to this small world. He finds himself part of a larger system. He has a new measuring line, a fresh standard for judging what is big and little. Many things which loomed on the rural horizon as of portentous moment are now reckoned as of small account. All round the man there has, we perceive, gone on a great process of detachment.

But this, while it represents relatively an immense development, is, after all, only a beginning. Before a deeper insight such a world-culture stands, in its turn, as something only parochial. For a true cosmopolitanism there must be excursions in a yet wider realm. An imperious necessity drives man beyond the region of flesh and sense. When these have yielded him their utmost he still finds himself

Galled with his confines, and troubled yet more with his vastness; Born too great for his ends, never at peace with his goal.

Everything in the sense world bears, we discover, the stamp of the evanescent. The saying of Heraclitus that we never cross the same river twice, because the water we first passed over has fled to the ocean, is a parable of all our relations to the visible. While we look at our possessions they melt before our eyes. And could we hold them, they are not good enough. We drink of this water and thirst again. That immense Weltschmerz of which we read in the life of Lacordaire, when, as a brilliant young advocate, with the world at his feet, he suddenly saw all its hideous emptiness, and fled from it to the life of the cloister, is known to us all. If we listen to the deep within us we hear a cry there as of a live thing in prison, sighing for its true home. Like some sea-bird in the centre of a continent that seeks a way to the ocean that is its habitat, the truest within us calls to the illimitable, the unseen, and the imperishable as its only proper abiding-place.

It is not till we have reached this stage of thought and feeling that we are in a position to estimate the real significance of the message of Christ. Its central teaching is that worldliness is a stupid provincialism. It is not so much that it is wicked as that it is so absurdly limited. Christ brings us tidings from. a larger world on which He proposes straightway to launch us. His proposition is that we should

Here on this bank in some way live the life
Beyond the bridge.

The parochial view finds its end in the gaining of sensual pleasures, of wealth and worldly honours. Christ proclaims this to be the pastime of babes, and suggests that we take up pursuits worthy of manhood. He speaks as the citizen and emissary of a larger universe, to whose vaster and more splendid careers He invites us. And the magnificent detachment manifest in His teaching shines even more resplendently in His life. In a fine passage in one of his essays Holt Hutton has pointed out how this appears specially in Christ's attitude to His own sufferings. It does not occur to Hun that there is any hardship to Himself in being scourged and crucified. Nothing is further from His mind than any consternation at the shame and disaster of His own earthly destiny. He is occupied here entirely with the wider purpose of the Divine Mind. He takes suffering and want, and all the affronts the world can offer, as moments simply in a constant spiritual progress, as factors and instruments for making visible on earth the invisible things of the Kingdom of God.

It appears after all then that, despite the scoffs with which the phrase has been greeted, the only successful worldliness is an other worldliness. To master this world we must be free of another. Any lesser conception reduces our life movement to something like the navigation of the pre-compass period; a petty steering by capes and headlands instead of bold ventures across the ocean, guided by the stars. Let us see, however, in more detail, how this law of detachment works.

It disconnects for one thing the centre of gravity of our life, the sum of its purpose, inclination and desire, and lifts it to a plane from which everything takes on a new aspect. At this height we find men taking their sorrows as personal possessions and enrichments. They may not with a Goethe turn them into song ; but they will certainly trans-late them into character, which is even better. A Boethius under sentence of death calmly occupies the interval in writing the " Consolations of Philosophy "; a St. Teresa when persecuted "finds her soul in its true kingdom with everything under its feet." What a splendid height of detachment is that described for us by the Roman annalist, of Canius Julius condemned to death by Caligula 1 At the last stroke of the executioner he is asked by a philosopher friend standing by, " Canius, in what state is your soul now P" The answer is, " I thought to keep steady with all my force to see whether in this instant of death I might perceive some dislodging of the soul, and whether it would show some feeling of its sudden departure." In this supreme moment, that is, he is occupied simply in the calm scientific analysis of his own sensations ! Small ground, surely, for the howl of the pessimist when life at its worst can hurt no more than this !

An example of this kind shows us the extent to which the pagan world, at its best, had learned the secret of spiritual detachment. Its achievement, however, was largely a negative one. There is not much good in a detachment from the lower if one has not, to meet it, a satisfying attachment to the higher. Stoicism had a grey sky over it, and a north wind blowing. It was bracing, but the scene lacked sunshine. It is here that the Christian sanctity so far surpasses the Stoic sanctity. It gives a positive for the pagan negative. It offers a home in the invisible such as we search for in vain in Epictetus or Seneca or Aurelius. They have hardened themselves into a noble scorn of pain and loss, but they have not that fine sense of harbourage far up in the will of God which enabled our Baxter, shut up in prison, to sing

No walls or bars can keep Thee out,
None can confine a holy soul;
The streets of heaven it walks about,
None can its liberty control.

A detachment of this kind, which makes the soul, in old Tauler's words, "so grounded in God that it is dissolved in the inmost of the Divine nature," is far more than a defiance of the world's disabilities. Its note is not defiance, but delight. The spirit revels in the thought of having attained at last to life's inmost secret, of being launched at last on a career which answers its deepest aspiration and calls forth all its powers.

It is not less interesting to trace the working of spiritual detachment in the sphere of human relationships. It is, for one thing, the secret of loving. There is no enduring attachment apart from a high detachment. Where two souls hold together it will be by a mutual breaking off from the lower and the unworthy in each other, and the cleaving to and working upon what is really lovable. When our friend insists in seeing only the best in us, trusting it, taking it always for granted, and ignoring the lower, he is going the surest way to kill this lower. Our evil is here in a vacuum where it cannot breathe. It is by a similar detachment that creed wars and theological hatreds will finally die out. All great souls, says Schiller, are akin. And as souls become greater everywhere, they will refuse to deny their kinship. They will detach themselves more and more from the divisive element in their separate formularies, to unite on the deeper life beneath.

To sum up. We have in the law of detachment a principle of separation in view of a higher union. Its presence in man proclaims him born for citizenship in two worlds. As the earth's motion is explicable only by its relation to a larger cosmos, so is the movement of humanity explicable only by reference to an unseen cosmos. Christ's life and message are the completest example and demonstration of this greater cosmopolitanism. The spiritual detachment which He teaches secures the highest forms of union, and by linking the seen to the unseen shows us how to possess and enjoy them both.

( Originally Published 1903 )

Ourselves And The Universe:
Our Moral Variability

The Escape From Commonplace

Of Spiritual Detachment

Life's Present Tense.

A Doctrine Of Echoes

Of Divine Leading


Dream Mysteries

The Spiritual Sense

Our Thought World

Read More Articles About: Ourselves And The Universe

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