In search of spirituality

December 5, 2022 in News

BILL TONER SJ :: I have a handmade notice pinned up opposite my desk which reads, “Spirituality is never being at the mercy of any event, thing, or person”. Sometimes it inspires me, sometimes it challenges me, sometimes it mocks me. It is a quotation from the late Jesuit priest Tony de Mello’s book Walking on Water, and the first time I came across it I found it so striking that I typed it out in big letters and stuck it on the wall. At first sight it seemed to have little to do with spirituality as many people understand it. When people describe themselves as being spiritual, they usually mean that they are conscious of, or even in touch with, a deeper or non-material presence or dimension in the universe, which perhaps they call God, or perhaps think of as some kind of World Spirit.

De Mello’s idea of spirituality is very Jesuit. It can be seen as both a path to God, and a gift of God. Central to it are the notions of ‘attachment’ and ‘detachment’. St. Ignatius Loyola saw the main barrier to a relationship with God as being too attached to the things that God had created, rather than to God. This is straight out of the Bible, of course, but it is possible to miss it or forget it. The New Testament is littered with sayings of Jesus warning us about this. Think of the following sayings of Jesus:

  • “you cannot serve God and Mammon”. (Mammon roughly translates as wealth, riches, or profit).
  • “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
  • “Whoever comes to me and does not hate his father, and his mother, and his brothers, and his sisters, and his wife, and his children, and even himself, cannot be my disciple”.
    St. Ignatius also saw attachments as a great barrier to personal freedom – the very word ‘attachment’ suggests that much. In the Bible, the Rich Young Man is invited to follow Jesus, but we are told that “he went sadly away because he had great possessions”.

Life is a perpetual struggle to make the right choices, and to ‘detach’ yourself from actions and choices which are self-destructive. People frequently choose the wrong companions, the wrong hobbies, the wrong partners, the wrong jobs, for some shallow reasons based on distorted values. For instance, an excessive attachment to money ruins many lives. Many families fall out with siblings or cousins over wills, because the legal inheritor will not share. We hear of people who have sacrificed a friend because they happened to hold the winning Lotto ticket in a mini-syndicate, and preferred to claim the whole prize themselves. People buy houses and cars they cannot afford because they are more interested in image and status than in looking after their families properly.

Sexual attraction creates another notable minefield through much of our lives. When we meet attractive people of the opposite sex, who we sense may be attracted to us, we often need to cultivate a certain degree of ‘detachment’, depending on our own personal situation. The film ‘Fatal Attraction’ is a good example of a man who messed up his life for a moment of passion.

In the Jesuit novitiate, as I lived it in the 1960s, the first two years were spent trying to cultivate an attitude of detachment from all sorts of things. No possessions were allowed except the clothes you came in with, and whatever essentials might fit on a small table beside your bed, such as shaving gear and a couple of books that were the subject of current study. There was no pocket money, or no keepsakes of any kind, nor any access to radio. Deep personal friendships were discouraged. The dormitory-type rooms were switched regularly. Novices had small jobs to do, such as making and repairing rosary beads, but these too were changed regularly so that novices would not get attached to a particular occupation. Lest we get attached to sleep, we were allowed just 7.5 hours of it, with no further ‘naps’, and we had to ‘hit the floor’ when the large gong sounded at 5.25 a.m. In case we were attached to our own inflated self-image, our faults were pointed out remorselessly by superiors and peers, in controlled environments. Holidays were confined to our own grounds, with just a relaxed timetable. I cannot say that this regime always carried over successfully to life afterwards, but it remained a kind of ideal of simple living in our memory. The idea behind all this was to make space for God in our hearts and minds, by detaching us from other distractions. It built on the saying of Jesus: “Where your heart is, there is your treasure also”.

In the quotation above, Tony de Mello is telling us that if we become overly attached to anything, we are at the mercy of it if it is lost. We may have seen the film ‘Memphis Belle’ about an American bomber crew that miraculously survives World War II. Some of the crew carried lucky charms, and one of the gunners is particularly ‘attached’ to his charm. There is a scene where another member of the crew snatches the charm and pretends to throw it out of the opening in the gun turret. The owner of the charm goes berserk and nearly brings about the loss of the aircraft. There are few of us who are not similarly attached to something, perhaps not always an object, but maybe a privilege, a grudge, a habit, an occupation, status, – something that gives us a sense of security. Jesus told us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth, which moths and rust consume, and thieves break in and steal, but to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.

Probably the most difficult thing in de Mello’s statement is not to be at the mercy of persons. What he is saying here is that it is possible to have the wrong kind of attachment even to people we love. We should not invest ourselves so fully in the life of another person that our own life loses all meaning if they leave us, whether by walking away or through their death. It is not necessarily a statement of love if you say to a person: “If I lost you, my life would be without meaning.” That is not primarily a statement about the other person, it is a statement about yourself. It could be just emotional blackmail. It is an expression of self-interested desire rather than an expression of love. And desire is not the same as love. If you compare the two statements, “I cannot live without you”, and “I cannot live without alcohol”, they are rather similar, both being about what ‘I’ want and desire. Compare this kind of desire with the sentiments St. Paul expresses about love in the Bible, “Love is patient and kind, love does not insist on its own way, love bears all things…” It is not healthy to hand over your happiness to another person, no more than it is healthy to make alcohol a condition of your happiness. Both are attachments, like the lucky charm of the gunner mentioned above. A different note is struck in Kahlil Gibran’s poem ‘On Marriage’, written almost 100 years ago, and still sometimes read at wedding ceremonies: “…together you shall be for evermore…even in the silent memory of God. But let there be space in your togetherness…Love one another, but make not a bond of love…”

One outstanding example of such detachment is given in the story of Job, in the Bible. In this story, God permits the devil to test Job by bringing about the death of his wife and family and the loss of all his considerable possessions. Job’s response is simply to say, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”.

Attaining the kind of spirituality of detachment that Tony de Mello speaks of is the work of a lifetime. And for de Mello it is not an end in itself, nor is it a programme of personal asceticism, which can be cold and unloving. At the end of the day it is about creating the conditions for communicating with God or, more accurately, for giving God a chance to communicate with us.