BACK TO THE TREES OF THE GARDEN (Lessons in Detachment)
At times, very many and long times it seems that God has hidden His face, hidden His very Self. And not only that, but my own love for Him is hidden, my desire for Him is hidden from me and I am left in a desert of the highest dunes – like Abid Lia – neither unhappy nor happy in the intense effort of ascending unsteady sands. Do I love God at all? I often wonder. The awareness of love gets lost in the effort and you just keep going on and on, up and up.
Then the question is asked of us in the Alpha Course, “what do you think of Jesus?” Similar to the question that Jesus Himself asks, “who do you say I am?” What do I think of Jesus? The response was instantaneous, a wordless surge within me like the uncorking of champagne, a spontaneous bursting forth of unquestionable love, the joy of my love for Jesus. “He’s the best thing ever!” I said aloud. He is my portion. He is my love. And, of course, as I reflect further I realize that this love that surges within is not my love but God's - "this is the love I mean, not our love for God but God's love for us." (1 John 4:10) This is the wellspring of all blessing.
Something similar happened many years ago when much of the evidence of my life indicated that I had become estranged from Him, my love for Him unreal, untrue. It was the first appearance of Charlie Landsborough on Irish television and, in a style of music that I didn’t like at all, he sang ‘My Forever Friend,’ a song that made me cry instantly, opening my soul, revealing to me my love for Jesus. A love that was not dead but buried in the rubble of life’s struggles.
Fifty years ago, I first travelled the road from Nenagh to Thurles, a road that has been the frustration of many a hurried driver, including me. But to the child I was back then and to my eyes now, it is simply beautiful, a beauty that causes me to vocalize my admiration. Rolling, peaceful hills. Green fields.
It is the road that took me back to the place where I was born anew, where my soul was awakened, blessed, broken, and given. The road home to my Pallottine community. The road home!
We were gathered for the first part of the funeral of a brother Pallottine. Gathered in all our shapes and forms of body, soul, and mind. We are brothers, loosely assembled around the briefly opened coffin. We are privileged to be given this private moment.
He doesn’t look like himself at all. Maybe he looks like his father. Death has changed him like it will change us all into something unrecognizable. And before we die illness will make many of us unrecognizable. He has shared in the Passion of Christ in a way that no one would choose. But he shared in that sacred mystery and now he is released into another aspect of the great mystery of God. None of us has any idea of what the beyond is like
But, as my parents would say, “it was a great funeral!” All three days of it. Great because of all the people who turned out to sympathize with the bereaved, to honour the deceased, to speak of memories. Connecting and reconnecting. Old friendships briefly kindled again. Beautiful liturgies prayed.
As I walked in the garden of my spiritual home, the home of my growing up, I thought about my Novice Master who introduced, inducted, instructed, and guided me into the Pallottine way. We go back those fifty years and I regard him as a father whom I respect, admire, and love. And sometimes fear. My very identity is enmeshed in him. The garden abounds with memories of him, like he is in every blade of grass, every bush, every tree. Every tree!
He had planted two beautiful Chinese oaks that grew and spread out their branches magnificently. But, to my great disappointment, even anger, they are gone. The space they occupied is empty, somehow empty of him and I did not like this emptiness at all. But as I walked it seemed like God was telling me to get things in perspective, to remember that, however magnificent the trees, however much their sentimental value, they are in the end simply trees. And the space that seemed empty now appeared to me as open space, offering a different view. Open to something new. The opening of the empty spaces of life offering promise more than loss.
In the prophecies of the Old Testament the cutting down of trees, uprooting stumps, the clearing of spaces - all these are part of the imagery associated with salvation for God's people. Clearing the way. Uprooting the rooted.
In the afternoon two of us went to visit him in the Nursing Home. A very sad sight. He too is marked by the Passion of Christ. This man who once was young, towering, strong and as magnificent as an oak, now old, diminished, somewhat distressed, not knowing who we were. And of course, I tried too hard to reach him, to make this moment significant, to make sure that I still matter to him. I tried too hard and, while things were going reasonably well, it all came apart in a split second. He misunderstood something I said, became briefly angry and said, “I don’t trust you!”
I did everything I could to rationalize these words, to explain them away but emotionally they flattened me, and I said to my companion, “what if they are the last words he ever speaks to me?” I don’t trust you.
Hours of soul searching went on into the night. His opinion of me has always been central to my sense of self, my very wellbeing, and the child in me had wanted his affirmation, like I wanted and needed the affirmation of my mother before she died.
And I went back to the trees of the morning, the absent Chinese oaks that were preparing me for a more profound letting go and I found myself hearing the words of Jesus who said something like, “you like to receive praise, approval, glory from one another, but you do not try to win praise, approval from the one who alone is God.” (John 5:44)
In so many ways this has been a year of learning detachment. I have no significant attachment to things but have found that I have become, have always been too enmeshed in relationships that are vital to me, and my soul is like a weathercock that swings according to the winds of those opinions of me that matter. Life has been trying to teach me detachment, a word that was central to the teaching of my dear and great Novice Master – “you must be detached” he would say time and time again. He has taught me anew in a most forceful way. I was going to say devastating. It was devastating for a while, but he would also place Jesus at the centre of every experience. There is only Christ; He is everything and in everything (Colossians 3:11). And His is the only approval that matters.
Perhaps under the influence of the Holy Spirit my Novice Master was shaking my champagne until the uncorking that allowed my genuine love for Jesus to burst forth and overflow as it did at Alpha. It is such love that enables us to recognize that deep beneath the rubble of sickness and the unknowing forgetfulness of age there is a soul in communion with God speaking a language that is beyond the utterance of words.