In today’s second reading, Paul wrote, “the world in its present form is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7:31) This is neither denigration of the created world nor pessimism about human existence. In the fashion typical of Paul, it is a concise statement about an attitude called “holy detachment.”
Holy detachment is an attitude that values created things in a conditional way. God’s creation is good because it comes from God’s hands. As good as it is, however, it is merely temporary. All created good will pass away eventually; therefore, created things cannot promise never to disappoint us. Only faith in God saves us from the disappointment that results from excessive attachment to material wealth.
There was an excellent example of holy detachment in the liturgical calendar this past week. Last Wednesday was the feast of a Saint named Anthony. This isn’t the Anthony that people pray to for help with lost items. The patron of lost items is Anthony of Padua, who was born in the late twelfth century. The Saint whose feast was celebrated this past Wednesday was Anthony of Egypt, who lived in the third century.
Anthony of Egypt, sometimes called Anthony of the Desert, was born to a wealthy family. He took to heart the Gospel injunction: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.” (Matt. 19:21) He forfeited his inheritance, and took up the life of a hermit in the Egyptian desert.
He went into the desert seeking solitude, but increasing numbers of Christians sought him out for spiritual guidance. Eventually, he gained quite a following, and became the leader of a group of ascetics who worked, fasted, and prayed together in the desert.
I mentioned last Sunday that the many Saints who directed other people toward God encountered God in the act of ministering to others. Anthony of the Desert is an example of this, and an example for us to imitate. I’m not recommending that everyone abandon their relationships, responsibilities, and all their earthly wealth. Anthony chose a radical form of discipleship, but faithful discipleship does not require extraordinary circumstances.
Anthony of the Desert is an example of someone who wrestled with temptation and human weakness. He overcame his many temptations and offered his contemporaries help in doing so, as well. He was victorious over temptation because he put his trust in what does not disappoint.
John Henry Newman wrote about Anthony, saying, “Superstition is abject and crouching, it is full of thoughts of guilt; it distrusts God, and dreads the powers of evil. Anthony at least had nothing of this, being full of confidence, divine peace, cheerfulness, and valorousness.” (Church of the Fathers, p. 111.)
Anthony’s calm trust in God allowed him to give up everything associated with a normal life. Although his choice for faithful detachment from material things was quite radical, it remains a good example for us. Anthony’s detachment from worry and possessiveness made him a holy man and a reliable guide for others.
I’m not advocating that anyone here should divest themselves of all their possessions in order to live an eremitical lifestyle; no one here would look good in a loincloth. I am saying, however, that a sense of holy detachment from the world is the only way to live our Faith adequately.
The created world, especially other people, deserve to be valued appropriately, but only God deserves to be valued unconditionally. Failure to value even a single created thing conditionally leads one to a skewed value system with regard to everything, including God.
Our world is filled with examples of the skewed judgments that result from self-destructive values systems. It is very popular today to be cynical about government, elected leaders, social institutions, foreign nations, special interest groups, and anyone who differs from us in any way. The cynicism that denigrates individuals and classes of people is born of misplaced trust. When one trusts in what does not last, one chooses to spend one’s life in disappointment and resentment.
The world in which we live, even our very lives, came from God and will return to God. Our attachment to this life and all its goodness is an act faith when we remain mindful of the temporary nature of everything except the source and goal of creation.
In the first reading, the prophet Jonah announced, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” (Jonah 3:4) The people repented, and turned to God. In a very real way, however, the city was destroyed: the old Nineveh “passed away” in response to the prophet’s words, and a new Nineveh was born. The king, the people, and even the animals were changed completely. The same kind of spiritual renewal can be ours when we cherish this life appropriately and give our ultimate loyalty to God alone.