Sunday, 4 August 2013
Avarice and attachment
Have you heard the one about why don't Buddhists don't hoover under their sofas? It's because they've got rid of all their attachments.
Of course, in Buddhism, 'attachments' doesn't really refer to a vacuum cleaner's nozzles. According to the Buddha, we exist in a state of suffering, and this is because we crave things, because we are always wanting. The remedy he taught is to get rid of those cravings, to sever all attachments. "He who has a thousand loves has a thousand sufferings," as one Buddhist saying goes.
Jesus sounds quite Buddhist today when he warns us about our tendency to get attached to things we shouldn't. Things of the world. In the parable, it's a bigger storeroom, to stock up more and more food the rich man will never eat. I suppose a modern analogue would be a bigger garage or a house with a bigger attic to store up all the stuff we want to keep but never use. But there's far more to it than that, of course. Jesus condemns 'avarice of every kind,' and in his letter to the Colossians, St Paul marks out greed particularly as 'the equivalent of worshipping a false god.' Attachment to things on earth is a kind of idolatry, putting stuff where only God belongs.
Buddhists, whose religion is probably more wary of idolatry than any other, are not meant to be attached to anything (basically). But I wonder, is there anything that a Christian can properly crave for? Looking at some of the things that Jesus said, you'd think maybe not. After all, when Mary Magdalene saw Him Resurrected, His words to her were the famous 'noli me tangere' you see in so many church windows: 'do not touch me' or 'do not cling to me.' And we are told in Philippians 2:5-11, an ancient hymn dating from even before the time of St Paul, that 'though He (Jesus) was God, He did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.' The Divinity emptied itself into a man, but that man would not even cling to His divinity. It seems that clinging, grasping, wanting, desiring are not good things even, maybe, when their object is God. So can it ever be right to be greedy for God?
I think the answer to that question has to be yes and no. Yes, because there is something that Christians can and should be attached to, be greedy for, even crave. And no, because the nature of what we are trying to grasp makes it impossible, like trying to grasp an eel, or as Jacob found, like trying to wrestle with an angel.
Love is what we must crave for, since we are shown in Jesus Christ that God is love, and we must always seek God. There is the 'yes,' then. The difficult thing about grasping it, though, is that the nature of that love is absolute, unconditional self-giving, epitomised in the Incarnation - God giving Himself to become human - and the Crucifixion - the God-man giving Himself for humans to become one with God. Absolutely self-giving love.
And this is where the 'No' comes in: if we ever do grasp it, get attached to it, then we haven't really grasped it at all. We are trying to grasp the ungraspable, that which by its very nature is to be given away. It is what it is because you pass it on, let go of it, let it slip away: you could say that Christ-like love is the ultimate in non-attachment. It is exactly the opposite of grasping and craving and unhealthy attachment, fixation. Take our love for people, for example. It has to be open-ended. You say you love someone for who they are right now: well that's okay, as long as it doesn't stop you loving them for what they will be tomorrow. But if we love someone only because they fit a fixed idea in our minds, then it is not really love at all. If we say, "I love you, because you're just this sort of person, or just that sort of person," then we are constraining that person, not allowing them to grow and change, and that is not love at all. It is self-oriented instead of oriented towards the beloved. And in fact, it is a kind idolatry: an act of possession and ownership, rather than of the absolute giving which true, Christ-like love demands.
Exactly the same principle applies to our love of God. If we think we love God because He fits some notion of ours, or because we get some emotional high or feeling, say, of inner peace out of Him, then again, we're constraining Him and making an idol of our own invention. We're replacing His inconceivable mystery with a banal certainty, a clergyman's platitude. But St Augustine said, "if you understand it, it is not God." I'm afraid that if love is unconditional, then it must be uncertain. Our love for God must be a voluntary blindness, an utter trust, a total self-giving of our selves into His hands so that He can make us an instrument of His self-giving in the world.
This uncertainty in love has the unfortunate side-effect of suffering. The infinite depth of Christ's love is that He gave His life with the deep desire - craving, even? - that all beings would be saved through Him. Until that is fully realised, and as long as Christ loves, He must suffer. If we live in his love as His Body the Church, truly giving ourselves into the flow of the sacrifice He made on the Cross, yes, that means we will suffer. He suffered once for us; now He suffers in us and with us.
We do have a proper yearning, craving, desire as Christians: to sacrifice ourselves into the eternal flow of God's love, with all the suffering that entails. A thousand loves bring a thousand sufferings? Bring them on. We must love and take the suffering that comes with it, and offer up that suffering freely, and let ourselves be drawn into Jesus' self-giving sacrifice. We must attached to non-attachment, greedy to give: ourselves as a living sacrifice, as we pray at every Mass.
In a word, the Christian's proper craving is for Crucifixion; and our only attachment is to the Cross.
Posted by Tom Plant