Friday, April 08, 2005


A Transcendent and Divine Sort of Detachment

In the midst of “one of the largest Western religious gatherings of modern times,” I wonder exactly what it was about Pope John Paul II that was so appealing and so universally adored. Among his main attributes: Empathy? Sure. Compassion? Absolutely. What about indifference? Or detachment? Now before any Catholic readers denounce me as a heretic, please hear me out.

First of all, I’m not talking about indifference as an end in and of itself, but rather as a prerequisite to really, truly loving others. In the last chapter of his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis discusses the highest love or what he calls “charity”. He describes it as follows:

Divine Gift-love – Love Himself working in a man – is wholly disinterested and desires what is simply best for the beloved…. Divine Gift-love in the man enables him to love what is not naturally lovable; lepers, criminals, enemies, morons, the sulky, the superior, and the sneering.

There was no better example of this in recent times than the Pope’s visit with his would-be assassin in December 1983, two years after the attempted murder. Here's a portion of that story as reported by Time magazine January 9, 1984:
At times it looked almost as if the Pope were hearing the confession of Agca, a Turkish Muslim. At those moments, John Paul leaned forward from the waist in a priestly posture, his head bowed and forehead tightly clasped in his hand as the younger man spoke. For 21 minutes, the Pope sat with his would-be assassin. ...The two talked softly...

What was exchanged between the two men remains confidential. The Pope would only comment, ‘I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned, and who has my complete trust.’

Thomas Merton expounds upon the theme of indifference in what is often deemed “Christian Asceticism”. In No Man is an Island, he asserts:

It is only when we are detached from created things that we can begin to value them as we really should. It is only when we are “indifferent” to them that we can really begin to love them.

The indifference of which I speak must, therefore, be an indifference not to things themselves but to their effects on our own lives.

The man who loves God more than himself is also able to love persons and things for the good that they possess in God. Such a man is indifferent to the impact of things in his own life.

Elaborating on this theme and applying it to the realm of prayer, Kathleen Norris speaks of detachment in Amazing Grace. While elucidating on the virtues of becoming “detached” in a sense, she astutely disavows any sense of apathy or forfeiture with which it could be confused:
This sort of detachment is neither passive nor remote but paradoxically is fully engaged with the world. It is not resignation, but a vigilance that allows a person to recognize that whatever comes is a gift from God. …It is the sort of prayer that can absorb all manner of pain, and transform it into hope.

Peggy Noonan recounts the Pope's monumental trips to Poland early in his papacy in this stirring tribute. Here are his own words from 1979 that served as a precursor to the end of Communism in Poland ten years hence:

You must be strong, my brothers and sisters! You must be strong with the strength that faith gives! You must be strong with the strength of faith! You must be faithful! You need this strength today more than any other period of our history. . . .

Speaking of strength, this man was strong precisely because he had a strong divine gift-love working through him and people could sense that. That is so very different from our natural type of need-love, which is driven more by considerations of the ramifications on our own lives than out of sheer concern for the plight of others.

It is counterintuitive, of course, to think that in order to provide an unconditional, divine sort of love, we first need to become indifferent. That indifference though is to ourselves and our own narrow desires. In essence, we should strive to love others for their own sake. Aspiring toward indifference… Who knew? The Pope, apparently.

UPDATE: For further contemplation on this subject, I'd recommend you check out the following essays:

John from Blogotional touches upon this theme in his recounting of "The Fourth Degree of Love: Love of Self for God's Sake" – from the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux:
In a manner of speaking, we lose ourselves as though we did not exist, utterly unconscious of ourselves and emptied of ourselves.

Ales Rarus points out some of the Pope's attributes and convictions in “A Legacy of Dignity”:
He fought tirelessly for the dignity of the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, and the unborn. …he taught us that even those whom the world had rejected had dignity as human beings.

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