Personhood Series-Detachment, the Saints, and Relational Ontology
The introduction to the series can be found here.
“By detachment we strive to give our whole self to God, that all our willing, loving and desiring may be in him.”1 –Frederic Harton
If we are formed in and through our relationships, it matters how we let these relationships shape us, and it matters which relationship shapes us the most. Life is always responsive to the people around us. They, in a very real sense, provoke the generation of our being. Their very existence cultivates our otherness and the necessity for us to react as other. We also tend to mediate all of our interpersonal connections through one or two key relationships (familial settings, romantic liaisons, vocational camaraderie, etc.), viewing the former as subservient to the latter. We are not self-made autonomous individuals. We do not exist in a realm of vacuity. The existence of the “I” necessitates the prefatory “we,” and the “I” becomes more itself in the context of the “we.” Thus, we are constantly shifting with and reacting to the cultures that engage us. We can react positively, negatively, or unwittingly, but each is a reaction that will have formative effects upon us. We can either respond virtuously or we can allow our relationships to become vices for us. We can also react apathetically, embodying what the Anglican theologian, Frederic Harton, condemns so fiercely.
“Many people who have, as they say, ‘never done anybody any harm,’ are often even less responsible for doing anybody any good; many who are innocent of grave sins are equally innocent of shining virtues, and so go on living a mediocre, negative sort of life, when they were meant to serve God with all their hearts.”2
The majority of humanity is in a developmental flux because every person, by necessity, reacts to the ever-expanding network of persons they find themselves connected to. We can say this of everyone except a saint. The modern person is, indeed, shaped in and through all sorts of relationships throughout a lifetime; the saint is shaped ultimately by one. He renounces the ontological effect of all relationships upon his soul as he cleaves to God. The modern person possesses no filter and lacks the ability to say “no” to the ontological sway of the social context surrounding him. He may be able to distance himself from the people he finds to be less than desirable, but distance of body is not synonymous with distance of heart. The conscience is not cleared by any amount of mileage, nor is forgiveness accomplished by the absence of presence. The hurting person may say to his assailer, “I am never going to see you or talk to you again!” The assailant may go for the rest of his life isolated from his enemy. Yet, he will still be restless in soul, and bound in spirit to the wrongs done to him if he does not learn how to react to enemies as Christ does. Even from afar, his attitude towards his enemy will contour the dynamics of his personhood.
The saint is no longer subject to such things since, by God’s grace, he has achieved blessed detachment. He has learned how to interact with all things and all people with a holy sobriety and balance. In the words of St. Augustine:
“Now he is the man of just and holy life who…keeps his affections under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally.”3
The saint is shaped in and through his relationship with God, via his union with Christ, and he resists the ebb and flow of worldly affairs. He has come to learn that, “God is that true joy which none can have who seek anything other than God.”4 In terms of love of neighbor, he loves all people in God, and he loves all for God’s sake. “All our love for our neighbor…should have reference to God,”5 says Augustine. As Harton says, “Detachment…does not prevent us from loving our neighbor; rather, it makes love possible, for only as we are detached from our selfish predilections and wholly given to the will of God can we love in God.”6 The saint loves all people in God, seeing the world through transfigured eyes, and he responds to all social circumstances as Christ would. Whenever the saint is wronged, he is not led to anger; whenever he is praised, he is not led to pride. “Just as a dead man doesn’t reply no matter what people do or say, so anyone who loves God perfectly is not moved by any words which someone might say.”7 The saint loves his enemies and friends alike; he sees the image of God in both the sinner and saint. He forgives all wrongs and cherishes no praise given to him. His is a consistent and undeterred presence because of his detachment from the world and his union with Christ.
As Douglas Knight says, “human beings are not yet themselves, mature or free.”8 While this is true of most of us, it is not true of the saint. The saint’s presence is pregnant with eschatological fullness and his very being is a revelation of the telos of humanity. His ontology is doxological, as he has found healing in his relationship with God. Thus, he shows us what true health and humanness is; “Health is man’s proper relationship with these three: God, other people, and nature. This proper relationship is the definition of a human being.”9View Sources
1. Harton, F. P, and English Church Union. 1957. The Elements of the Spiritual Life : A Study in Ascetical Theology. London: S.P.C.K. 169.
2. Ibid. 137.
3. Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Beloved Publishing. 2014. 24.
4. Rolle, Richard. The Fire of Love. New York: Penguin Books. 1972. 115.
5. Ibid. 41.
7. Rolle, Richard, and Rosamund Allen. 1988. Richard Rolle, the English Writings. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press. 176.
8. Knight, Douglas H. 2006. The Eschatological Economy : Time and the Hospitality of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 9.
9. Zizioulas, John. Illness and Healing in Orthodox Theology. Alhambra: Sebastian Press. 2016. 52.