It is common to think of detachment as something the poor easily have and the rich seldom have. Whatever the statistics on detachment as related to wealth, it is certainly true that there are some poor folks who are greedy attached to this world’s riches, while there are some rich people who are quite generous and unattached to the possessions their wealth affords.
Two stories come to mind. I do not recall the sources, and I have likely adapted them over the years. They speak to the difficulty of maintaining a healthy detachment from material wealth regardless of one’s financial health.
A wandering monk moved about preaching. He owned only the clothing on his back and, strangely, a golden begging bowl, gifted to him by a benefactor who was also his disciple. One night as he was about to lie down among the ruins of an ancient monastery he spied a thief, lurking among the columns. “Here, take this,” he said, handing the golden begging bowl to the thief. “That way you won’t disturb me once I have fallen asleep.” The thief eagerly took the bowl and ran off. But the next morning he returned, saying, “You have made me feel poor, giving me the bowl so freely. Teach me to acquire the riches that make this sort of lighthearted detachment possible.”
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Among the wandering shepherds was a leader who lived in riches, with luxurious tents, surrounded by servants. So lavish was his wealth that his tent pegs, driven in the ground, were made of solid gold. A poorer shepherd came by one day with his wooden begging bowl, cracked and warped. Seeing such wealth, he begged from the wealthy man but also upbraided him for such conspicuous wealth. Nevertheless, the wealthy man welcomed him, served him a fine meal, and permitted him to rest in his expansive tents. Early the next day the wealthy man said to the poorer one, “Come, let us go up to Jerusalem.” Staff in hand, the wealthy man left his wealth and luxury behind without a thought or care. A short way into the journey the poor man realized that he had left his wooden begging bowl behind and wanted to go back and get it. But the rich man said, “I left all my wealth behind without care or worry. Yet you are so attached to a cup of little or no worth that you cannot go up to Jerusalem without it. You upbraided me for my wealth, but I want to assure you, the golden tent pegs to which you objected were driven into the earth, not into my heart.”
Yes, detachment is ultimately a matter of the heart. It is not wrong to enjoy the good things of life, but too often they possess us, and we come rely on them so heavily that we cannot imagine living without them. We who live in these times of widespread comfort sometimes discover that we lack the freedom to live without them. Further, though surrounded by abundance, we see to be more fearful, not less. Though this age is filled with luxuries and creature comforts, we seem more anxious than ever; we just have too much to lose. The tent pegs that belong in the earth are so often driven into our heart.
St. Paul describes the grace we should seek:
I have learned to be content regardless of my circumstances. I know how to live humbly, and I know how to abound. I am accustomed to any and every situation—to being filled and being hungry, to having plenty and having need. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength (Phil 4:11-13).
Without this grace, it is clear how quickly our hearts enter bondage and we go astray. Help us, Lord, to enjoy what you have given but not so much that it becomes a substitute for you. May trust and gratitude be our guide to detachment.