Don’t be hypocrites. Don’t put on a show. That is the obvious interpretation of the Gospel for the beginning of Lent (Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18), with the recurring theme that if you give alms, pray, and fast then all must be done in secret, and “your Father, who sees all that is done in secret, will reward you”. The paradox of course is that participating in this annual liturgy, having received a cross of ashes on our foreheads as a sign of conversion, we are uniquely visible, making a display of apparent humility in a way that appears to flaunt our religious practice publicly in a manner Jesus explicitly disparages in this Gospel passage. This appears paradoxical, if not an oxymoron.
Jesus homes in on what the purpose of these standard, basic Jewish pieties were: to get us into a relationship with the living God. And the way to do that was an exercise in deprivileging or decentring the self: to become less self-obsessed, less selfish. Almsgiving gifts our power to purchase what we might want but do not need so that those in need can have their necessities met; prayer orients us to love of God expressed in love of our neighbour; and fasting enables us to begin to control our appetites rather than being enslaved by them. In all of this there is a certain self-limiting, a distancing or sitting lightly to our innate, reflex reactions. We lose or limit or become detached from the idols of our insecurities by moving our centre of attention from our own needs and limitations to those of others, by detaching or moving out of our solipsistic self-absorption.
To help see what is going on I’d like to turn to that master of Christian paradox, Meister Eckhart. In one sermon, applicable to the theme of this gospel, Eckhart asks: “why do we pray, why do we fast, why do we do all our works, why are we baptised, why (most important of all) did God become man? I would answer, in order that God might be born in the soul and the soul be born in God.”
Eckhart, following ancient Christian tradition, God is present in the core of our being, in, in his phrase, the ‘depth of the soul’. Our task as disciples is to bring that presence into our conscious awareness, to begin to see our lives from God’s perspective, the perspective of Israel’s prophets, privileging those in need and moving away from our own preoccupations. In modern terms, Eckhart sees the obstacles to this spiritual breakthrough in our lives as greed (tempered by fasting), culpable ignorance of others’ needs (tempered by almsgiving) and denial of our very existence as being in relation to and gifted by God (tempered by prayer). In all of this, we are to live out the paradox of the Gospel – that to find or gain our true self we must lose our false self. Now our false self is our selfish, self-absorbed self, our finding security in constructing our identity on what we can claim or acquire in human terms – whether wealth, power, acquiring stuff or seeing others simply as objects satisfying our desires rather than as persons in their own right, and so on. In contrast, for Eckhart, our becoming detached from or stepping away from all of this is a necessary condition for our coming to recognise our true selves: as creatures utterly dependant on their Creator yet held constantly in his love. That is our true security.
Detachment is often misunderstood. As Eckhart uses the term, he seems to mean our cutting ourselves off from all that would take us from God. But this is not to deny our affective, emotional lives – it is rather to order them appropriately, in tranquillity and praise. Eckhart insists again and again on the complete dependence of the creature on its Creator. Since all created things in his view are nothing in and of themselves, then focussing our desires on them necessarily leads us into various idolatries or false securities. Through their actions and way of life those practising detachment are showing that their security or hope is founded on their relationship with God alone; realising this (making it real or evident in their lives) demonstrates that they are already one with God and He with them. “Those who love me”, says Jesus in John’s gospel, “will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and abide in them”. Abandonment of self is the process of loosing ourselves from our idolatries and in the process discovering our true selves as being totally dependent on God and in that communion keeping his word and showing his mercy. It is in showing God’s mercy to our neighbours that we reveal our closest likeness to God. But it must be emphasised again that for Eckhart the detached person does not despise the good things of creation, but rather sits lightly to them and recognises the identity of all creatures with each other in God. In practicing detachment the person stops desiring material things, and being concerned only with itself, rather realises itself as becoming the eternal God’s agent in time, in the humble service in which our true identity is found.