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home : opinion : perspectives

1/25/2018 9:00:00 AM
Learning to detach from vices and victimhood

Seminarians, as well as priests, are required to make a retreat each year. This is a privileged time for prayer and communion with God.

The reality is that we all need to spend quiet time with God: to give Him our hearts, surrender to His love and see where He is leading us. How can we have a relationship with God, if we never spend any time with Him, giving Him our undivided attention?

I went on retreat the first week of the new year. The theme that came up on my retreat was "detachment:" detachment from things, but also from attitudes and hidden internal resistances that get in the way of serving God.

In the biblical book of Exodus, God leads the Israelites through the desert to the Promised Land. The only way they can survive is to trust in God to lead them and give them food and water. Without God, they are lost.

Numerous times in the Old Testament, God uses drought and famine to teach His people to be detached from things and make them aware that they are utterly dependent on Him. God sometimes does the same for us.

Sometimes, God allows us to experience loss, hurt, challenges, setbacks and disappointments in order to detach us from our selfishness. St. John of the Cross uses the image of a baby being weaned from its mother's milk to demonstrate this point: The process is uncomfortable and distressing to the baby, but how else can the baby learn necessary life skills like feeding himself in other ways?

Sometimes, in our own lives, we become too attached to certain things, and God must wean us from them. It is easy to see how addictions, for instance, get in the way of our relationships. The other deadly vices (in fact the deadliest of the vices) -- wrath, envy, and pride -- are sometimes so deep-seated that we have trouble recognizing them and routing them out.

These are the vices that get in the way of our having a loving and forgiving heart:

•  Pride is our seeking to be our own god, and putting ourselves before God and others. All sins involve pride.

•  Envy is wanting to take away the good things that others have.

•  Wrath is a lack of forgiveness, embracing an attitude of anger toward others.

Jealousy, vindictiveness and resentment lead to and flow from these sins. They are like scaffolding that holds our selfishness in place.

These vices enslave us from the inside and prevent us from being open enough to experience the fullness of God's love. We keep ourselves away from God in order to hang onto these, because getting rid of them requires us to give up our own will, our victimhood and our power.

These are powerful tools in the modern world. It seems that we are always being encouraged to control every aspect of our lives, assert our own will and think of ourselves as victims in one way or another. With victimhood comes a sense of entitlement.

It is easy to fall into these patterns and embrace these vices. Our culture rewards them. But our faith is about surrendering to God.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen spoke about how we all desire to have our external circumstances changed for the better: more money, a nicer house and so on. We really don't want our minds, attitudes and hearts changed. But that is precisely what Christ wants. He came as a baby to reach us at a deeper level and live in our hearts.

The only way we can let God in is by letting go: dropping our plans, our mindset, our preconceived ideas. God enters in when we surrender everything -- not just the external, but our whole self, including our will, to Him, just as Jesus did on the cross.

Our faith is not about self-aggrandizement, self-assertion or imposing our own will. It is about self-giving. We do this through prayer and living the virtues of humility, forgiveness, trust and gratitude; by actively resisting the urge to complain and feel sorry for ourselves while thanking God and others for everything, even our struggles.

And remember: Yes, you do have time to pray!

(Mr. Houle, a native of St. Mary's parish in Albany, is studying for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.)

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