Flash Flood Fiasco and the Virtue of Detachment
The cover photo of this article depicts a highway, near my house, running through a farm that is now an eight-foot lake. In my region of South Carolina last week we received around 16 inches of rain in two days, 24 inches in the course of a week. Across the state there have been at least a dozen deaths, 19 dam breaches, hundreds of swift water rescues, and over 1000 people are now in shelters. I have friends with extensive damage to their homes, and it will be many months before the roads can be repaired to allow unhindered travel.
It is in these times that we humans consistently hit the brick wall of the “why” question. Why did God do this? Why is there so much suffering and loss in the world? Why doesn’t God care? I have taken all kinds of philosophy of religion coursework that continually tries to address the “Problem of Evil” dilemma, giving philosophical outlines for how God can be all good and all powerful and yet there be so much suffering in the world. But when we get outside of our heads and encounter the heart-wrenching sorrow of the broken world in our own personal sphere it takes on an entirely new and emotional dimension, and I feel that God operates on far too personal and mystical a level for us to really analyze and explain such phenomena. It would be a rather easy solution to say that God causes catastrophe simply to get our attention; that He directly brings calamity upon the city [Amos 3:6] to get our attention and to help us realize how fragile our lives really are. It would be an equally easy alternative to conclude that calamity is only the result of a broken world that has fallen away from communion with God; that God in fact has nothing whatever to do with disasters and they only happen because the world is dying as a result of separation from the Life-giver. I think, though, that the truth lies somewhere betwixt these alternative proposals, and that hardship, suffering, and calamity are even central to our salvation.
WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
Initially, the most obvious opportunity that tragedy provides is the ability to help one another; to reach outside of ourselves and share our lives as a community. Let us remember that the goal of the Christian life is to live forever in intimacy with God; but, as one has a natural aversion to those with whom one has nothing in common, how can we enjoy eternity with God if we are not like Him? Humanity was not created as a collection of individuals, but to reflect the personhood of the Holy Trinity. Humanity’s existence finds its fulfillment in the context of personal interrelation. Thus such hard times enable us to gravitate towards this reality and away from our selfish descent into loneliness and absurdity. Indeed, our modern age is perhaps the loneliest of all times past, filled with persons whose only intimate relationships are with screens, where modern conveniences have all but eliminated the need to go out in public, conversations are increasingly shallow, and face-to-face interaction is a forgotten novelty. If nothing disrupts the day-to-day activity of going about our business in isolated bubbles, how can we recover the centrality of selfless relations—the very apex of what it is to be human? If there are no hungry to feed, no naked to clothe, no sick and imprisoned to visit, and no strangers to take in, how could the sheep ever undergo their transformation from self-centered goats into imitators of the Shepherd?
There have been sightings all over South Carolina of massive mounds of floating fire ants in flooded areas. Somehow the ants know to prepare for the event of the flood, gather their eggs together, and latch onto one another to form a living raft and drift safely to land in another location. Considering the biblical mandates to learn life lessons from the activity of ants, imagine the world we would be living in if humanity operated in such a consistently collaborative way.
NAKED I CAME FROM MY MOTHER’S WOMB, AND NAKED I WILL DEPART
The premise that all suffering is merely the natural result of a world separated from God is true to an extent, but this does not mean that God is a helpless bystander when bad things happen. Scripture does, especially in the Old Testament, position God as the active agent behind calamity and disaster, but Romans 8:28 clarifies that “God is working together with all things for the good of those who love Him.” God certainly could stop anything bad from happening ahead of time. But most of the time this would involve striking people dead before they commit a grievous transgression, because He has given us freedom in doing good or bad. So, instead of perpetually wiping out humanity and starting over, He allows and works alongside the results of our godlessness in every effort to save us—that is, to conform us into His likeness. Thus Scripture affirms, “whom the Lord loves, He chastens,” [Heb. 12:6] which led some saints of Church history to become afraid when they were not experiencing suffering, because this could only mean a lack of loving Divine discipline.
In Saint John Cassian’s Conferences the spiritual elder Abba Moses expounds upon the central Christian effort of attaining purity of heart, (which, according to the Beatitude, allows one to see God). He contends that when the Light of God shines upon the pure heart it is like a prism, which in turn emanates various colors to which correspond a list of five virtues. The first of these virtues is that of “Detachment.” Detachment involves becoming so absorbed in the pursuit of God that all of the earthly distractions we become attached to are literally forgotten. Abba Moses used the image of archery, arguing that,
“. . . focusing on the things of the world while still hoping for purity of heart is like trying to hit a target while keeping one’s eyes and mind fixed on a bystander with whom one is having a deep conversation. If what we seek are things divine, then to concern ourselves with things of the world cannot but guide us away from them.”[i]
Physical belongings are certainly not immoral in themselves, and they are gifts from God. But when we begin to tap into the selfless life God desires for us in communion with Him, the insatiable love for God and love of others will increasingly take our attention away from the inanimate, such that we will become unaffected by gain and loss and we can truly say from the depths of our soul,
“the Lord gave, and Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”[ii]
The story of a monastic elder comes to mind, who upon returning to his hut discovered a band of robbers raiding his belongings. He went in, helped the men load up his things, and sent them on their way stating Job’s phrase above. Another monastic returned to his hut to discover the same thing, and he knelt in the corner and prayed for the robbers as they came in and out, emptying the place and leaving. After they had gone, the old man looked up, and noticed that the only thing left was his walking stick. He grabbed the walking stick, pursued the men for days, and gave it to them. The men were so stricken by the man’s humility that they left their lives of debauchery and converted to Christianity.
This virtue of Detachment is implied in the very title the Scriptures give to God’s people, and what the Apostle Paul consistently says Christians are “called to be”: the “saints” of God. The word “saint” is rooted in the word “holy,” a term used to describe the “uniqueness” or “otherness” of God Himself.[iii] This means that while the earth and all its fullness is a creative expression of God, and while we are to remain created and distinct in our personhood, in becoming “saints” we are called to participate in the altogether “otherness” of God’s likeness—in complete detachment and set apart from the temporal things of earth.
I’LL HIDE WHILE YOU COUNT . . .
Of course, all of this is easy for me to say, as I did not experience loss from the recent flood, and since I am a sentimental type, there is no telling what devastation I would now be experiencing had I been one of the many who lost everything. May God have mercy on me in my weakness. But I wanted to conclude with an Old Testament passage when David was enthroning Solomon as king and charged him to stay faithful to God:
“As for you, my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve Him with a whole heart and a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts, and understands every intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will let you find Him; but if you forsake Him, He will reject you forever. Consider now, for the Lord has chosen you to build a house for the sanctuary; be courageous and act.” [1 Chron. 28:9-10]
In other words, God’s favorite game to play with his creatures is hide-and-seek. But it is not possible to seek something that is fully present and manifest; what you seek must be, in some sense of the word, absent. We know that He will never leave us nor forsake us, but it is in the midst of suffering and trials that our faith in that assurance is put to its greatest test, pushing us to leave the distractions of our lives in order to seek, and find, the One who was always there to begin with; if we only had purified eyes to see Him. It is in this apparent “hide-and-seek” process that we undergo such purification, and build within ourselves “a house for the sanctuary,” becoming living temples of the Holy Spirit.
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[i] Opperwall, Daniel G. A Layman in the Desert. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2015. pp. 31-32.
[ii] Job 1:21
[iii] Dr. Kyriaki Fitzgerald. “Theosis – Becoming By Grace What Christ Is By Nature.” Faith Encouraged Live with Fr. Barnabas Powell. Podcast. Ancient Faith Radio. Sept. 27, 2015.