“Leave the dead to bury the dead”
“Leave the dead to bury the dead” [Luke 9:60; Matthew 8:22] – On Letting Go: A Homily for Lent
I was recently, without great enthusiasm or dedication, engaged in an increasingly futile attempt at “Spring Cleaning” (although it began in Autumn and is certain to continue well into Winter). During the process of sorting out the contents of a cupboard, I dropped an antique, fine crystal sherry glass that I had inherited from my mother. Inevitably – is that too pessimistic? – it fell onto the polished timber floor, not the relatively thick carpet, and, as they say, “smashed into smithereens”. I was overwhelmed with anger (at my clumsiness) and depression (at the loss of something greatly beloved by my mother)….but then I thought of my mother.
Shortly after I was born she was dramatically crippled with rheumatoid arthritis for which, then, there was certainly nothing like a cure and not even any real treatment. She was effectively paralysed for some years and then remained severely limited in her movement and strength. Her hands became more like claws and had to be monitored so that the fingernails did not penetrate into the flesh of her palms. She, eventually, after various experimental medications of the time, regained some movement, but, inevitably, the accuracy and strength of her hands remained very restricted. She used to drop things and, in the case of glass and china, they broke
On one occasion, when feeling in much better health, she decided to host a dinner party, and to use the family’s best silver, porcelain and crystal. As she was laying out the table and setting down the plates from her beloved antique India Tree design dinner service, her grip failed, and one of the bread and butter plates fell to the floor and shattered. After a time locked in her bedroom she emerged. I was instructed to clean up the broken plate and to carefully (very carefully!) pack away all the fine china and crystal. Dinner was somewhat eccentrically served using ordinary crockery and glassware, but with the best silver and fine linen napkins. She declared that she would never again use any item that was beautiful, breakable or irreplaceable. And she didn’t.
Well…she didn’t until one day some years later. Another dinner party. I was instructed to bring out the fine china and crystal, and to set the table. I hesitated. “But I thought that you said……” I (not particularly helpfully) commented. “What” she asked, “is the point of having fine and beautiful things if they can never be enjoyed and shared with others? You have to learn to let things go.”
And it remains to my amazement that thereafter, although her arthritis continued to cripple her, the “fine and beautiful things” were regularly used, and never broken. Until, of course, I dropped the sherry glass. After my mother’s death, I received the beautiful antique India Tree dinner service, complete but for the one bread and butter plate – which I have tried, entirely without success, to replace. So, as I cleaned up the “smithereens” of the shattered sherry glass, I knew exactly what my mother would have said. Something like, “That’s a nuisance. Let it go.”
In Lent, we are encouraged to “let go”, but we often assume that this is about giving up entirely replaceable things – like particular types of food – for a relatively limited period of time. The steak that was not eaten during Lent may be no more, but a replacement can readily be found once Pascha has arrived. We are, more importantly, required to “let go”, not only during Lent but throughout our spiritual lives, of all those things to which we have become attached, whether they are physical objects – like sherry glasses – or intangibles, like reputation, ambition, status, relationships or popularity.
We are equally called to “let go” of the past, whether yearning for “the good times” or regretting what was not good. We are warned against attachment to looking back, lest, like Lot’s wife, we become trapped in what was, and incapable of further movement. This is not, of course, to say that we should not learn the lessons of the past, sometimes even with natural human sadness. It is about not being imprisoned in that which was, but now is not.
But we are not to become heartless automatons. We are human beings, and so we feel sadness at loss. That I was sorry when my mother’s sherry glass was broken and was angry at myself are not the problems. The problems arise when I continue to “mourn” the loss of the sherry glass, to constantly regret that it was broken, to reflect on how unjust it was that such a sherry glass was broken, to feel ongoing guilt about my carelessness in breaking it, to be dissatisfied that there are now only three and not four matching sherry glasses, to anxiously search for a replacement, to act as if a part of my life was broken with the sherry glass. I become haunted by the “ghost” of that which is lost, because I cannot let go of it. I become a frozen pillar of salt.
Of course, the sherry glass is a trivial example – although it is sad how many people become “haunted” by the loss of trivial things. It is much more likely that we are unable to “let go” of something that was much greater significant: a person we loved who has died; a relationship that was important but has ended; a job that we lost or that we sought but did not gain; a friendship that has ceased to be; the savings that we had accumulated to enable us to live comfortably and which has now vanished; a comfortable and familiarly reassuring faith to which we can no longer hold fast…. Any or all of these things may have been lost to us, and it will inevitably be difficult to let them go. And yet we must accept that they have gone, and we must let them go.
The Desert Father, Abba Zosimos, said, “We become attached to useless, insignificant, and entirely worthless matters, substituting these for the love of God and neighbour, appropriating material things as if they were our own or as if we had not received them from God…. For as I always like to say: ‘It is not possessing something that is harmful, but being attached to it.’”
The Fathers were essentially “spiritual therapists”, guiding us into a life that is healthy. It is not healthy to be chained to, let alone imprisoned by, the things of the past. It prevents us from growing and moving, and being the Sons and Daughters of God that we were created to be.
In the Byzantine Tradition we recently celebrated the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas whose writings tell us about the nature of struggle and of the right approach to suffering and loss. As Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna wrote in this regard:
“There is in Orthodoxy no glory in suffering. These are Latin ideas beloved by modern Orthodox, but foreign to our Church’s true Tradition. There is no “offering up” of our sufferings, as the medieval Latins taught. Such things are an offense to God, Who does not wish recompense from man, but Who reaches us through love. When we suffer, then, according to the Hesychastic Tradition of the Church, in the inner Tradition which St. Gregory Palamas expressed in concordance with the teachings of the ancient Fathers, we do nothing more than affirm the Grace of God in all things—in human happiness, in human adversity, and in human triumph and loss. A true Christian becomes passive to the world and treats all things with a quiet acceptance. This is a sign of our communion with God, since, when we touch and live in the other world, yet still exist on earth, we gain a perspective which makes the things of this world less threatening and, to be sure, less alluring. Thus death is longer fearful, since we have beheld life as it continues beyond death. This passivity, which must underlie our natural emotions, is the core of our Faith; for through it, while remaining inhabitants of earth, we yet become partakers of the Heavenly.”
We must learn to “let go”, to “treat all things with a quiet acceptance”. Not in a bitter spirit of resignation, nor some false martyrdom of enduring “suffering” and “loss”, nor with resentful indifference, nor with uncaring apathy. We let go because we know, in the words of the great English mystic and Anchorite, Mother Julian of Norwich, that “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” in the fullness of God’s Divine Love.
“Lot’s Wife” by Dietrich Schuchardt (b. 1945), gouache on board, 1995.