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He Went Away Sad – Br. David Vryhof

Mark 10:17-22

“And the young man went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” Mark 10:22

Several years ago I was looking through postcards in a bookshop when I came across a card with a quotation from “Sister Mary Tricky.” Now I have no idea if “Sister Mary Tricky” is a real person or the figment of someone’s imagination, but the quote has stayed with me for quite some time now. It said: “ If you really want to be happy, no one can stop you.” Think about that. “ If you really want to be happy, no one can stop you.”

The ramifications, I think, are profound. Sister Mary is imagining a happiness that is not the least bit dependent on what we have or what we are, or on what others think of us — she sees a happiness that is not built on whether we’ve obtained the latest most sought-after possessions, achieved a certain status in relationship to our peers, or gained a measure of respectability in the eyes of those who “matter most” (remember, the rich young man in our gospel story today had all those things). She is envisioning a happiness that is not linked to our being popular or successful or rich, a happiness that does not depend on what is external and tangible , but on what is internal and real. That kind of happiness, Sister Mary maintains, cannot be taken away from us. No one can stop us from being happy when our happiness is rooted deep within us, rather than being derived from people and things outside of us.

Now that may seem obvious to some of us, but there is a great deal of unhappiness in our world today, and even among Christians, that is directly linked to our false notions about what will make us happy. In his book, The Way to Love, the late Jesuit author Anthony deMello identifies several “false notions” to which many of us are susceptible:

False notion #1: Without this particular person or thing in my life, I cannot be happy.

There are a good many of us, I’m afraid, who are, consciously or unconsciously, operating under this false notion. We are so attached to one particular person or to one particular thing – our job, our reputation, our success, our popularity, our wealth – that we have convinced ourselves that without this person or thing we cannot be happy. I have met single people who believe they will only really have the possibility of happiness when they find a partner. I have met students who are convinced that if they can make the team or if they can gain acceptance with a certain group at school or if they can make certain grades, they will find the happiness and satisfaction they long for. I have met adults whose happiness depends heavily on their salary level, the opportunities they are getting, the treatment they are receiving from their boss or co-workers, whether they receive the job or promotion they want, or on similar factors. But the truth is that when we build our lives on these things, we are doomed to a never-ending struggle that will always fail us in the end. We are drawn into spending enormous energy and effort trying to acquire the things we long for, clinging to them once we have them, and fighting off the possibility of losing them . And we are set on an exhausting roller-coaster ride of emotions: there may be the initial thrill of obtaining what we believe we need for our happiness, but then there is the anxiety of trying to preserve it once we have it, and the misery of losing it when our circumstances change. False notion #1: Without this person or thing in my life, I cannot be happy. This is false. Absolutely false.

False notion #2: Happiness will come if I manage to change the situation I am in or the people around me, or both.

The reason this kind of thinking leads us astray is that it is still based on the belief that happiness is based on external factors, rather than on an interior mindset. We imagine that if we could just change something about ourselves or about our situation in life or about the person we are living with or working alongside, then things would be alright and we could be really happy. But happiness is about something deep within, and all the changes we dream of will never result in anything more than temporary feelings of satisfaction or pleasure. True happiness will still elude us. So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to cure our baldness or preserve our youthfulness or relocate our residence or change our job or our lifestyle or our personality or our looks in the hope that these changes will make us happy. Changes like these simply will not — indeed, cannot — give us that deep happiness that no one can take away from us. We can obtain all these things and more, and still not find happiness. That is false notion #2, that happiness will come if and when I can change the situation I am in or the people around me. It too is false. Completely false.

False notion #3: My unhappiness is a result either of my misfortune or of the actions of those around me. It is caused by something or some one outside of myself.

In fact, the feelings that trouble us most stem directly from our inordinate attachments to the people and things we believe will make us happy. We become anxious and afraid because we fear that we may fail to obtain the object of our attachment, or lose it once we have gained it. We become jealous when someone else claims for themselves the person or things that we are attached to. We become angry when we are denied our attachments, when others stand in the way of our achieving them. We become depressed and irritable when life is not giving us what we have convinced ourselves that we cannot live without. Almost every negative emotion we experience is the direct outcome of an unhealthy attachment . Our unhappiness does not stem from our circumstances or from the actions of other people; it is rooted entirely in our attachments.

So here comes this young man to Jesus. He is wealthy, righteous, upstanding, widely respected. He has been faithful in keeping the commandments, earnest in the practice of his religion, without fault in his ethical behavior. And yet, with all his achievements and with all his possessions and with his excellent reputation and broad sense of accomplishment, there is still something missing. And he knows it. And so he comes to Jesus, and Jesus (the gospel writer tells us) “looks at him with love.” He sees deep into the sadness of his heart and recognizes the depth of his attachment. He sees that there is something getting in the way of his ability to respond freely and completely to God, something to which his heart is clinging and on which he is basing much of his life. And Jesus, in love, reaches out and touches the place where he most needs to be free: “You lack one thing,” he says. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…and then come, follow me.”

Jesus comes as One who can set us free from inordinate attachments, those things to which we desperately cling in our search for happiness. “Is not life more than these?” he asks, as he gently and lovingly touches the very places in our lives where we are most bound. “You lack this one thing. Let it go. Come and follow me.”

But the man chooses to go away, sorrowful, clinging to his possessions and his life of wealth and privilege. How different from another story told in the New Testament, the story of St Paul, who sacrificed his attachment to his background, education, reputation and social standing to follow Christ. “Whatever gains I had,” he tells the Christians at Philippi, “I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil 3:7). He decided to hold onto nothing except Christ, and in that single-minded devotion he found a deep happiness and an abiding peace. In the book of Acts, we read of him in prison for the sake of the gospel, bound in chains and irons, and yet singing the praises of God. What is the source of that kind of joy? “I am convinced,” he writes to the Christians at Rome, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).

I know an old Jesuit priest whose joy is so deep and profound that it radiates from his entire being. A friend of mine once asked him what the secret of his happiness was. “I’ve given it all away,” he said. It is that kind of freedom, that kind of self-abandonment, that kind of richness, that kind of happiness, that Jesus was offering to the young man in our story today. But he went away sad, still clinging to his possessions, still attached to his life of privilege. Wealth was his ultimate reality, and though he was “respectable” in the eyes of many, his sadness testifies to the final emptiness of his choice.

Whoever Sister Mary Tricky is or was, she seems to have known something important about real happiness, the happiness that no one can take from us, that no event or circumstance can disrupt or destroy. “If you really want to be happy, no one can stop you.” How do you find that kind of abiding peace and happiness? Through detachment. By letting go. “Go, rid yourself of your inordinate attachment to all that is false and shallow and temporary, all that has weighed you down or bound you up, and come, follow me.”

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11 Comments

  1. Maureen on March 4, 2015 at 14:59

    I agree. Any of these things, in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem is the attachment, the fear of losing, of being without.
    My step-mother kept a perfect house. The dining room not only had the proper objects, each was placed in its exact place.
    When my father came home with hospice, I suggested his bed go there. She was astounded by the ignorance my suggestion revealed.
    Then she was upset with those who set up the hospital bed (they wouldn’t take off their boots), the amount of his bed linens we needed to wash, and so on. At one point she was crying to a phone friend: “it’s bad enough I’m losing my husband, they’re wrecking my house.”
    It wasn’t the dining room furniture, or the rugs, or the washer. It was that her terror at having her world toppled–at loss of independence, at loss of a part of her home–was hidden behind the things.
    In that, I think she was like the rich young man. She used her possessions to avoid the God within her and the house.

  2. Jennifer on February 22, 2015 at 09:45

    Or in the words of 38 Special:

    “Just hold on loosely, but don’t let go
    If you cling too tightly
    You’re gonna lose control”

  3. Louise on February 16, 2015 at 23:25

    Jesus said to the rich young man “you lack one thing.” What is He saying to me as one who is neither young nor particularly rich? What stands guard over my heart that constricts the flow of God’s grace? Tonight I am keenly aware that I have excessive attachments to my family, fears for them because they do not have a Christian identity, worries about the family history of health problems, longing for them to be happy and fulfilled. So I hear brother David’s sermon as a reminder that Jesus speaks these words to me as an individual, encouraging me to let go.
    I am thankful for this message tonight and pray for the grace to grow more detached from family concerns–with love and wisdom hopefully.
    Happy Fat Tuesday.

  4. Margaret Dungan on February 16, 2015 at 17:03

    I wonder if there is a measure here of misunderstanding of the point that Br. David. is making. That the rich young man had an inordinate love of material things and that this was blocking his relationship with God.

    Margaret.

  5. Lisa on February 16, 2015 at 09:46

    I see the point, yet agree somewhat with or take a middle place with Melanie Zybala. In this world, it is near impossible to give away all that we have. For if I walked out the door of my warm home with nothing but the clothes on my back, professing Jesus, I would be taken to jail or a homeless shelter in this 15 degree weather. And what good could I do professing Jesus from an institution, where they would seek commitment papers or put me in a program to train for a job and become “self-sufficient?” I am sorry, but this is not practical advice for all of us who cannot join a convent or monastery where our daily bread and shelter are provided while we “seek” God. If I had money and health to do so, and was young enough, I might go train for the priesthood or Christian service, but even if I went to my church and totally gave myself over they would not clothe, feed and shelter me.

  6. Melanie Zybala on September 16, 2012 at 11:20

    Carefully thought out. It sounds at least as much Buddhist as Christian.
    But, having faithfully followed such teachings and practice for years, as best
    I could, and having real benefit from them, I now conclude that there is a
    limit to the good of these practices.
    It is good to gain “wisdom”, and to let go of some desires, but
    desire is also human and very good. At this point, I would trade wisdom
    inner peace, and spiritual love for Ordinary Human Happiness. A home of
    one’s own, a beloved partner, a good sex life, a good job and decent pay–
    these are never to be minimized, nor the desire for these suppressed.
    Do be careful to not over-spiritualize life and goals.
    Sorry to be contrarian in my comments, but sometimes these
    meditations, good as they often are, are too disembodied.
    Best to all of you, just the same.

  7. Rebecca Gale on September 13, 2012 at 08:41

    My friend Becky from Georgia forwarded this article to me…what a great joy to have a friend who know how to inspire others and cares about her friends’ eternal happiness. Thank you, Becky!!

  8. J P Perrett on September 12, 2012 at 12:06

    Extremely helpful today. Thank you.

  9. Craig Burlington on September 12, 2012 at 11:21

    What incredible wisdom from Br. David via Sister Mary Tricky!!!
    It’s all about letting go, giving up, and giving over, isn’t it? Simplicity is the key…less is more: true liberty!!! Phew, what a gift to recognize these pearls and to let them nourish us as our daily bread today!!

  10. John Ozier on September 12, 2012 at 09:37

    We grow too soon old and too late smart.

    • Ruth West on February 16, 2015 at 12:53

      How true it is that we grow too soon old and too late smart! I’m going to remember this!
      Thanks for this good sermon. The fact is that when we do let go of temporal things, possessions, wealth, etc. then can we best appreciate those wonderful joys of our lives. The good marriage, home, children and whatever God has provided are appreciated even more, but not considered to be that to which we must cling. As we can “let go”, then we are free-er to serve God and our fellowman.

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