In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of them chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer: we know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.1 Nor is this James, brother of Jesus, traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and sometime Bishop of Jerusalem.2 This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.3 This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles, the brothers Andrew and Peter, and that was Bethsaida, beside the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.4 Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. For example, in the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.5 On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.”Jesus answers in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”6
At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, neither James nor Philip are named among the faithful few who stayed with Jesus at the cross. Tradition has it that the two of them finally did understand, and they ultimately followed Jesus to their own deaths. Where, why, and how they were martyred we cannot be certain.
Given all that we don’t know about these two Apostles, remembered as saints, I’ll make an argument out of the silence. Neither James nor Philip are remembered among those vying for power and prestige among the Apostles in the early days. Nor do they hold for Jesus the place of the Beloved Disciple. They don’t stand out in any way. Both of them were simply “followers of Jesus,” quite literally. And this is how I imagine they may be helpful witnesses to us. All of us here are followers. Most of us have probably been leaders in some way or other, either for a stretch of our lifetime or for just a passing moment; however much of lifetimes we all are followers. We are not the greatest. And when our life is ended, they’re not going to name a building after us, nor carve a marble bust of us to sit in a rotunda, nor write a book in our honor. Earth to earth; dust to dust; ashes to ashes. As the psalmist says, “[our] days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.”7
I’m just imagining that, following Jesus’ resurrection, Philip and James got in touch with the freedom of their own limitations: simply being faithful to certain givens in their lives – their own identities and abilities, the settings in which they lived and served, the doors that opened to them and the doors that closed, and the opportunities of times past, but no more. They made peace with their lives, ultimately desiring more than anything else to live life on God’s terms, desiring what God desired for them. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, there is a name for living with this kind of faithful equilibrium: detachment. Living life with the quality of detachment.
By detachment I do not mean living with apathy, or mediocrity, or enervation. Nor by detachment am I talking about living life without passion, or zeal, or love. By detachment, I’m not implying an inability to form emotional relationships with people. (There’s a recent movie entitled “Detachment,” starring Adrien Brody who is a substitute teacher who just keeps moving on, ever alone, not able to connect with people.) I don’t mean that kind of emotional aridity at all. Quite to the contrary. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, detachment is three things:
- Living life on life’s terms. Detachment is not constantly chafing to be somewhere else or to be someone else, but living with a quality of contentment about the givens of your life. Living your life as a yes. If “contentment” is not already a word in your vocabulary, try it out. The English word contentment comes from the Latin, contentus, meaning contained, or satisfied. To be content is quite counter-cultural. Our culture has defined us as “consumers,” and – don’t we know? – we are constantly being bombarded with what we need next. Contentment is about what we have now. Be really present to your life now. Accept your life. Be grateful for your life. That’s one aspect of detachment: claiming freedom in your life in the context of its limitations. In life you cannot have it all, and you shouldn’t. Live your life on life’s terms; live your life as a yes. Don’t live your life constantly itching for something more, or resentful for something less. Be grateful for what is. Be content.
- Secondly, detachment is living life as something to be cherished, not clung to. Detachment is to hold your life with open palms, not clutching at anything that gets in the way or that could become idolatrous; not clutching at anything that will not last beyond the grave. For everything there is a season, and then it passes.8 What are you prone to cling to? Your good health or physical abilities; your mental prowess, your education or experience, your finances or possessions? Don’t clutch at any of this. All of this is taken from us at death, if not before. Don’t clutch at life; cherish your life like a steward who has been given temporary oversight over much. And when it is time to let it go, let it go.9 And meanwhile, invest your life’s energies in an eternal portfolio, in life qualities that will last beyond the grave. In the New Testament, the Letter to the Galatians and the Letter to the Colossians name some qualities to cultivate for all eternity: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.”1 “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”11 Don’t clutch at life; cherish your life, holding your life in open palms.
- Thirdly, detachment is about making right choices in life. Most of us, most of the time have preferences. Whether we’re encountering a major decision, or the sometimes-endless little decisions we face each day. We have our preferences, sometimes very strong desires about things, big and small. And it’s no wonder; God created each one of us with a memory and a will. Of course we have preferences, and sometimes strong desires. Having claimed our preference, clarified our hoped-for outcome, advocated for what we think the right decision, the spirit of detachment allows us to both claim our desires and, simultaneously, to recognize that they may not come to be. Whether it be something large or small, a spirit of detachment allows us to hold our desires in one open palm and, in the other palm, to recognize the outcome might be quite different, maybe even opposite what we hope for or desire, and to be okay with that.
In the sixteenth century, Ignatius of Loyola had his life’s quite-vain ambitions completely dashed by a mortal wound. Through that wound he found a kind of healing for his soul: an experience of love, freedom, and clarity to attune his desires to what God desires. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, came to embrace a kind of radical detachment. Ignatius writes: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God,” and to do that in every moment of every day.12
Truth be told, I’m not there. I cannot say that I have fully embraced what Ignatius calls radical detachment, but I’m moving in that direction, and so are you. You should be. Why I commend this kind of radical detachment is for two reasons, quite personal: one, my ongoing experience of God’s providence and God’s provision. God’s way is the way to go. I’m convinced of it… when I remember. I sometimes forget; sometimes I fool myself. The other reason I am finding radical detachment more-and-more inviting is because, left alone, I am a stubborn Swede, and I’ve made a lot of head-strong mistakes. Sometimes I’ve gotten my own way… and it’s proven to be nightmarish; sometimes I have not gotten my way… and I am so grateful I was spared from what I thought I wanted. You may have your own version of this. Ignatius of Loyola writes: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. Our one goal is the freedom to make a wholehearted choice to follow God,” and to do that in every moment of every day.
It’s a high calling, and an enormous freedom, living your life at the fulcrum of a balance between things earthly and things heavenly. In the ancient vocabulary of the church, this is called detachment. And, back to Saints Philip and James, given how they started out with Jesus, and given how they ended up, I’m certain they knew something about this: spiritual detachment.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
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