Adab: on detachment and spiritual courtesy

(Fr. Cyprian)

I recently read a fascinating essay by the Muslim scholar Ali Lakhani, who I met two weeks ago at the Christian Muslim gathering in Seattle, called “On Detachment and Spiritual Courtesy” that came to mind immediately as I read today’s readings.[1] He says that there are two movements missing from our modern world (or maybe it has always been the case with human beings and it’s just especially acute in our modern technological world): that we are not in touch with either our transcendence nor with our immanence. Just as God is not only transcendent but also indwelling or immanent (and vice versa (!): God is not just immanent but also transcendent), so we human beings have these two poles stretching us. We are destined to access spiritual heights (Rahner’s “supernatural existential”), to transcend ourselves, but we are also never not immersed and intertwined and involved in the world, like the lotus with its roots in the mud but opening up to heaven. When we realize our transcendence, we get a sense of our poverty and our neediness in relation to God, and a sense of wonder and humility and worship. But when we recognize our immanence, we start to get an awareness of the sacred inter-relatedness of all things and all creatures, and that ought to lead us to real compassion for all things and all creatures. We feel with victims of the Ebola epidemic, and the victims of the wars in Gaza and the Ukraine, and we groan with Mother Earth suffering under the effects of greenhouse gasses, not to mention the pains of my brother next to me in choir.

The ancient Christian monks were always aiming at apatheia, “passionless-ness”; sometimes that’s translated as “detachment,” which we heard so much about on our retreat on Evagrius of Pontus from Fr. Luke Dysinger last week, himself an expert in the field. But Ali points out that it’s always important to note that apatheia doesn’t mean anything like apathy nor does detachment mean insensitivity. It doesn’t mean that we can see images of horrible violence, depravity and suffering and remain unmoved like a cold stone. Apatheia means the detachment that comes from purity of heart, detached from my own egoism and the absence of the disordered passions that distort our view of reality. In some way apatheia ought to lead us to be even more sensitive to the suffering around us because all the filters of our blinding egoism will be stripped off! Ali writes, it is “in such virgin soil that the flower of compassion” can grow, a “love that is not self-contained but [is] out-pouring and engaged­­.” As Evagrius says, the proof of apatheia is agape. And the same thing applies to contemplation. The word we hear used by the Greek monastic fathers is theoria, that seems to derive from a play on words––theon horan, “to see God in everything.” So contemplation suggests vision, and not just interior vision, but being able to see the pervading presence of God, to have a whole new vision of reality. That’s why sages are often referred to as “seers.” When we have an experience of God, when we experience freedom and inner peace, our vision will be made clear and we will see God everywhere, in everything.

Without that apatheia–the detachment from our selfish interests; without theoria–the ability to see God in everything, without a sense of our poverty as well as a sense of our connectedness, all of our laws, all our “behavioral approximations of order and courtesy, if they are disconnected from their Spiritual Center,” are not the same thing as the real transforming spiritual virtues. As the Taoists say enigmatically, “When the Tao is forgotten, virtue arises. When the Tao is forgotten, right and wrong arise.”[2] All of our laws are approximations of something deeper, the Law written on our hearts, hidden in our DNA, since we are created in God’s image. And what we are aiming at in our silence and solitude, in our prayer and meditation, in our asceticism and our spiritual practice, is that: to reconnect with that spiritual center, “the light of compassionate serenity that constitutes the core of our very being,” that “reconnects us both to our Maker, our spiritual source, and to our fellow creatures.”

The Arabic term for “humanism” in Islam is adab, and it’s sometimes translated as “courtesy,” spiritual courtesy. Adab refers both to the virtuous conduct of an individual as well as to a culture that’s built on a certain spiritual humanism all of which is founded on “an inner sensitivity to the divine image within each one of us,” what we Christians call the imago Dei, the spiritual Presence that dwells in each individual, “no matter how faint or weak it may seem to be.” That’s what forms the foundation of real spiritual community, and that’s the basis of real Law and spiritual culture. Again, without that sense, all of our laws and rules, all of our customaries and observances are, as the poet Paul Claudel said, just “toy bears banging on cracked drums.

And so Saint Paul says (1 Cor 6:1-11): “Why not let yourself be cheated?” These laws, these approximations of real virtue that are our civil laws, pale in the light of divine mercy and divine justice, which incidentally are not two different things: in God justice is merciful and mercy is just. Dragging your brother to court is not going to solve anything anymore than war is going to bring lasting peace. The only real peace comes when we have that vision of God pervading the universe and the compassion that sees the imago Dei in everyone we meet. And then there’s Jesus, reconnecting with his spiritual summit and source on the mountain, and then coming down the mountain with compassion in his heart and healing in his hands (Lk 6:12-19). And the first thing he does is build community, but a new community, not based on power and coercion, but based on a new law, the law that says that the greatest is the one who serves, the first being those who meet the needs of others, built on agape. Hence the saint we celebrate today, the 16th century Spanish Jesuit Peter Claver, who became “a slave to the slaves” ministering in the holds of the slave ships in Cartenga, Columbia, in response to the Gospel.

I recently translated this article from our Italian journal Vita Monastica from 1954 for our next newsletter, which I also think serves as a good reminder of all this. The author is writing about the difference between what he calls the “arrogant separation” and asceticism that’s sometimes implied by philosophy, and Christian asceticism when it is understood properly. I think it is a good reminder for us about how to come down the mountain. This is…

… the fundamental difference between the solitude of which the philosophers speak to us and the solitude [that is] embraced so as to better listen to God in the depth of one’s soul and be able to live for God alone more freely: the one closes us in on ourselves, in our anguish and in our limitations; the other opens us to achieving a supreme liberty of spirit. The first makes us feel absolutely alone, without anything or any word being able to truly console us or save us; the other expands the soul in the love of God and neighbor.

When we emerge from our solitudes and come down from our mountains, may we live from that “light of compassionate serenity that constitutes the core of our very being,” that “reconnects us both to our Maker, our spiritual source, and to our fellow creatures.”


[1] Ali Lakhani, “On Detachment and Spiritual Courtesy,” in The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom, 20-24.

[2] Tao te Ching, #38.

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