We live in a very distracted world. We are so busy that we have to multi-task. We are so plugged in to our technology that we get information overload. Life can seem like it’s too much. The moment we try to focus our attention we get drawn away by something entertaining or by some task. Everything in our culture works to distract us from the deeper questions of existence: what happens when we die? What is life all about? Why are we here? Our split-focus keeps us living superficial and unhappy lives.
Among the more typical distractions are worrying about money, excessive entertainment, talking about people behind their backs, fantasizing, wanting to change people, seeking attention, preoccupation with what others think of us, wanting to get back at someone, and complaining. These distractions are not hot sins but the little ways we get scattered. Such a life leaves us unable to enjoy the moment because we are so consumed by things coming and going. If we allow ourselves to be preoccupied by these distractions, we will not know real happiness. We need guidance.
Over the course of the season of Lent each of our reflections will take a spiritual guide to help lead us more deeply into the Holy Mystery. We will focus on a Christian mystic each week to highlight a theme from the scripture readings. What is a mystic, though? A mystic is a person who actively lives his or her relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. A mystic can be anyone. They are not limited to monks or nuns. God is within us all! God invites all of us to be mystics, people centered on God alone.
Centering on God and not oneself constitutes the essence of Lent. In fact, the scripture readings for Ash Wednesday also hone in on this message. Conversion is the key word today, and for the whole of Lent. Jesus calls us to conversion, to turn our attention to God and stop being so preoccupied with self-image and self-concern. In today’s first reading, God says through the prophet Joel, “return to me with your whole heart.” To get Lent we have to get conversion. To convert is to put on the mind of Christ, which is a mind fixed on God.
Turning from self to God is also the goal of our first mystic guide: Meister Eckhart. He was a fourteenth century German Dominican friar. He was a preacher, teacher, administrator, spiritual director, and theologian. He was a very active person: preaching in the cities, running houses of Dominican Friars, and teaching classes at the university of Paris. He was a mystic in the world. He was a mystic who preached to ordinary people the way to become one with God. I chose him as our first guide through Lent because he seeks to free us from ourselves and for God, which, I believe, is the heart of the Gospel and the season of Lent. Meister Eckhart calls this the practice of detachment.
For Meister Eckhart, detachment is the attitude of seeking God alone by inner nothingness. It is a fundamental letting go of the exhaustion of possessiveness and control needs to rest in God. Meister Eckhart writes, “To be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God.” To be more precise, detachment does not equal indifference. It is best understood as a letting go of all, a radical freedom from our addictions and obsessions and radical freedom for God. As Eckhart says, “detachment is wholly free of all created things.”
Meister Eckhart calls us to “let our intention be purely and only for God” and to “accept God in all things.” He says, “If you truly have God and only God, nothing will disturb you. Why? Because you are totally focused upon God and only God. Therefore everything is nothing but God to you.” Similarly, he says, “all things become for you nothing but God, for in all things you have your eye only on God.” The key is that we focus on God alone, and that means letting go of all our distractions.
To have God alone means to center our minds on God alone and to stop all self-talk and to withdraw from all thinking. It means silence within and being God-aware. God, though, is not a thing. So we can’t be aware of God like we can be aware of an object or a person. To be God-centered, then, is simply to be aware, present in the moment, not focusing on anything, and not thinking about anything. It is letting our inner worlds become nothing. Therefore, Meister Eckhart preaches that we should “sink down out of something into nothing.” The detached person must remain in “a state of pure nothingness,” for this is the way to know the Transcendent Nothingness of God.
So, detachment is letting go of self and centering on God. To focus on God necessitates a letting go of our distractions. Of course, we will still get distracted. Our worries will overwhelm us. Items on our to-do lists will consume our attention. We’ll get lost in busy-ness or in our emotions or in a fantasy world. It’s human. It’s to be expected. When we are distracted, we simply and gently return to this divine nothingness. We bring our minds back into God’s Presence. Practically speaking, we may return to God a thousand times in a few minutes. That is normal, and very good. Just keep coming back.
The season of Lent, then, becomes clear and challenging. We let go of self and focus on God alone. Whenever we are preoccupied, we gently return our awareness to God within. We come back to the nothingness within. This syncs up with the traditional Lenten practices Jesus recommends in the Gospel: alms giving, fasting, and prayer. Focused on God we turn to our neighbors in mercy – alms giving. We stop those habits that trap us in narcissism – fasting. We give our full attention to God – prayer. All three practices are summed up in the word conversion. Turning away from self and toward God, we are training our minds to focus on the happiness and love we long for. Meister Eckhart reminds us, if we truly have God alone, nothing will disturb us. Nothing will distract us. If we seek God with single minds and hearts, God will transform us and through us, the world.