A few weeks ago, as I watched the white helicopter rise above St. Peter's Basilica and carry the pontiff emeritus to a life of seclusion, I was reminded of Hindu and Jain saints who withdraw from the world and live a renounced life.
With his last words on March 1, "I am no longer the pope . . . I'm just a pilgrim who is starting the last part of his pilgrimage on this earth," then-Pope Benedict XVI made a conscious choice to remove himself from his powerful position as leader of 1.2 billion Catholics because of his weak health, and to begin a life of study, prayer, and meditation.
In nearly every religious tradition, if a person is to advance spiritually, they must become free of worldly responsibility and focus on the self by becoming detached from material possessions, family, ego, power, and fame.
Pope Emeritus Benedict's spiritual journey began at the age of 18, when he joined the Catholic seminary in Freising, Germany. Here he took a vow as a Catholic priest to separate himself from material possessions as well as family, not to marry, and to remain celibate.
Detachment is a virtue in the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism as well as in Western traditions. A person does not take themselves out of the public world in order to run away from a burdened life, but to seek solace within, to find the meaning of life, or to find God.
The Jain saint, Acharya Mahapragya, who recently died at the age of 89, had renounced the worldly life at the age of 10. He walked over 100,000 kilometers to over 10,000 villages spreading the message of nonviolence, meditation, and a balanced life.
So I wonder, how may a layperson practice detachment? Certainly we cannot give up material goods, family, and our livelihood. However, we can be less attached to the material world. In Jainism, this practice is called aparigraha, or non-possessiveness, which means limiting possessions only to what is necessary.
In order to limit our material possessions, we must understand the difference between our needs and wants. Excessive want leads to greed and attachment, which then leads to acquiring more and more material things and money. We often feel that having more possessions will bring us more happiness, and yet that rarely happens once our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met. I believe spiritual saints of all traditions understand this well, and hence they choose to renounce the material wealth of the world and seek a spiritual path.
But detachment goes further. One must detach from ego and pride -- which is something we now find in Pope Francis as well as in the former pope, humility. It is not easy to let go of ego in a world where name, fame, celebrities, and stardom are highly valued. Pope Emeritus Benedict, however, has done just this.
Lastly, we need to learn how to detach from the body towards the end of our lives. Pope Emeritus Benedict recognized that his advancing age had deteriorated his "strength of mind and body," his reason for retiring from public life.
There is something noble and refreshing, and also exhilarating, about voluntarily detaching from the worldly possessions of money, material goods, power, fame, as well as daily trials and tribulations. It is reassuring that there is a higher purpose in life. I wonder if I will do the same, renouncing attachment in my final days and months of life to devote myself to a spiritual life, a life of study, prayer, and meditation.
Through his historic and humble decision, Pope Emeritus Benedict makes it clear that in life there is a purpose higher than being one of the most powerful people in the world, and that purpose is becoming one with the self and with God.