On Spiritual Detachment
“Give up everything, and you shall find everything; renounce desire, and you shall discover peace” (Kempis 133).
We’ve all heard that if we want to lead a life of holiness we must detach ourselves from the world. But what exactly does detachment mean? And how, if I am physically living in the world, can I detach myself from it?
Let’s start with what the word Attachment means:
An attachment is a willed seeking of something finite for its own sake. It is an unreal pursuit, an illusory desire. Nothing exists except for the sake of God who made all things for Himself. Any other use is a distortion. (Dubay 173)
Basically, if we are attached to something, we are no longer using an object or doing an activity “to the glory of God” which is the intended purpose of all things (ESV, 1 Cor 10:31). But rather we aim to please ourselves. In this way, we put ourselves and our desires above God. We hold back from Him our whole hearts and give our love to lesser things.
How do I know if I’m attached to something?
Fr. Thomas, in summarizing the teachings of St. John of the Cross, does an excellent job of explaining, so I’ll let him take it away:
I would offer three clear signs. The first is that the activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it. If I use my intellect and speech capacities to tell a lie, I am directing these gifts away from their social purposes of interhuman communication (informing, recreating, loving, asking) to my personal ends of blocking communication, or of selfishly covering up my faulty action, or of trying to gain an unjust advantage over another…
The second sign is excess in use. As soon as we go too far in eating, drinking, recreating, speaking, or working, we show that there is something disordered in our activity. We cannot honestly direct to the glory of God what is in excess of what He wills…
The third sign of attachment is making means into ends. We have one sole purpose in life: the ultimate, enthralling vision of the Trinity in glory, in our risen body. Everything else is meant in the divine plan to bring us and others to this final embrace with Beauty and Love. When therefore we speak idly, that is, for no good purpose, just for its own sake, we have made speaking into a little idol. As soon as honesty requires us to admit that this eating or that travel, this television viewing, or that purchase is not directly or indirectly aimed at Father, Son and Spirit, we have made ourselves into an idol. We are clearly clinging to something created for our own self-centered sake. We cannot be entirely in love with God. (Dubay 172)
To recap, I’m attached to something if:
- I do or use something in a way that is contrary to God’s intention for that activity/object
- I do or use something excessively
- I do or use something for its own sake alone
So Why is Detachment So Important Anyway?
“The man who clings to anything created will fall together with that fallible creature; if he holds fast to Jesus he will stay firm forever” (Kempis 73).
According to St. Teresa of Avila, three things are required to attain maturity in your spiritual life:
- Detachment from all things of this world
- Love of Neighbor
Detachment from All Things of This World: Jesus tells us that if you wish to inherit eternal life you must “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (ESV, Luke 10:27). How can we love God with all of our heart if various worldly loves pull it in multiple directions, all of which are away from God? In order to give God all of our love, we must be detached from the world. By detaching yourself from the world, you are free to cling to God with all of your heart.
Humility: Another love that can pull us away from God is a disordered love of self, or pride. We must detach ourselves from our pride, and truly die to self because “loving yourself does you more harm than anything in the world” (Kempis 126). Yes, we are all sons and daughters of God so our lives are of value, but if we only focus on ourselves and our self love, our actions come from a place of vanity, selfishness, and pride. We must become grounded in reality and come from a place of humility to truly and freely give our love without self-serving motivations.
Love of Neighbor: Not only must we humble ourselves to fully love God, but we must love our neighbor as ourself; that is, we must love them from a place of humility in which we honor their dignity as a fellow human being. If we are attached to the things of this world, we will look at both external goods and intangible goods (such as compliments) as limited resources and will therefore be unable to truly love our neighbor because we will be in competition for these resources. Whatever someone else receives is something I haven’t received, and therefore is a slight against me. For example, if a coworker receives a promotion, that is a promotion that I haven’t received, and I may fall into despair. If a friend receives praise, that is praise I haven’t received, and envy takes root in my heart. Instead of being generous in our love, we will cling and attach ourselves to things that are not eternal. If we are chained to these things of the world, our hearts will never be free to fully love our neighbor as we ought.
There is nothing to be gained, then, by acquiring and increasing outward possessions; what does do you good is to think nothing of such things, cut them right out of your hearts, root, and branch. I am speaking not only of amassing riches but also of going about in quest of honours and of the desire to receive vain praise. All these things pass away together with the world. (Kempis 127)
Even small attachments will hold us down. For as St. John of the Cross writes if the soul has any attachment whatsoever:
[T]here is no possibility that it will make progress in perfection, even though the imperfection be extremely slight. For it comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be held as though it were stout, for so long as it breaks it not and flies not away. It is true that the slender one is easier to break; still, easy though it be, the bird will not fly away if it be not broken. (Cross 96)
Attachment ensnares us, keeps us captive, and prevents us from ascending to the spiritual heights that are intended for all. Detachment instead frees our soul and allows us to more fully reflect Christ’s light and love in the world.
Okay, So How Do I Detach?
Start by looking at one attachment in your life, and work on freeing yourself from that one attachment alone. Treat it as a New Year’s Resolution, for “if we could manage to eradicate one of our faults every year, how soon it would make perfect men of us!” (Kempis 34). Develop a consistent prayer life, frequent the sacraments, pray to Mary and ask her to help open your heart, pray to the Holy Spirit for the grace of wisdom, and put your full trust and faith in God.
“We could have peace to our hearts’ content if only we would not concern ourselves with the things other people are saying and doing, things which are no business of ours. How can a man expect to have lasting peace when he is always minding other people’s business, always looking out for the chance of engaging in external activities, so that recollection is only possible in a small degree, or at rare intervals? Blessed are simple; they shall have peace to their hearts’ content.” (Kempis 33)
Prayer for a Clean Heart and Heavenly Wisdom:
O God, strengthen me by the grace of your Holy Spirit. Make firm within me my efforts to be holy; empty my heart of all unnecessary worry and anxiety, and do not let it be carried away by the desire of anything whatsoever, whether worth the having or otherwise. Make me see that all things are passing away and that I, too, must one day follow them; for there is nothing beneath the sun that lasts forever, and everything here is but frustration and lost labour, all of it. He is a wise man whose thoughts run thus.
Lord, give me your heavenly wisdom, that I may learn to seek you and find you above all things else, to love and understand you more than anything; let me see all other things as they are, in the way your wisdom has disposed them. Give me the prudence to keep away from those who flatter me, the patience to bear with those who oppose me. This is wisdom indeed, to refuse to be swayed by every gust of speech from the mouths of men, and not to give ear to those Siren voices that lure a man so sweetly to his doom. Following such a course, we advance fearlessly along the road we have begun to tread.” (Kempis 127-128)
Detachment From the World is Attachment to God | Sensus Fidelium
St. John of the Cross: Doctor of Detachment | Sensus Fidelium
Detaching for Christ in Lent | Regina Prophetarum
Cross, John of the. Ascent of Mount Carmel. 1962. 3rd ed., Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1994.
Dubay, Thomas. Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel —on Prayer. Ignatius Press, 1989.
The Holy Bible. English Standard Version, Augustine Institute, 2020.
Kempis, Thomas À. The Imitation of Christ. 1959. Ignatius Press, 2005.