Can I be detached from the things of this world? Can I love God first and foremost, and be detached from anything that gets in the way of my loving Him? Do I truly and really want only His will in my life? These questions pose significant challenges for us (at least they have for me) in our quest for a closer relationship with God. We each have choices to make. We can fill our hearts with attachments to created things, other people, and affections. Or we can open our hearts to the unique, infinite love of God, and His will.
Our Call to Holiness—to Be Detached
As sojourners through this short life on earth, we all are called to holiness. In Chapter 5 of Lumen Gentium, we are told, “…it is evident to everyone, that all the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity…In order that the faithful may reach this perfection, they must use their strength accordingly as they have received it, as a gift from Christ. They must follow in His footsteps and conform themselves to His image seeking the will of the Father in all things.” LG 40 § 2
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this further: “Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ…The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.” CCC 2014 – 2015.
As we attempt to grow in our loving relationship with Jesus, we have to renounce the ways of the world. Relying on God’s grace, we need to gain better control over our desires and impulses. In doing so, we’ll give up bad habits and work at strengthening the good ones. We will develop a readiness to go without what we value in this world for the sake of His world. We will become more detached from things of this world.
Becoming More Detached—Growing in Indifference
Fr. John Hardon, S.J., tells us in his Catholic Dictionary, that indifference is of critical importance for our growth in holiness. It is, “…the state of being freed from inordinate attachments or desires that would keep a person from total dedication to God. It is internal liberty that enables the soul to give itself unreservedly to follow Christ.” Essentially, it’s the ability and the willingness to step away from anything or anyone that draws us away from God. Does it mean that we need to rush out, give everything we have to the poor, and live as mendicants? No. It does mean, though, that we should be ready to do so if God requires it.
Being Detached—Ridding Ourselves of Attachments
Seeking any one thing at the expense of growing our relationship with Jesus means we have an attachment to it. Letting concern about the loss of something cause us chronic anxiety means we probably have an attachment we need to eliminate. This notion of eliminating attachments, becoming detached or indifferent, sounds good in theory. Just how easy is it to carry out in practice? I’ve found that it actually can be pretty difficult at times. Consider the different types of attachments we might face:
- Material things
- Intellectual matters
- Affections and sensibilities
Detached or Attached? – Material Things
I really enjoyed my touring motorcycle that I owned for several years. There was nothing quite like rolling down a curvy highway with the stereo on, enjoying the scenery and the smells of the open road. At some point, like so many of my hobbies, though, it began to control me instead of vice-versa. It was an obstacle to a deeper prayer life. The more time on I spent on the bike or working on the bike, the less time I had for daily prayer routines. But the good Lord provided me with the grace to remove the inordinate attachment I had in this case. Subsequent changes in my health provided me with the incentive to move along and sell the motorcycle. The Lord knows what’s best for us, even if we don’t.
Of course, hobbies and big boys’ toys are just some examples of material attachments that can get in the way of a full relationship with Jesus. More commonly, other material things can seize and hold too much of our attention. These would include the felt need to keep up with our neighbors or work colleagues in our lifestyle. For example, being overly concerned about the size of our home, the number, year and make of our cars, etc. can be a form of attachment. Endlessly obsessing about making more and more money or worrying about one’s investments can be a sign of an unhealthy attachment as well.
Detached or Attached? – Intellectual Matters
I will admit that I struggle with a desire to buy and read more and more books related to our faith. (At times, though, I do stop acquiring them just to prove that I can.) One question to consider is how intensely we engage in reading and studying about the faith. On one hand, we continually hear today about how poorly formed many Catholics are in their faith. As a result, they don’t realize the treasure they have in the Church. Nor can they discuss it intelligently with non-Catholics. Is there a need for a lot of us to be more spiritually savvy? Indeed, there is! On the other hand, we can cross the line from doing well to being inordinately attached. For example, do we let our pursuit of intellectual knowledge crowd out time for growth in personal knowledge of Jesus?
Detached or Attached? – Affections or Sensibilities
When we were growing up, we often faced pressure to be like the rest of the group. Peer pressure can be good if it results in development of admirable behaviors that can lead to virtues. At other times, the opposite is true. As a parent and grandparent, my concerns shifted to the latter consideration. Now as adults, do we fret over the loss of esteem, approbation and adulation if we stand up for what’s right? Are we concerned about people “not liking” us if we don’t go along with their jokes, gossip, grumbling or uncharitable chit-chat? Many of us have a greater need to feel liked than others, so this need can lead to inordinate attachments that draw us away from the One who loves us unconditionally. At our particular judgment, will we be able to tell Him we stood up for what was right, not for what was convenient?
Or how about the issues that come with our pride and vanity? If someone delivers a blow to our ego, can we become detached and ask Our Lord what His lesson for us is in this situation? Can we be detached from our sense of self-righteous indignation and learn from it? It might helpful to be able to say, “Thank you, Jesus, for this opportunity to grow in humility,” and become indifferent towards the perceived offense. Otherwise, it’s not moving us closer to God, but farther away.
Detached or Attached? – Busyness
Some months prior to this essay, I read an article in a business publication about how busy people are. It’s now considered to be a badge of honor in our society to be overwhelmingly busy. Having too much to do means you’re important, you’re valued, you’re in demand. In the work that I do with executives and managers, I tell them, however, that it means you don’t know how to delegate. It means that you’re not prioritizing properly. You’re not managing yourself, and if you can’t manage yourself, how can you manage others?
That said, there also is a spiritual danger in busyness. One of my good friends calls it the “heresy of busyness.” We can get so caught up in doing that we have no time for just being—being sons and daughters of a loving God. When this happens, our prayer life suffers. When our prayer life suffers, it ripples through the rest of our life as well. The problem with this type of attachment is that it is easy for the evil one to push us into it. This type of attachment is a subset of affections and sensibilities. We feel good when we help others. We feel good when others implore us to help them. “You need to run this committee—we need someone who can get things done…” is music to the ears of the ego. But at some point, we’re overloaded and endangering our immortal soul. Prayerful discernment before saying “YES” to such requests can help avoid being drawn away from God, even with the best of intentions.
Detachment—A Work in Progress
Between our human condition and the work of the evil one, we face many obstacles on our path to holiness. We can and must overcome the obstacles, though. St. John of the Cross tells us that a bird tied down to earth can’t fly; it doesn’t matter if it’s tied down with a thread or a rope. An attachment is still an attachment, no matter how great or how small. Some of them are greater than others, but they all impede our progress along the narrow path. Self-awareness through prayerful discernment and spiritual direction can show us where we need to focus first. Prayer and ongoing accountability through spiritual direction can help us gradually cut those threads or ropes that are holding us back from Our Lord and Savior. I personally like the Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is prayer of radical abandonment to God’s Divine Providence. In addition, St. Peter Faber, S.J., wrote a prayer for detachment that is helpful. Let’s cut those threads and ropes that hold us back from God, and help bring other souls to Him as well.