Ejsmond_The_Anchorite

The Anchorite by Ejsmond (Wikimedia Commons). Even lay people can practice true detachment.

I’d like to return to pondering the spirituality of St. John of the Cross, looking at the themes found in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul. Let’s begin considering detachment. What does John mean by detachment?

I see two common errors concerning detachment. The first views detachment as nearly impossible for lay people, suitable only for cloistered religious or the occasional priest. The second views detachment from a New Age perspective, influenced by eastern religions. It focuses on negation, forgetting what St. John’s negation is for.

Doing God’s will

John of the Cross always presents detachment as a means, not an end. He writes of the heights of the spiritual life:

“The state of union consists in having the soul as regards the will, wholly transformed into the will of God, so that in everything and through everything, that which moves it may be only the divine will.” (Ascent I, XI, 2)

This is our goal. Notice what union is not to John. It is not

  • silence
  • peace
  • consolation
  • aridity
  • nakedness
  • awareness

The soul that has reached union may experience some of these things, but none of them comprise union’s essence. Union with God consists in living only by His will.

I’m reminded of a story told of St. Francis of Assisi. One day Francis was working in his garden and a friar came and asked him, “Brother Francis, if you knew you were going to die today, what would you do?’

Francis replied, “I would continue working in my garden.”

Francis was confident he was doing God’s will. That’s all that matters. The spiritual life is simple. Do God’s will and nothing else. Detachment allows us to practice it.

Not just for priests and religious

Francis of Assisi’s attitude counters the notion that detachment is only appropriate and possible for those removed from worldly cares. If he can do God’s will in the garden, why can’t we? Why can’t we do His will while diapering the baby, creating a spreadsheet, setting the table, finishing homework, or sharing the marital embrace with our spouse?

The answer: we can.

Detachment for the lay person is often measured by how well we do our duty.

Do we fulfill the obligations of our vocation? Do we put our spouse above our friends? Do we put our kids before our hobbies? Do we spend time on the internet when we should be cleaning the shower stall? (Oops, now you know what I’ve been procrastinating doing…)

Detachment does not necessarily mean dryness. It does not necessarily mean unpleasantness. It simply means being able to turn away from any occupation, thought, or feeling that is outside God’s will for that moment. If we can’t turn ourselves away, we are inordinately attached.

Detachment is not self-denial for its own sake, but self-denial for God’s sake. It is emptying oneself to make room for God.

And that brings us to the second error about detachment.

Emptiness is not the goal

The goal of detachment is not emptiness. Ponder these beautiful words of St. Paul:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3:14-19)

Wow!

This is our goal–to be filled with all the fullness of God! Detachment makes room in our hearts for Him. It clears out the clutter, so that we can focus on and accomplish His will. It prepares us for divine union.

Some erroneous types of prayer, which are essentially New Age practices masquerading as Catholic spirituality, put the emphasis on silence, emptiness, abnegation. They forget that in authentic Christian detachment, emptiness is a means, not an end.

When I discuss Centering Prayer, for example, with its adherents, they refer often to John of the Cross and detachment. But the detachment they propose is not focused on God.  Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the originators of Centering prayer and its foremost proponent, writes:

“The method consists in letting go of every kind of thought during prayer, even the most devout thoughts.” (Open Mind, Open Heart, 21)

Why?

Why empty oneself of “the most devout thoughts?” What is the purpose? For John of the Cross, the purpose of emptying ourselves is to be filled with God. But how do devout thoughts keep us from being filled with God? How are thoughts about God a barrier to union with Him?

To orthodox teachers of spirituality, thoughts are not a barrier, but a bridge. While our thoughts about God are not themselves God, nor can they on their own bring us to contemplative union with God, they do really and truly bring us closer to Him in the purgatve way.

Detachment ≠ union

Thoughts cannot attain to contemplative union, nor can feelings. True. But here is where Centering Prayer practitioners fall into error: Silence of the mind cannot bring us to union either.

Detachment is not itself union. It is only preparation for union. Union with God comes through His action, not our passivity.

And for John of the Cross, detachment is not primarily about turning aside from our thoughts and feelings. It is from first to last about turning aside from everything opposed to God’s will for us.

So, as long as thoughts are useful in deepening our relationship with God, we employ them. As long as feelings move us to love God, we let ourselves be moved.

Thoughts are to the mind and love is to the will as food is to the body. Food is necessary to sustain the body. It is not evil. It does not keep us from union with God unless we are too attached to it. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen speak of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati as someone who loved pasta. Yet, when it was time to fast, Frassati fasted. He was not attached to food. It did not keep him from doing God’s will.

So with thoughts and feelings. They are not our enemy in prayer. We need them. But when God gives us something better–contemplation–we need to fast from them.

If all we do in the physical realm is fast, we will die. If all we do in prayer is turn aside from our thoughts and feelings, our spiritual life will die out.

In prayer, we follow the inspiration of God. If we feel moved to speak, we should speak. If we feel moved to a quiet gaze on God, we should quietly gaze on Him.

Detachment consists in turning away from our will towards God’s will.

Sometimes God’s will is easy, delightful, and attainable by natural means. Other times it is dry, dark, seemingly empty, and requires passivity more than anything else.

If we insist on silence during prayer, come what may, we are attached to silence. If we insist on speaking during prayer, come what may, we are attached to speaking.  Methods are only means, and they are means that cannot themselves make us contemplatives. Only God can do that. We use traditional Christian methods–primarily pondering the Scriptures–and follow the Spirit’s lead.

Thus, prayer and daily life reinforce and strengthen each other. In each, God’s will is paramount. This is true detachment.

Connie Rossini

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Written by Connie Rossini
Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

    6 Comments

  1. Suzanne April 2, 2016 at 5:02 am

    Connie, Please keep writing ! The clear and beautiful way you teach through your writing makes sense to me. You have a way of navigating through all the muddy waters of advice on prayer to help us arrive at authentic Catholic spirituality. Thank you so much.

    • Connie Rossini April 2, 2016 at 11:46 am

      You’re welcome, Suzanne. If you keep encouraging me and praying for me, I’ll do my best to continue.

  2. Michelle April 2, 2016 at 5:34 am

    Excellent. I was telling the children that if they obey, things will go well for them, and if not, things will go backwards. I can’t remember where I read it. Funny though, God has been teaching me the same simple lesson.

    I like the examples that you give for discernment too. Thank you.

    • Connie Rossini April 2, 2016 at 11:47 am

      That’s a lesson I need to teach my kids too! Obedience sometimes goes against the grain for all of us, doesn’t it?

  3. Charisse Tierney April 2, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you for this post, Connie! I’ve been trying to deep clean my house with a spirit of detachment lately, so this post gives a me a lot of food for thought. The concept that emptiness is a means and not an end really struck me. With 5 young children, my house will never feel very “empty” (or clean, for that matter!), and so I find myself trying not to become too attached to my detachment project!:) You sum it up very well by saying that prayer and daily life strengthen and reinforce each other. There are many times I have to leave prayer or other tasks to care for my children–but if that is God’s will at the moment (as I always believe it is), then I can be confident I am on the right track! Thank you so much for your words of wisdom!

    • Connie Rossini April 2, 2016 at 7:04 pm

      You’re welcome, Charisse. Since we just finished a big cleaning project here, you give me food for thought too.