What is detachment in the Catholic spiritual life?

posted in: Prayer and Virtue | 28
File:John of the Cross crucifixion sketch.jpg
Sketch of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Among Carmelite saints, John of the Cross, co-founder of the Discalced Carmelites with Teresa of Avila, is not the most popular. Why not? He insisted that detachment was necessary for holiness. Many Catholics, misunderstanding his teaching, think it too hard and too dull. On first reading his Ascent of Mt. Carmel, they might be tempted to settle for luke-warmness.

On the other hand, nearly everyone loves St. Therese of Lisieux. The irony is that Therese was a true daughter of John, embracing all that he taught. If we reject John, we implicitly reject Therese as well.

Misconceptions about detachment

Let’s examine some of the misconceptions about detachment.

First of all, the detachment John of the Cross speaks of is not aloofness. We should have proper affection for our family and friends.  It’s nonsensical to be cold towards your spouse due to a supposed love for God.

Detachment doesn’t mean denying the good that is in the material world. Rather, it means viewing temporal goods as temporal, gifts from God meant to lead us to Him. Unlike some religions, where the physical world is seen as evil or unreal, Christianity does not teach asceticism for its own sake. We give up our desires for things in order to make room in our hearts for God.  Detachment is a means, not an end.

If you have a love for chocolate, you don’t have to pretend—let alone really think–that it tastes bad, in order to be a saint. A saint can still tell the difference between a good wine and a cheap one (if he ever could!). But he doesn’t drink too much, nor would he be disturbed if he never tasted wine again.  He will also naturally hunger and thirst. This won’t keep him from fasting when appropriate.

Detachment begins in the heart

So, how can we speak of detachment in positive terms?

Detachment is an attitude of the heart. God calls a few people to give away all their possessions. Think of St. Francis of Assisi.  He allows the rest of us to keep some of what we own, but not cling to it. Detachment means getting rid of our “selfish clinging” (as Fr. Thomas Dubay used to say) to things or persons.

St Thérèse asks to enter Carmel
St Thérèse asks to enter Carmel, from a play at the Oxford Oratory (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

It’s a response to God’s love for us. When you fall in love, everyone else in your life pales beside the beloved. You change your schedule and your priorities. You spend money and time on that person without feeling like it’s a sacrifice.  If a young man would always rather watch football with the guys, for example, than have dinner with his girlfriend, she would rightly question his feelings for her.

What about you? Would you rather watch football (or go shopping, spend time with friends, read, etc.) than pray? Would you pray even if you didn’t “enjoy” it? If God let you lose all your loved ones and possessions, as happened to Job in the Old Testament, would you still love and follow Him? Would you have inner peace?

God calls us to put love for Him above everything else. When you can truly do so, then you are detached.

Connie Rossini

Share with us: What do you find most difficult to give up for God? Do you still have questions about what detachment is?

28 Responses

  1. womanwithapurpose

    I love this post! I think that the most difficult thing for me, and many other Americans, is giving up the expectation of a certain lifestyle. We continue to get more, more, more in an attempt to meet this ‘ideal’expectation we have of our lives: certain car, certain neighborhood, certain house, certain decorations, etc. What we really need to fill ourselves with is Him!

    • Connie Rossini

      Thanks. I agree completely about our culture. Our list of “needs” is probably longer than past societies’ lists of wants. It can make even modest indulgence seem like a sacrifice.

  2. Vicki

    Recently, I moved home to assist my sister caring for our mother. Giving up my independence has been the most difficult thing to do. God has given me a church I am needed in ( I sing and teach). Recently, a lay carmelite invited me to her meeting. I’m considering this invite as an invitation from Jesus because I was praying for a small faith group. Giving up my solitude definitely affected my prayer life. All I can do is trust.

    • Connie Rossini

      Vicki, when I was invited to an OCDS meeting, I too had been thinking about looking into a secular order of some type. This is probably the answer to your prayers. I hope it works out for you. I can imagine how difficult it would be to give up an independence you were used to (I still struggle with having little solitude, and I’ve had kids for 11 years). I will pray for you.

  3. Irenaeus

    I’ve recently been meditating on the story of the Woman at the Well. I’m drawn to it because I realized I am the woman at the well. Although I’ve only had one husband (not five!) I am constantly searching for the people who are going to fulfill me, and I think that was what the woman at the well was doing. Jesus addresses this addiction by promising her a fountain of Living Water. She will never be thirsty again. She will no longer experience that neediness that drove her to have five husbands (plus the one she is with now!) I find that Daily Mass is my fountain of Living Water. Yesterday my cathedral parish had a holy hour and benediction for Corpus Christi Sunday. In the middle of a very busy and social day this one hour was my high point, my Living Water. I need to seek out more opportunities for Eucharistic Adoration

    • Connie Rossini

      Interesting. My meditation recently has been on the Penitent Woman, washing the feet of Jesus. We don’t often think of people as getting in the way of your relationship with God, but they sure can be. Thanks for commenting!

      • Irenaeus

        It’s not that the people themselves get in the way of my relationship with God. I have some fine people in my life. The problem is my own neediness for people. I always seem to want more than they can give. I am slowly coming to the realization that what I am looking for can only be provided by God. He did so by sending His Son in His Body, the Eucharist.

        • Connie Rossini

          My comment could have been taken in 2 ways, which I didn’t think about when I wrote it. People could get in the way of your relationship with God by purposely drawing you away. That would be their fault, and outside of a discussion on detachment. I hope most of us don’t have to deal with that regularly. Or, we could make little idols out of people, being wrongly attached to them–looking to be fulfilled by them in a way we weren’t meant to be. That would be our fault. My point was that I can make an idol not just out of books, for example (yes, they have been my downfall in the past), but also out of people. Sorry for being unclear.

          • Irenaeus

            I see. Yes, I can make idols out of people, quite easily! At times I have thought it would be good to have a spiritual director, but I am honestly afraid I would make an idol out of that person, seeking approval and not telling him/her the unflattering details of my interior life. Do you have any experience with spiritual direction? How does one avoid duplicity and/or attachment when dealing with a spiritual director?

          • Connie Rossini

            I have only spent about a year under spiritual direction. I did not have any temptation to idolize my director, but that may partly have been because of the director’s personality and partly because of mine. Since my husband has been working for dioceses for the last decade, it’s difficult for me to have a spiritual director any more. He knows all the priests and lay workers on a professional level and would not feel comfortable with my sharing intimate personal information with them.

          • Michele Zacharias

            My partner ended our 17 year relationship, and our engagement, by texting me that he cannot commit to me – after various texts back and forth he told me he wants a clean break from me, this is after us knowing each other for 45 years – I am devastated and gutted and said every novena I know and prayed and lit candles and cannot understand why this is happened even though he says he loves me dearly “but he is not in love with me”” we are both in our fifties – how do I even try to spiritually detract from him. I am gutted and my heart is broken and my chest feels as if it has a tractor sitting on it – how do I carry on from here – I need spiritual guidance and just don’t know where to star. I even have being saying the divine chaplet that he will come back to me. Michele

          • Connie Rossini

            Michele, first let me say that I will pray for you. You are truly suffering. I am sorry that you have had to and are enduring this rejection by someone you love.

            I would suggest that you don’t pray that he comes back to you, but that God’s will is done. It may not be God’s will for you to marry this man. If he is not truly in love with you, but loves you more as a sister, you would both be making a mistake to marry. It could end in an even greater disaster if your marriage fell apart. Detaching from him does not mean that you stop loving him. True love desires the good of the other person. Can you channel your love into daily prayers for his welfare and spiritual growth? Can you learn to pray for him without reference to yourself, without looking for any return? You have an opportunity here to do what all married people will be asked to do in heaven–let their love be transformed into something purely spiritual. If you let God work in your heart in this way, you can experience one of the ends of marriage, which is helping each other grow closer to Christ. You can experience this without physical intimacy. Your years of love and care have already set the stage for it.

            Your words about your broken heart remind me of my mother’s reaction to my sister’s death (she was 10). My mom had panic attacks and could only overcome them by repeating the name of Jesus. Let Jesus become ever more your Beloved, the one who sustains and strengthens you. No major suffering is going to disappear easily. Letting go of a loved one always involves darkness. I would also encourage you to surround yourself with others who can support and encourage you, not to spend too much time alone that could end in daydreaming and regrets. Peace be with you.

  4. Joseph

    I always felt comforted that Jesus’ first miracle involved wine. A substance regarded by some as sinful. God has provided us all good in moderation. I like the overview of Detachment as placing things in order…God in clear sight which allows true love for family and friends. St. John’s Nada is actually allowing space for God and closing out those temporal distractions which keeps us from Gods true purpose for each of us. Lux Mea Christus !

  5. JMJ Murphy

    While I do put love for God above all else, I struggle daily with my appetite for food and drinks that taste good. I mortify myself in little ways throughout the day and at every meal, but not entirely. For example, I have given up my two favorite things to consume–coffee and desserts–except on Sundays, Solemnities, and significant celebration days (like today, my son’s birthday) for special intentions during the Year of Mercy. But I find that on these celebratory days, I am tempted to overdo coffee and dessert, and even when I stop before my cravings are satisfied I feel guilty for partaking at all. Perhaps I am misunderstanding St. John of the Cross, but it seems that he is endorsing total self-denial for love of God. My greatest longing is for Union with God! I know that the pleasure of earthly food and drink are as nothing in comparison with Him; they are His creation. So why do I still seek pleasure through eating my favorite foods on special days? Is this a lack of detachment? Is this a sin? An imperfection? Am I being scrupulous? Or perhaps my lack of humility has led me to make resolutions that are too lofty for me. In any case, this puzzle has–at times–pulled my mind away from Him and onto myself and my diet, so in at least one way it is a clear temptation. I appreciate any guidance you can offer! Thank you and may our good Lord bless you!

    • Connie Rossini

      JMJ, it’s certainly not a sin to crave food and drink. In fact, it’s quite natural. You will probably always crave things. When St. Therese was dying, she had a sudden respite, during which she was hungry for all kinds of foods, after not having an appetite for months. The nuns tried to supply her with chocolate eclairs, etc. But we should eat and drink for the glory of God. I think it’s better to take small steps we can succeed at, then build on those, than to try to do everything at once. It is not a sin to eat dessert, though it may be an imperfection, depending on the circumstances. I think that as your love for God grows, you will desire satisfaction in food less than you do now. Maybe start with just giving up dessert. Then move on to coffee, etc. Your body will probably not be craving them as much if you break the habit of eating them regularly. Meditate on the goodness of God, the joys of heaven, etc., so that you begin to desire Him more. Everything else will begin to pale. But don’t expect to be a saint in a day.

  6. EcM

    I’ve been struggling with addiction to drugs for twenty five years. AA & sponsorship has helped immensely, but I still can’t put together more than a month sober. The biggest help, however, has been regular attendance at Mass & confession AT LEAST every other month. Reading many Catholic & Orthodox books is also a blessing.

    • Connie Rossini

      God bless you, EcM. I try to go to Confession monthly, although it usually works out to be more like every 6 weeks. The grace is incomparable. Prayers for your continued healing.

  7. jeanettewoodley

    Can you speak on the difficulties in detachment with some degree of wealth when it’s not in your power to fully determine how that money is spent. It is prudent to invest wisely, of course. How does one determine detachment in this case?

    • Connie Rossini

      Great question, Jeanette! Detachment is not a matter of having little or having much, but in how you handle your wealth. Like everything else, wealth is a gift from God. The only reason to have wealth is to use it to further God’s will and bring Him glory. So, first, it should make little difference to your peace of mind whether your investments build your wealth or deplete it. Both one and the other can be accepted as at least God’s permissive will (assuming you are not shirking your responsibility). If your spouse is in charge of making financial decisions, that too is an occasion for detachment. If your spouse spends more lavishly than you would, thank God for the good things He has given you, but don’t let them consume you. If you believe too much is being spent on yourselves, you should at some point have a conversation about sharing with the less fortunate, giving to the Church, etc. If that has already been done, there is no need to press the issue if it is just going to cause problems to do so. Pray about it and let grace do its work. Perhaps you still have pocket money you can share with others. If your spouse makes financial decisions that cause hardship for the two of you, your children, or others, that again would seem to require some conversation between you. But in the end, our financial situation just has to be entrusted to God. It is said that St. Louis wore a hairshirt under his royal robes and regularly fed and washed the feet of the poor. Sometimes when we are married it is very difficult to let the other person (usually the husband) have the final say in major decisions. But marriage is our vocation, which means God is using this lack of control to increase our trust. Put God first, use everything else, as much as you reasonably can, only to do His will, and then accept as a gift from Him whatever you cannot change, whether good or bad.

      • jeanettewoodley

        “God is using this lack of control to increase our trust”… Thank you Connie.

  8. Lori Sautter

    I have been experiencing a real sense of abandonment by God and everyone else for that matter. It’s been a very hard place to be. I still pray and go to Mass but with little joy. I have the feeling God is up to something and the idea of detachment is very much on my mind. I just did not think it would be this painful.

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