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