You can’t read the Carmelite saints for long without encountering the idea of detachment. We find it in the writings of John of the Cross, of Teresa of Avila, and even of St. Therese. Detachment for Catholics is not the same as mere penance. Detachment, like the entire spiritual life, begins and ends with love.
St. John of the Cross is the master teacher about detachment. Here is his famous passage on detachment from The Ascent of Mount Carmel:
“Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the least pleasant;
not to what means rest for you, but to hard work;
not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised;
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing.”
Do I detect a few sighs?
If we read this passage out of context, the spiritual life appears dry, difficult, and even impossible. We are tempted to give up before we even begin. We reject John of the Cross and move on to another saint whose teaching appears less demanding.
What if I told you that St. Therese practiced perfect detachment? What if I told you her Little Way makes the same demands as John’s Ascent? Let’s look at the passage again in light of the life and teaching of St. Therese.
Detachment is a matter of the will
The first line holds the key to understanding this passage: Endeavor to be inclined. We must try to choose dryness when we have a chance. But we cannot always do so. When we experience natural pleasure, we don’t frown upon it. When someone praises us or gives us gifts, we don’t say, “No, thanks.” When God gives us consolations, we don’t get frustrated. We cannot control all our experiences or even our initial feelings about them. But we can control how much we love them.
St. Therese wrote:
“The attraction to penance was given me, but I was permitted nothing to satisfy it. The only mortifications I was allowed consisted in mortifying self-love, which did me more good than corporal penance.”
Ask yourself: What does God want me to give up? What does He want me to accept or endure out of love for Him or others? Do I love my chosen penances or spiritual practices more than I love God’s will?
We choose the less appealing option out of love for God
“With jealous care all must be kept for Jesus; it is so good to work for Him, and for Him alone!” Therese wrote.
When the novices under her direction came and interrupted her prayer time with their questions, she was at first disturbed. Wasn’t her time with Jesus more important than giving advice to others? Then she realized that Jesus Himself, when He sought solitude in the desert, was followed by people who had heard Him speak or seen Him do miracles. Should we desire to be left alone, when Jesus so seldom had time to Himself? No, she decided, we should desire to be just like Him.
“When we really love, we rejoice in the happiness of the loved one and make every sacrifice to procure it for him.”
Ask yourself: Am I looking at detachment as just a difficult demand of the spiritual life? Can I learn to see detachment instead as a commitment to love God to the point of giving up everything that hinders union with Him?
Detachment makes suffering sweet
“I thank my God for making me walk in darkness,” said Therese; “in it I am wrapped in profound peace.”
Before she entered Carmel, Therese would wake up in the morning and, realizing that many difficulties lay in the hours ahead, be dismayed. Later she wrote:
“Now it is quite the other way: I think of the difficulties and the sufferings that await me, and I rise more joyous and more full of courage the more I foresee opportunities of proving my love for Jesus…”
At the end of her life, she said that she was no longer able to suffer, “because all suffering is sweet to me.”
Ask yourself: Do I believe that the Holy Spirit will change my hopes and desires as I grow closer to Christ? Can I give up earthly pleasures in exchange for abiding peace?
St. Therese’s Little Way is not burdensome. It is not too difficult for ordinary Christians. Yet it is a way of complete detachment from everything but God. It is perfectly Carmelite in its spirituality. If you love Therese and her Little Way, are you willing to give detachment a try?
The passage from the Ascent of Mt. Carmel is from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez.
All quotes from St. Therese but the last one are from Thoughts of Saint Therese, translated by an Irish Carmelite and published by Tan Books.
4 thoughts on “What’s the Little Way got to do with detachment?”
Wow! Thank you for another great post! I have been trying to lose weight. My detachment from overeating began in ernest on Ash Wednesday. This article spoke directly to me. Love of Christ is my new goal. I think I will write out the “ask yourself” questions and answer them daily.
I’m so glad you found it helpful, Bice! I’ve done a lot of questions for reflection in my book, so I’m really seeing the value of those in learning to make what you read your own. Hat tip to Nancy Ward for the idea of putting the questions in the body of the text with the heading “Ask Yourself,” instead of grouping them all at the end.
BTW, your book is coming. My toddler was sick all last week, so I didn’t get out for my usual errands. I plan to go to the post office tomorrow morning right after piano lessons. Sorry for the delay!
That is powerful – ad yes, I did wince when reading the excerpt from St. John of the Cross. For me, (and I suspect I am not alone) is difficult and painful – with detachment from the approval of others leading the list! For some reason – when St.Therese says the words it sounds so much “sweeter” if not actually easier. Thank you for presenting the truth about an essential element of spiritual growth!
Isn’t that funny, Debbie? It’s hard to think of Therese and dryness and austerity, and yet her life was dry and austere. But it was also so obviously full of love and laughter, and we don’t usually put the two things together. And if you read John of the Cross in context, you also find that he was overflowing with love, joy, and peace. Thanks for commenting.