“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Romans 12:2
The word detachment is thrown around in Catholic circles every once in awhile, but what does it really mean? Detachment sounds a bit ascetic, perhaps eliciting scenes of robed figures living out a silent, meager existence in a cold, stone monastery on a mountainside high above the clouds. It might seem to be a distant reality for most of us, but this could not be further from the truth: detachment is an essential part of the message of the Gospel. No Christian can ignore it.
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.”
1 John 2:15
The Christian ought to pursue detachment because Jesus Christ has come to attach us to His own life of love; this is the life of the Father whose heart aches for His children. The problem is, we are wayward children, attached to things that are not God. The things that we are attached to are often good in themselves, but only because they are made by Goodness Himself.
But what is so wrong with these attachments? Why can we not have both them and God? The answer comes from St. Paul who tells us that the things of this world are “passing away”. 1 Additionally, attachments cloud our minds, keeping us from focusing on our ultimate destiny–Heaven. Father Thomas Dubay, a master of Carmelite spirituality, speaks precisely to this truth when he says that God “speaks to our heart when it is uncluttered and silent. He does not interrupt worldly conversations and pursuits.” 2 Thus, those who seek detachment are the ones who understand that we are exiles in a world to which we do not belong. We are on a journey, a pilgrimage to the promised land.
When we are freed from worldly things, the uncreated Christ has room to make His home in our hearts. When Christ dwells in our hearts, His kingdom is also present there. In this way, detachment helps us carry out our daily petition to the Father: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
What Detachment is Not
Before we continue, it is important to point out a common, but crucial misunderstanding. Many might think that since we must detach from everything, it is necessary to begin giving away all possessions to live a new life of abject poverty and asceticism. It seems we must totally eschew the world and hold all material goods and sensual pleasures in contempt because they are the cause of our attachments and are clearly evil…right?
Wrong. Remember what we said earlier. The world is good because it was made by God who is Goodness. Just look at first page of the Bible: God created the world “and saw that it was good.” 3 The world is a most magnificent palace, a palace the Father has created solely for His beloved children. He wants us to abide in it and enjoy its breathtaking beauty, plentiful riches and inexhaustible wonders. But here’s the rub: should we not prefer our own Father over His palace?
The crucial distinction we ought to make is between living in the world and being attached to the world. The world is good and meant to be enjoyed, but because the world is not God, attachment to the world is not good. We can own a nice house, but we must also be perfectly willing to sell it when it is no longer affordable. It is good to take delight in a delicious home cooked meal or in intimate love with one’s spouse, but we also have to be willing to part with these pleasures if, for some reason, God calls us to something greater.
What is an Attachment?
“You shall not make for yourself a graven image…you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God”
An attachment is an idol, something we have made into another god, that we believe will provide us with happiness. We must divest our hearts of all attachments to idols, from everything except Christ. Almost anything can be made into an idol: food, drugs, sex, money, television, work, social status, appearances, gossip, science, the Internet, sports, etc.
There are many idols, but there is only one God.
We read in Scripture that our God is a “jealous God.” 4 Now this might not paint our God in such a wonderful light, but if we look at it as an expression of God’s intense desire for His people’s total commitment, it makes sense. God wants all of our love, not some of it, not just an hour of our time at Church on the weekend. He does not want us to settle for anything less than the best. It is the same kind of love that a man or woman deserves of their spouse. Who wants the person they have married to not be completely faithful?
Now, because of this radical love, we can have no other idols, no attachments to anything but the Lord Himself. In God’s covenant with man, He promised His inheritance, an inheritance in Heaven. In Baptism we are brought into this inheritance; all we have to do is receive it. Let us release the sand falling between our clutching fingers and open our palms to the eternal riches of our kingly Father.
How Do We Detach From Worldly Things?
Detachment can be divided into three steps:
- Identifying our attachments
- Renouncing our attachments, and
- Following through by mortifying our desires
Step One: Identifying Our Attachments
Identifying our attachments is a process of careful discernment.
Most of the time, we are blind to our own attachments. Thus, it is essential to spend time in prayer with the Father who knows everything. The Father knows every molecule of our existence, every breath, every heartbeat, every step we take, every thought, for as the Psalmist says, “you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” 5 It is all laid bare to His gaze of pure delight! Let us allow Him to reveal our disordered attachments.
Here is a prayer for assistance in the revelation of our attachments:
I am so blind that I do not even see my own weaknesses and misplaced attachments.
Send forth Your Holy Spirit to reveal my attachments to things that are not You, but most of all reveal Your own self inside of me that yearns to be reunited with Your heart of joyous love.
There is also a very simple, practical question one might ask to help determine an attachment, “Is this something I really need, or can I live without it?” If the answer is no, then it is probably an attachment. In the end, it is better to live in poverty and neediness than in self-sufficiency, because the person who is self-sufficient has no need of God.
Step Two: Renouncement of Our Attachments
Once we discover our inordinate attachments, we must renounce them with the help of Christ. This is the turning point of the entire process when we receive freedom from our attachments.
The most effective way, by far, to be freed from our attachments is in the Sacrament of Penance (also called, simply, “Confession”). In the confessional, we confess the sins and attachments we have recognized, express our sorrow for them, renounce them, and make a resolution in the Act of Contrition to avoid them in the future. Then, through the power of Christ, and only through the power of Christ, are we forgiven from those sins by the priest acting in persona Christi–in the person of Christ.
We cannot renounce anything by ourselves because we are enslaved by our attachments. Only Christ, who freely attached Himself to our humanity, can give us freedom. This is why it is essential for the Christian serious about detachment to go to confession regularly (which is at least once a month).
God still desires us to constantly renounce attachments and idols outside of the confessional in our daily prayers. It is simple to do, incredibly powerful and it prepares us for the Sacrament of Penance. Simply pray:
“In the name of Jesus Christ, I renounce my attachment to greed, pornography, food, vanity, etc.”
Step Three: Following Through by Mortifying Our Desires
This may be the most difficult step because this is the step that leads to Calvary. If we are truly sorry for our sins, and truly seek to detach from this world so as to attach ourselves to Christ, we must carry out what we have promised: “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more, and to avoid the near occasions of sin.” 6
In the confessional, we receive our freedom. The question is, what will we do with it? St. Paul gives two choices: ”submit again to the yoke of slavery” 7 which would put us right back where we started, or instead “walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” 8
If we choose the second option, we choose mortification.
Mortification means dying to oneself. Mortification means living only in Christ, relying totally on Him, and Him alone. Let’s not pretend like this is easy. It isn’t. But Christ is with us, and He makes total mortification, total death to oneself, possible because He has already done it! All we have to do is follow the man, Jesus Christ, in the way of the cross.
There are a million different ways to die to oneself for Christ, but here are a few helpful questions we can ask in preparation for this task:
- Am I avoiding situations that will likely lead to sin? This sometimes means not going to the party everybody is going to. Or it means stepping away from certain friendships. Or even something like keeping the computer off all day.
- Have I given my time by spending it in prayer? One can never pray too much.
- Have I abandoned myself entirely to the will of the Holy Spirit? Pray, “I abandon all my desires and my will to you Lord. Come Holy Spirit and fill me with your love so that I may do only Your will.”
- Have I fasted in reparation for my own sins and the sins of others?
- Have I made today about myself, or about somebody else?
- Have I given thanks for everything I’ve been given today?
The ultimate goal of mortification is to walk to Calvary with Christ and die with Him–and do it joyfully, just as St. Peter and St. Paul did in their martyrdom. Now, this is a lofty ideal indeed, but it is the call of every Christian, and because of Christ, martyrdom is completely possible for every one of us to achieve.
The Ongoing Struggle
Pride tempts us to think that after we have gone through these steps once, we are done. But the genuine Christian life must be one of continuous dying to the self, a process that does not end until death. It might not sound very fun, but that is utter paradox of the cross: that Christ gazed with pure joy upon the world from the agonizing humiliation of Calvary because of His unfathomably deep Love for us. And, because of the mercy He poured out of His Sacred Heart, we have become sharers in the inheritance of the Father in the Kingdom of Heaven. The more we die to our attachments and to ourselves, the more Christ will fill us with that same boundless love and joy of the cross until, at last, we enter into our eternal inheritance.
Let the cross be our guide.