“If they be faithful and seek no satisfaction in creatures, they pass from pure suffering to the pure love of God. But the fortunate souls who succeed thus far are very few.” – Saint Paul of the Cross.
It was common among the Church fathers to practice spiritual detachment. Saint John of the Cross likened it to a form of blindness whereby the soul is cut off from worldly attachments and must rely entirely on faith. Properly practiced, spiritual detachment can serve many benefits.
In order to understand why this is so and to properly treat the subject of detachment, I will begin by providing an overview of the subject and then proceed to show why detachment is necessary for spiritual life. Finally, I will discuss the process needed to become detached.
What is meant by spiritual detachment?
Generally, detachment occurs within the context of Catholic asceticism. Asceticism is a form of spiritual exercise whereby one seeks spiritual perfection. While a core principle of asceticism is self-denial, self-denial is the means, not the end, of the spiritual exercises.
Understood this way, detachment is an aspect of asceticism that withholds or properly orders one’s appetites and affections (and this is self-denial) of created things for the purpose of serving God. The Bible provides two examples that help illustrate the principle of detachment.
The first involves the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham’s willingness to leave his homeland and sacrifice his son Isaac shows a remarkable level of detachment. Abraham is willing to give up his land and even his own son in obedience to God. The second example comes from Jesus Himself. The desire to give His life for the salvation of the world constitutes the most remarkable example of detachment from worldly things.
Lest one think that this form of detachment is reserved for those in a religious order, Jesus reminds us that “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In other words, Catholics, as followers of Christ, must detach themselves from all worldly attachments and appetites no matter what the cost.
Why is spiritual detachment necessary?
I have thus far defined spiritual detachment as the act of denying oneself of material goods and relationships for the purpose of spiritual growth. However, it is vital to note that the detachment of the soul from worldly attachments must never be divorced from either faith in or love of God. God created human beings with desire, especially with the desire for God. As said above, detachment and self-denial are a means to an end by which one properly orders one’s desires to obtain spiritual perfection or union with God.
We are now ready to address why detachment is necessary for the obtainment of perfection in spiritual life.
In order to understand the need for spiritual detachment, it is necessary to consider the goal to be sought. For Catholics, that goal is union with God. To be in union with God requires that we have knowledge of God. Yet, here we are faced with an immense obstacle. Natural human understanding is predicated upon the senses. However, since God is not like anything in the world, our natural human knowledge is insufficient (See Acts 17:29 and Isaiah 55:8-9). How then can we come to this knowledge of God that is necessary to effectuate detachment?
Fortunately, natural human knowledge is not the only way of knowing. God can infuse the intellect with supernatural knowledge. While this may sound esoteric, human beings are familiar with this form of understanding. They are called the theological virtues; faith, hope, and love. They are theological in the sense that the object of these virtues is God. They are supernatural knowledge in the sense that they are infused into the intellect by God.
Having faith in God means “man freely commits his entire self to God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1814). Logic seems to dictate that if we are to commit ourselves to God, we must be willing and able to deny and detach ourselves from those desires that interfere with our commitment.
“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1817). If what we desire is eternal life in the kingdom of heaven, we must be able to renounce any desires that contradict or interfere with that goal.
Finally, “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1822). Here, the love of God must take precedence over above worldly things.
I have, hopefully, set the ground for answering why spiritual detachment is necessary. The final task is to discuss the process by which spiritual attachment is obtained.
How do we accomplish spiritual detachment?
The description of how one becomes spiritually detached is quite simple. However, the act of becoming spiritually detached is quite difficult. The answer to how one becomes detached is that one must deny one’s own will in favor of the will of God.
The first obstacle in denying one’s will is that it is, after a fashion, unnatural. The natural inclination to put one’s own desires and needs first must be overcome. The process by which this occurs and spiritual detachment is achieved are the three pillars of Lent; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Prayer grounds the spiritual life and places one in the presence of God. Since nothing can be done apart from God, prayer should occur multiple times throughout the day.
Fasting detaches one from worldly desires, which are the cause of much sin. In a sense, fasting is how one becomes free from sinful desires. It is generally recommended that fasting occur one day a week and involves eating only one meal.
The purpose of almsgiving is to take the focus off of oneself and onto the love of neighbor (by which we love God). Almsgiving can take several forms, including giving money, services, or just one’s time to serve someone who is suffering. While almsgiving is closely associated with Lent, it can and should take place as frequently as one is able.
The most fundamental basis of spiritual life requires recognizing that we are creatures and that God is our Creator. The purpose of detachment is to order human beings to God. When we adhere to worldly things, we become worldly. When we adhere to God, we participate in God’s Divine nature (See 2 Peter 1:4). Only in this manner may we enter through the narrow gate and into eternal life.