What is detachment in the Catholic spiritual life?

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 attachment

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, 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?


About Connie Rossini

Connie Rossini gives whole families practical help to grow in holiness. She is the author of Trusting God with St. Therese and the free ebook Five Lessons from the Carmelite Saints That Will Change Your Life. She writes a spirituality column for The Catholic Voice of the Diocese of Omaha, Nebraska, and blogs at Contemplative Homeschool. She is also a columnist for SpiritualDirection.com. Connie and her husband Dan have four young sons.
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17 Responses to What is detachment in the Catholic spiritual life?

  1. SaintlySages says:

    Chocolate is good, but your posts are better. Have a great weekend. God bless you and yours!

  2. Anabelle says:

    This is such a helpful reflection to a faith issue I’m facing today. Thank you, Connie.

  3. 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!

    • 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.

  4. Vicki says:

    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.

    • 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.

  5. Irenaeus says:

    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

    • 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 says:

        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.

      • 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 says:

        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?

      • 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.

  6. Joseph says:

    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 !

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