Some Misconceptions about Detachment


Some Misconceptions about Detachment

If you listen to some wags, who don't understand him, nor have taken the time to understand his writing, you might get the impression of St. John of the Cross as an austere, rigid, cold, distant, unmovable, unlovable man. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some would point to his teaching and claim for it an almost manicheean distaste for physical reality and the Earth around us. Again, untrue. Anyone who knows of his life knows that some of his greatest inspiration came from wandering the fields and hills around Toledo, Campo del Medina, and other places where he spent time. St. John of the Cross was a true love of nature and of God.

"But his teachings--didn't he teach detachment?" Yes, in fact, he did. But people have some strange notions of what detachment entails. Today I encountered a person who said to me that they "prayed not to like something" as a road to detachment. Detachment isn't about liking or loving or not liking, or not loving. We should never pray to be anything other than what we are in God's eyes. And to be the fullness of that should be the main body of our prayer. If God gave us a taste for something, we shouldn't pray that He remove that from us--that is not detachment. That, in fact, may be contrary to God's will. (To say that it is seems to presume that I know fully what God's will is).

Detachment is the willingness to leave behind the truly good things of Earth in our pursuit of the only Really Good Persons. Detachment is not about pretending not to enjoy a glass of wine before dinner--it is about not whining when no wine is available for dinner. Detachment is not thinking that the world is bad and full of evil things; it is about loving all the good things of earth and being ready in a moment to abandon all of them at the behest of God. If you see six Sand Hill Cranes strutting through the field in the back of your home and they fly away, you experience a moment of bliss at the sight and perhaps sorry at the flight. But detachment is letting them go. You know you're attached when you go out and build a pen to keep the six cranes on your property at all time.

Detachment is an essential part of the Carmelite Life. We are called to be detached from all Earthly things, material and immaterial. And it is mostly in the realm of the latter that we have the greatest difficulty. Most of us are very much attached to our image of Jesus Christ and of God the Father. And most of us have highly inaccurate pictures of Jesus and God the Father. Most of us have fashioned Jesus in such a way as He would approve of most of what we do. Some of us have Jesus as "comfy buddy," who keeps us company and comforts our sorrows, but never thinks of challenging us in what we do or think. Some of us have Jesus as radical militant social reformer who commands that we reverse the social order no matter who we have to destroy, displace, or discomfit in any number of ways to do us. Sometimes those radical departures from the image of Jesus are easier to correct than some of the very subtle inaccuracies we have grown attached to. Sometimes our Jesus is almost exactly what Jesus really is, He is just ever so slightly more this, or less that. This attachment we have to "knowing" Jesus may be one of the hardest things to overcome.

Another myth concerning detachment is how you come by it. You don't repudiate the world's goods. You don't attempt to shake off the bonds of the corporeal or physical. You don't pray concerning each little thing to which you find yourself attached. You don't even pray for detachment. No, instead, you focus clearly on Jesus. In lectio, in meditation, and if you've been granted the grace for it, in contemplation, you spent time with Christ, listening to Him, looking at Him in love. Jesus gave us the key to detachment, "Wherever your treasure is, there will your heart be." When Jesus truly becomes our treasure, rather than the "treasure" we pay lip service to; when spending time with Him becomes a priority that outweighs nearly everything else in our lives, detachment is a natural concomitant of that. As we grow in love with the greater, we will naturally desire to leave behind the less, and we will find ourselves in a better place to do so.

Most of you are probably not much concerned with detachment. The main outlines of your spiritual direction don't seem to call for it. But all of the Orders have a primary focus--and detachment and contemplation are the focus of the Carmelites. And as with all such, it is merely the primary emphasis. If one were to look beneath the hood of the saints of any order, detachment would have been one of the qualities of the saint. That is by way of saying that detachment is by no means unique to the Carmelites, it is simply more obvious. So to the main charisms of all the orders. Each has its "defining characteristics," but all great Saints have integrated in greater or lesser degree all of the charisms of the orders. Nevertheless, each saint retains his or her particular personality, so too each order retains its definitive charism and personality.

Detachment is an essential, but it is an odd essential because it cannot be approached directly. As soon as one is pursuing detachment as an end, it has become an attachment of the spiritual kind, one of the kinds of attachment that are most difficult to address and to turn around.

Detachment is a great gift, received in profound prayer and union with Jesus Christ in God. One cannot achieve it by will, nor by the exercise of the virtues--although it may naturally follow from some of these things. One cannot achieve it by making it a goal and trying to achieve it. Detachment is best achieved by, curiously, detachment.

Thanks for listening to me go on and on. I truly love St. John of the Cross, perhaps more than any other Carmelite Saint (save Our Lady Herself). I love his deep warmth, his true humanity, and his vast love of God. He is not an easy saint to follow--on the other hand, I have a feeling that he is interceding for me on a nearly constant basis, and as with the importunate widow and the unjust Judge, God helps me out just to get St. John off of his back. (No, I know heaven doesn't work that way, but sometimes with the blessings I feel, it seems like it just might.)

Bless you all. May all of your prayers be exactly as God wills.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on September 7, 2002 4:25 PM.

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