On St. John of the


On St. John of the Cross and Detachment

Mr. O'Rama is evidently enjoying the works of one of the great Carmelite thinkers. One of the points St. John brings up over and over again is the question of attachment to things, even to good, wholesome spiritual things. Mr. O'Rama notes it in this passage:

from Dark Night of the Soul St. John of the Cross

Many can never have enough of listening to counsels and learning spiritual precepts, and of possessing and reading many books which treat this matter, and they spend their time on all these things rather than on works of mortification.

And that is the human way--we spend our time swirling about the center of the matter but never progressing toward it. This may be a problem that speaks loudly to those inclined to blog. St. John consistently teaches about detachment--when a bad or even a very good thing impedes our progress toward an important goal (unity with God) that thing must be discarded. Not literally, but one must develop true detachment from it. This work of detachment seems to be two-fold--we must begin it with an act of will that firmly states that we wish to be detached from it, but then, through the work of prayer, we must seek the grace to be truly detached from it. Only the work of grace will do this because seeking to become detached from a thing is rather like tar baby, the more we seek to extricate ourselves, the more enmeshed we find ourselves. To use a timely example, when we seek detachment on our own, we are rather like Bilbo Baggins giving up the one ring. While we may surrender it, our minds turn upon it and in odd ways continue to seek it and it continues to dwell on our minds and within us. We may be detached from the physical object, but we are not detached from the thing itself. That work, that freedom from bondage, was purchased for us by Jesus Christ, and it is only through the grace of God that final detachment comes. However, that doesn't mean we can roll around in our materialist delights and wait for God to one day decide we will be detached from these things. Nor does it mean that we can continue to pursue such things as "spiritual reading" or other ways of hiding from God and wait for Him to peek through. We must take steps, will an end to such attachments, and read only what He would have us read, either for enlightenment or recreation (it's important to remember that even in the Carmelite Foundations of St. Teresa of Avila, recreation was considered an extremely important part of a well-rounded approach to God.)

This is one of the reasons why a good spiritual director is so crucial to our advancement. While we can get some notion of the way to go through prayer, scripture, and discernment, we are also capable of tremendous self-deception. A spiritual director can actually assist us in finding direction, guide our reading, and assist us in organizing a prayer life. This is also the reason why one must be most careful in finding a proper spiritual director--one who is holy, who has experienced deep prayer with the Lord or union itself, and who is courageous enough to actually direct rather than subject one to the Rogerian--"How do YOU feel about that?" "What do YOU think of that?" form of directionless directing.

Detachment is NOT easy, but it IS absolutely necessary. One of the things I have said to my Carmelite group to startle them into the reality of detachment is that we must be detached even from those we love most. Perhaps especially from those we love most. St. John points out that this is the only way love can increase. There are two points I would like to make regarding this--one the continuation of what I point out to my group, the other an example from C. S. Lewis.

I usually continue to say that detachment is not indifference--it is, in fact the opposite. Detachment means that you recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Other (assuming of course that they are of age for appropriate independence) and that by detaching yourself from them, you are floating them in the ocean of God's merciful love, rather than leaving them in the dry-dock of mutual codependence. Often our "love" carries with it a tremendous psychological and physical price. Detachment allows us to love, completely, passionately, entirely, and yet not attempt micromanagement of another's life. It allows us the distance to pray and to bring this person constantly before God, but the intimacy also to be available when that person begins floundering his or her way toward grace.

The second point comes from a moment in C.S. Lewis's magnificent work, The Great Divorce. There we see a mother who loved her son more than anything on Earth. Encountering him in this strange space (likely purgatory) she attempts to bring him once again under her "loving reign." She attempts to get him to understand how much she sacrificed for him, how her whole life was centered about him, etc. As she continues, we see the picture move from loving mother to matriarchal tyrant. That is what we become when our life is centered on anything other than God, and if we are not detached from loved ones, we cannot be attached to God. God is holy and singular, He is simple (see, I do know a bit of Aquinas!) and demands fidelity and simplicity from us. If we intend attachment to God and then spend all of our time fussing about other things, we are not simple or single in mind, we are duplicitous. "You cannot worship God and mammon."

So I use the radical example of loved ones to examine the true necessity for detachment. Now, before I continue, I must say that I'm a better evangelist than practitioner. I KNOW all of this, but it has yet to find its way to a place of action. (Isn't it amazing the way sloth obtrudes its poisonous head into nearly everything?) Knowledge must become action or all is lost. But I do know the path and I do see what is required, which means I've taken one step. Now it's time to start taking the others. And I do pray, and I do make feeble motions of the will. It's one of the reasons why St. Thérèse of Lisieux speaks so loudly to me--if I recognize my infancy in the Lord, I have a better chance of turning toward His grace and allowing it to work.

I've gone on far too long at this point. But St. John of the Cross is much on my mind these days, and perhaps 2003 can become a better year through true application of his teaching rather than following my own way for yet another year. Please pray for me.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 1, 2003 10:06 AM.

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