On Detachment--A Momentary Backtracking

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Whenever you start to mention detachment, there is the severe risk of being misunderstood. More than that, it is a concept that takes living with and studying a long, long time before it clarifies. My present understanding is clouded by the fact that as much as I would like to lay claim to it, I am anything but detached. Nevertheless, to understand detachment it seems necessary to consider the entire corpus of work of Carmelite writers rather than taking bits and pieces out of context. While I cannot claim deep familiarity with all of the writings, I have begun to formulate a sense of what the Saints say to me in their writings and in their lives. That's another aspect of understanding that needs to be weighed together with the writings.

Many seem to think that detachment basically means deprivation. One of the first things I point out to Carmelites who are trying to learn the concept is that Lenten practices might help strengthen us toward detachment, but they resemble detachment only very distantly. For many, the Lenten practice of "giving something up" serves as a useful penance and reminder of the sacrifice made for us. However, if most are like me, a great deal of thought is lavished on what is given up. That is, we feel the occasional craving for chocolate, or cigarettes, or whatever it is that we have given up. We resist giving in, but have the promise that in another couple of weeks we can be back to normal.

While giving things up is training and strengthening the will in what detachment is about, it isn't detachment. And it has occurred to me that detachment is never an end in itself and it is a goal that is achieved by means other than seeking it. The Carmelite saints do say that you must become detached, but they never really give any clear step by step directions for going about this. The closest they come are a few aphorisms about choosing the least appealing thing, etc. In truth, as I study more, it seems that detachment grows in proportion to our devotion to God. That is that we are given the strength and the will not to be held bound by material things as we come to love God more deeply.

I shared this analogy with a correspondent:

Sometimes there is a misunderstanding about detachment that hinges on the popular use of the word. People think of it as indifference or disinterest because that is what it popularly means. But detachment isn't like that. To give you an example from the Bible of what the opposite of detachment looks like: When Jesus was transfigured Peter immediately takes in the experience and wants to create a concrete memorial to it for all time--"We'll build three tabernacles, one for you, one for Elijah, one for Moses." Jesus, of course, refuses and points out that Peter misses the point of the entire experience. In the same case what detachment would look like is Peter saying, (as he sort of does elsewhere), "Praise God and His holy name that I have been so privileged to see such a thing." There is celebration, but there isn't the need to keep everything right at your side. Detachment is knowing when to use something and when to let it go. It isn't the rejection of reality, but rather the proper love of reality.

A lot of people think that in detachment you must reject physical reality. A misreading of St. John of the Cross leads to this conclusion. And yet if you read his poetry and even the prose, all around you can see beautiful signs of his engagement with the every day.

Let me share another example that might speak of my present understanding of detachment. Say that a person woke one morning and looked out on their front lawn and saw there striding across the lawn a Sand Hill Crane family. The heart of the attached person would say, "This is beautiful, really beautiful. I need to build a cage so that I can have the cranes with me always."

The heart of the detached person would say, "Oh, Thank you Jesus for this beauty. Thank you God for all that you have given me in this." And they would watch the cranes as they strutted their majestic way across the field and to wherever they were going.

The detached person does not need to hold on to the cranes to love them and to love Him who sent them. He or she accepts the gift for the momentary grace that it is and rejoices in it. Perhaps the joy is greater because there is no need to preserve it. No photograph needs to be taken of it, etc.

Think of it this way--often when we go on a trip with our families we take our cameras and our video cameras. I have watched groups wandering through Disneyworld with Dad's eye permanently affixed to the viewfinder, to preserve forever this experience. But think how much is lost when everything has to be preserved. Yes, you go on the rides, but if you're busy filming them, do you ever really experience them? This is what attachment is like. We go through the world trying to preserve every holy feeling, every sensation of grandeur, every sign of God, photographing each instant, and thus standing outside of it.

Now consider the child who visits Disney World. Unless they are old enough to have been unduly influenced by their parents, they engage the world directly. They run from one thing to the next. They say hello to Goofy and then are off to the flying carpets. They climb the tree house and then want to go on the Jungle ride. Every moment is alive--all sensation all drive is for the present moment the experience that is right now. There is no need to preserve it forever, it will be emblazoned in that child's brain. The child analogically represents detachment. This may be part of the reason that Jesus extols these little ones and tells us that we must become like them to enter the kingdom.

I hope this extended reflection has helped to cast some light on what detachment is. I'm not claiming this is the final word--nor can I claim that this is the true and ultimate understanding of St. John of the Cross or the great Carmelite writers. It is how I understand what they say at this moment in my journey. God grant that my understanding increase, but more, that my practice of it increase beyond measure. I pray that God take away my need for the camera and allow me to experience each moment for itself, relishing Him always in His present graces.

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Suppose I'm, oh, I don't know, climbing a mountain. I've got a backpack on, and as I go along I pick up pretty rocks I find and put them in my backpack. As it happens, the only way I can get to the top of the mountain is if I empty my backpack, although I don't know this when I start the climb.

Now, consider these four situations:

1. I stop, take a rock out of my backpack, and drop it on the ground.
2. I see a pretty rock on the ground, but decide not to pick it up and put it in my backpack.
3. I see a pretty rock on the ground, but it never occurs to me to put it in my pack. I use it as a foot- or handhold, and keep climbing.
4. I am climbing with an emptied backpack.

Is this a fair analogy of detachment, with the first two situations representing individual acts of detachment, the third the habit of detachment, and the fourth its perfection?

Very nice post. It is a great help.

I liked this, Steven.

My priest and I have had some talks about detachment--what it is and isn't. For, I fear, I am one of the "attachingest" people around.

At its root, detachment is simply putting things in their right order and place. Not pretending that they are not lovely, nice, wonderful, helpful, funny or whatever. But enjoying them without owning them. And taking things as they come, without a lot of struggle and rage.


I love the metaphor. It seems to work well.

Mama T,




Taking Tom's allegory in yet another direction, might it be supposed that a great saint is one who also carries his backpack up the mountain, but perhaps his is not empty? Rather his is full - of flawless and priceless gems: pearls, diamonds and rubies, which are graces received from God, especially in Holy Communion, and well corresponded to by the bearer? And might it not be that the saint would not dream of placing among his jewels a rock picked up from the earth - attractive though it may appear as it lies at his feet, for such a rock would only grind itself to bits among the hardness of the sparkling gems he carries and thus depositing its dust on them, would only diminsish their beauty?



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 7, 2005 8:33 AM.

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