Years ago, “good young Catholics” were often discouraged from expressing what they liked and what they didn’t like. “This is so you can grow in detachment,” the young person was told.
Detachment was considered hugely important because it helps someone put aside their own will, likings, preferences, abilities, etc., so that they can wholeheartedly embrace God’s will. But for some people, never expressing one’s preferences seemed to dull the world and crush healthy individual autonomy.
Nowadays, many spiritual directors talk about how to live in a spirit of detachment differently. The gifts of each individual—sometimes expressed in personal preferences—are greatly respected in the spiritual life. Personal preferences are not only expressed but encouraged (although always in moderation). However, detachment is still important to nurture because it helps us embrace God’s will.
What do we seek to detach ourselves from? Anything that distracts us from God, or that could prevent me from embracing God’s will. It could be material objects (like a favorite blanket), certain food or habit of eating, our way of doing something, a talent, or habits. These things or preferences can be good in themselves, but when we grow too attached to them or give them too much importance, they can start to interfere with our freedom. Sometimes we don’t even recognize when we’ve become attached to something, so giving up something that we prefer can be good practice to keep us attentive to the movements of our hearts.
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In my own life, I find that giving up a personal preference—especially for the sake of another person—is a very helpful spiritual practice that helps me remember what is truly important. I’ve also found that detachment is more fruitful when it’s a choice made intentionally by the individual each time, rather than a rule imposed on everyone. In my community, detachment is often practiced by accepting what we receive and by avoiding complaining, trusting that our situation is an expression of God’s will for us.
In my own spiritual journey, when I’ve neglected to cultivate detachment, I’ve noticed that my priorities tend to get a bit muddled, and I can start to cling to things that aren’t even very important to me. I become more taken up by daily concerns, rather than about living my relationship with God and bringing about God’s Kingdom.
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Is detachment truly a Christian virtue? It’s not specifically mentioned in any of the beatitudes, it’s not a theological or cardinal virtue, nor is it listed as a gift or fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, that is a trick question. “Detachment” is specifically alluded to in several of the lists of virtues mentioned above. First of all, the beatitudes—especially poverty of spirit—require detachment from the things of this world. Temperance, as one of the four cardinal virtues, warns against our becoming too attached to or abusing this world’s goods by using them immoderately or to the point of harm. Self-control, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, also presupposes a certain detachment from whatever excesses we might be tempted to.
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For me, the easiest way to understand detachment is in light of the foundational call that we have all received in our Baptism to die to self and to rise with the Lord. Dying to ourselves is in truth detaching ourselves from our own thoughts, opinions, prejudices, ways of doing things, and from seeing or using created goods in a way that doesn’t bring about God’s glory. Dying to ourselves means dying to anything that could prevent us from fully living in Christ.
Detachment doesn’t mean totally disconnecting ourselves from all material goods or all the things of the world. (Which is mostly impossible anyway.) We can and should marvel at the wonder, joy, and beauty of God’s creation. But detachment means that we do this by giving everything its rightful place—not making something more important than someone, not making any person more important than God, and not allowing any of our desires to become more important to us than the desire to live God’s will.
Detachment frees and empties us from sinful and unhealthy attachments, so that our minds, hearts, and wills are free to cling to God, to discover God’s will, and to wholeheartedly embrace it.