In a culture that presents detachment as a distant type of apathy or indifference, the word detachment itself procures distaste and disdain for those who are genuinely seeking to deepen their interior lives. Yet detachment can be holy. We hear the word in terms of surrender or abandonment, as in “surrender to God’s will” or “abandonment to Divine Providence,” respectively. How can one discern the difference between worldly and holy detachment?
Secular detachment is derived from a sense of selfishness. The person who withdraws from the world does so out of a motive of fear, anxiety, ambivalence, and anger, among many other egocentric reasons. With the onslaught of social media and the bombardment of selfies or self-aggrandizement in varying forms on the internet, it’s quite common for many of us to become swept away with a sense of emotional and spiritual distance that result in lack of charity toward neighbor and enemy alike. This sort of detachment leads us inward in a self-protective sense, so that we begin (or continue) to build invisible barriers around our hearts that prevent us from risking vulnerability.
Vulnerability, however, is required in order for love to flourish. When we remain in the womb of our comfort zones, we neglect to encounter the beauty of birth. This birth, of course, is a metaphor for every new beginning that occurs when we risk losing ourselves in order to be filled with God’s very presence. Loss, as we know, is not something we desire. In fact, it would seem preferable to remain hidden rather than extend ourselves to those in need – a hurting neighbor, a lonely family member, a struggling friend.
Holy detachment, by its very nature, involves a necessary and often painful emptying of self. Usually, when a soul is on the cusp of being deepened in virtue, God beckons it to detachment. Rather than the selfish detachment that bears fruit of vice, this type of detachment is an opportunity for renewal, for growth, for becoming more by having less in our lives – fewer distractions, less emotional or mental clutter, fewer suffocating or toxic relationships that drain and damage our integrity.
Even healthy relationships can be hindrances to our spiritual growth, not because they exist, but rather in how we view or treat them. When we find ourselves longing for human companionship over God’s companionship; when we desire affirmation and acknowledgment from our comrades; when we hope to be included among our friends at social gatherings or in conversations, we are exhibiting a particular level of insecurity that masquerades as authenticity.
God deserves to be the King of our hearts. When we fill our lives, thoughts, and days with busyness and details – even good ones – we deprive God from what is due Him; that is to say, we deny God by filling our hearts with everything, except Him. Only when we reveal a vacancy, a nothingness, or an empty space can God fill us with Himself. In order for this to occur, a painful pruning and purgation is often necessary, because we don’t relinquish our attachments willingly or easily. Yet, when we do surrender all to God, including our loneliness or desire for admiration among our colleagues, we begin to take the first step toward holy detachment.
While earthly detachment results in trepidation and ultimately a lack of charity, holy detachment always increases our capacity to love. When there is less of self, there is room for expansion of God, who is Love. Therefore, love exponentially multiplies within us when we allow God to draw us nearer to Him by way of detaching from earthly and fleshly desires.
Even good things and people can draw us away from God, and the enemy knows this, which is why we must remain vigilant and cautious of our daily habits and the fruit those habits produce. To begin in advancing toward a true abandonment to God’s providence, we must ask ourselves, “Is this behavior (thought, attitude, habit) resulting in God’s glory or my own?” With the answer, we will discover much by way of what constitutes secular, versus Godly, detachment.
The pining for human companionship, of course, is but a reflection of our true longing for God. Since we cannot touch God in the same way we embrace our loved ones, we mistake the pure desire for God as a need for friendship or some type of emotional, intellectual, or spiritual affinity (or perhaps a combination therein). Lest we be duped, however, we must allow God to do with us as He wishes, even and especially when that means we are annihilated of all that has become familiar and comfortable or comforting to us.
An example of this occurred to me on the Feast of the Assumption in 2014. I attended Mass solo, as Ben and the girls decided on a Mass more fitting for small children. The opportunity to worship alone granted me the cognitive space I needed to clearly identify a particular gnawing at my heart that had been present for several weeks. The way the Holy Spirit operates within me is usually by way of a “holy restlessness,” or a specific stirring in my heart that is akin to a gentle tapping so that God can get my attention.
During Mass, I began to sense that God was asking me to detach from our parish home and all of the many friends we had grown close to over the past six years. As I looked around and saw mostly familiar faces, I became keenly aware that I needed to distance myself from them in order to discover what God was asking of me. This did not, however, mean that I became indifferent toward them. On the contrary, I loved them more, but it was only because I didn’t need them anymore.
When I realized how greatly I relied on my friends to provide conversation, consolation, affirmation, and joy to my life, it was apparent that I possessed an unhealthy, or unholy, attachment to them. I needed them in order to fill the void in my heart that comprised loneliness, rejection, fear, and the wounds of betrayal. Yet, when God revealed to me that I must detach in the sense of loving, rather than using, my friends, I knew it was one step toward the particular level of detachment toward which He was calling me.
Detachment, like most aspects of interior advancement, usually occurs little by little, step by step, day by day. Of course, the essential goal is that we become radically and entirely detached from all that is not God or of God, but, for most of us, this will take a lifetime of ups and downs, progression and regression. The times we forge ahead in making strides toward authentic detachment are due to extraordinary grace, and the moments we become discouraged for the struggles we encounter are opportunities for us to grow in humility by way of humiliation.
All in all, we must realize our dependence on God to do all good things, and instead of needing people or material possessions, we can transform our inordinate desires to those of Heaven. When God becomes all we need, only then will we discover our ability to love Him and those He placed in our lives – freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully.