I have always hated the word “Detachment” and suspected that this virtue is misunderstood in Catholic circles, even though Catholic Exchange has a very solid article on it by Fr. Bob Camuso, a tremendously insightful article by Roman Guardini, and a view on Detachment as seen through the novels of C.S. Lewis by Jessica Archuleta.
Still, there always seemed to me something inhuman about “Detachment”, especially since some of the more austere saints have insisted that it includes a kind of stoic distancing even from family and friends and people that we love. And even if these saints are right, so much of Devout Catholic emphasis these days is on rejecting the more natural side of love, the love of desire which seeks attachment (Eros), in favor of the more unnatural side of love, the love of self-denial and abnegation for the sake of the beloved (Agape), that this emphasis sometimes plays havoc with the common sense and spiritual development of these same Devout Catholics. And yet not only are both aspects of love part of a unified whole, love is not fully love without both Eros and Agape, according to Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Love that is merely detached can become clinical and objectifying; love that is merely attached can become clinging and possessive.
So what does this do to “Spiritual Detachment”? Everything, I think. For if we see Spiritual Detachment from the point of view of love, it begins to make sense.
For one thing, Detachment is not emotional coldness. Detachment, like love, is primarily an act of the will, and it is not sacrifice for its own sake, but for something greater. Detachment seeks a greater Attachment, one that is proper and holy. In ordering our loves toward God, we must Detach from lesser things so that we may Attach to Him. And this is an act of the will, not a question of mere emotions or feelings, though of course our emotions are part of the mix.
In fact, I would suggest that “Spiritual Detachment” is nothing other than loving from the proper perspective, putting First Love First. “First Love First” is a phrase my friend Jordan Blake Price coined to indicate that the things we love are inherently prioritized by nature and should be prioritized by us in our love of them. In other words, Attachment to a greater thing involves Detachment from a lesser. For example, Attachment to your spouse demands Detachment from all rivals. Indeed, lust is pleasure without the cross—Attachment without paying the price of Detachment. Every action demands the renunciation of all other possible actions. All that we do partakes of sacrifice, but it is a sacrifice we are often unwilling to make. We’d rather have our cake and eat it, too – but Detachment pulls back from the dessert buffet in Attaching to foods that are more substantial and lasting.
The most egregious example of failing to love with a proper perspective, of failing to make the sacrifices required of Christian of love, of failure to put First Love First, is the Sex Abuse Scandal within the Catholic Church. A church that prioritizes fundraising, corporatism, and public relations over the very safety of innocent children is a church that no sane person would trust, for it is a church that appears not to be able to make even the simplest and most obvious of sacrifices to serve its most vulnerable members. Attachment to children requires Detachment from those who harm them – removing problem priests and not hushing their crimes up and reshuffling them — a Detachment that some administrators, both in the religious and secular worlds, have been unwilling to make.
But there are other examples of loving with the proper perspective that are less extreme than how some of the bishops failed to address the Abuse Crisis. Take, for instance, a situation a friend of mine is in. Her Catholic employer is making a glaring and obvious mistake in his own personal life that has rather serious ramifications for his own salvation and that of others. He’s middle aged, she’s a teenager. The mistake he is making is well within his authority to make. She has prudently and tactfully drawn his attention to it, and he makes excuses and goes his way, ignoring what she says. She is wondering if she should somehow try to do more. But respecting an elder, honoring an employer, and keeping distant from the exercise of authority that is not yours to make (in other words, “minding your own business”), though difficult, is loving with the proper perspective, and is practicing what can only be called “Detachment”, even if it results in something we’d rather not experience.
Indeed, God Himself shows us how to love with Detachment, how to love in perspective, placing First Love First. God loves us so much and desires our salvation so thoroughly that He refuses to intrude upon our free will, refuses to force us to love Him back. It must be painful for Him to watch us literally and figuratively “go to hell”, but His love is strong enough to “Detach” from loving His creatures beyond the proper bounds, to “Detach” from loving in a way that would undo the nature of love and intrude into our freedom, without which we cannot ourselves properly love and find the eternal blessedness that we seek.
And, again, we can see that “Detachment” is loving with a proper perspective, placing First Love First, if we look at the opposite of “Detachment”, which is the refusal to discriminate, the failure to place things in their proper perspective, and which becomes, in effect, a kind of Spiritual ADD, hopping from one shiny and distracting thing of lesser importance to another shiny and distracting thing of lesser importance, not paying the price of staying focused on the things that really matter, not placing First Love First, not being sufficiently “Detached”. I’ve known a few good and solid Catholics who simply don’t want to make the small and big sacrifices required to love properly, whether the object of their love is a friend, a creative work, or even a spouse and children.
How easy it is (and we can all understand this) to spend our time focusing on what’s immediately in front of us, whether that’s our First Love or not. Instead of writing the book or the essay or the poem God wants us to write, instead of teaching our children the fundamentals of the Faith, instead of praying as often and as deeply as we’re supposed to, instead of calling the friend we vaguely intend to call, we stay super-busy, or we play another video game, or we watch one more TV show, or we talk too long to our annoying neighbor, who bends our ear way too often with silly and trivial things, but to whom we refuse to say no, for fear of the slight and passing price such Detachment would entail.
At its most mundane level, “Take up your cross and follow me,” means, “Make the petty sacrifices you need to make to keep your life meaningful, to maintain your integrity, your marriage, your career and your friendships—place First Love First, which you can only do by recapitulating in small ways what Father Abraham did in a big way, and which Our Father does in every way, by paying the price to love, the word for which is typically Detachment, aka the Cross.”
For a stoic or a Buddhist, Detachment from the world is simply a pitiful or perverse way to avoid the pain of love and desire. For a Christian— and Christ is all about love and the fulfillment of desire—Detachment from the world is more than that. For a Christian, Detachment is always a means toward a greater and more meaningful Attachment. For a Christian, Detachment from the world is Attachment to the Cross—and the fruit such Attachment bears, which is Redemption.