Detachment in the Spiritual Life

Last night my daughter heard a giant crack in the backyard during a thunderstorm. A few seconds later, the familiar engulfment in darkness ensued.

We lost power for a total of about five hours. We were all together, and though it was a hot day it wasn’t life-threatening sweltering. We had some lanterns and some summer sausage, crackers and cheese, and some carrots. All in all, we were fine, and it was a minor inconvenience.

I still found myself on edge, irritable, hot, and annoyed, mostly because we didn’t know how long before our power would be restored. It’s funny the things you take for granted until they are violently in a swoop, taken away. We couldn’t cook, couldn’t do laundry, couldn’t run even fans, and didn’t want to open the fridge or freezer.

I quickly realized I, like most people, talk a good game. We are confident when the lights are on and our stomach is full. But you really don’t know yourself or your attachments until someone takes them away.

St. Claude de la Colombière said, “If you ever have a fit of sadness or trouble, remember that is because you are still attached to life, or health, or some comfort, or person, or thing that you ought  to forget or despise that you may desire Jesus Christ only.”

If you ever have a fit of sadness or trouble, remember that is because you are still attached to life, or health, or some comfort, or person, or thing that you ought  to forget or despise that you may desire Jesus Christ only.

-St. Claude de la Colombière

That attachment of the heart extends beyond just creature comforts. I find one of my defects is my attachment to people as well. I tend to expect too much of people–friends and those in my community–and find myself often experiencing that sadness St. Claude speaks about when my expectations are met with disappointment. This is a form of attachment as well.

In addition to the advice I received in spiritual direction recently of not being able to advance in the spiritual life without mental prayer, we cannot advance while we are still attached to “creatures,” as Thomas a Kempis notes. Want to know your level of attachment? Have whatever it is you suspect yourself attached to taken away. God will often do this with our health, our family, our finances, and often violently so in a way that hurts, to get our attention.

This is why we mortify the senses and do penance in this life so that we suffer less the pains of hell in purgatory in the next. It’s much easier to do so now than later.

But even then, it’s painful, and we find ways to maintain our attachments. But God is a just Judge, and restitution must be made one way or another. I think we overestimate the severity and frequency of our penances and virtue and underestimate our level of attachment to the things of this world until the object of our desire is no longer there and we realize how much we cling to. Last night was just a minor wake-up call for me–embarrassing, but a good lesson as well.

There is a truthful, somewhat comical saying I heard once that seems to hold true: “If you think you are enlightened, spend a week with your parents.” We often have a noble idea of our spiritual piety in our minds, but moments of crisis reveal the true nature of a man’s character. I find myself guilty as charged.

When the power came back on around midnight, all was right in the world again. If I was a more spiritual man, I may have met that with an indifferent shrug, but instead it was a sense of relief and “now we can get on with things.” But it may not be long until God takes out the big stick for us as a collective and violently rips the blankie off us to reveal our true dependence on the world, rather than Christ. Then we will see ourselves as we really are, with no comfort to turn to. It may very well be the best thing for us in the end. But it won’t come without the pain, proportionate to our attachment in this world.

This post was originally published on Pater Familias and is reprinted here with permission.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

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