Detachment is a Virtue for All, Not Just Carmelites

Perhaps you have heard this old business saying: “It’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission.” Indeed, my admittedly brief time in the field of big business indicates that asking permission has about a 50 percent success rate, at best.

So, without your permission, I will roll the dice and talk about something that might not get anyone excited: my New Year’s resolutions.

Um, will you please forgive me?

I usually hate the subject as well. Until last year, I steadfastly avoided even pondering such ideas, mainly because I doubted my ability to stick to such hopeful plans much longer than a few weeks. But in December 2014, I needed to take some desperate measures or my life would spiral out of control.

Not that, a year hence, my life is under control. A little more than a year ago, I was in the throes of a major depressive episode; until recently, I wasn’t much better after a crazy ride in 2015. Yet I set about organizing in great detail my activities and goals on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. I won’t bore you with the particulars; I will assure you that I never would have managed to get through the year somewhat comfortably if not for planning my daily work. I will continue my well-designed-yet-flexible procedure in 2016 with an added focus. My attempt at a New Year’s resolution a year ago proved successful enough that I’ve decided to make a second run, this time with a resolution that will have both practical and spiritual benefits.

  • The practical: Reduce the clutter in my life. If you could get a peek into the bedrooms of my house, not to mention the garage, the basement and the outdoor shed, you would immediately understand the powerful need.
  • The spiritual: In looking to eliminate the clutter, I will concentrate on the sacred virtue of detachment.

Since the spring, when I officially entered formation with the Secular Carmelites, I understood “detachment” as a necessity of Carmelite spirituality. The subject didn’t come up for the first few months, but I was impatient with anticipation. I can’t say I was intimidated; I can say I had apprehensions. My group moved a few months ago into studying “The Way of Perfection,” written by St. Teresa of Avila primarily for the nuns in her 16th-century Spanish convent, and ran into the topic of detachment in the eighth chapter. I have re-read her words several times. I have prayed about them. I have meditated on the significance and impact of detachment in my life – secular as well as spiritual.

I can’t say I have clarity.

Chapter Eight begins: “Let us now come to the detachment which we must practice, for if this is carried out perfectly it includes everything else.”

Upon reading that, I immediately felt overcome by self-doubt, inadequacy and futility. Thinking about engaging in the “practice” of detachment implied to me that it is something we can achieve by our personal skills and abilities. The concept thus seemed a human talent – one that I immediately knew I didn’t have.

To my mind, detachment is the solution to the problems posed in Matthew 19, in which Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. That teaching analogy came after Jesus had told a rich young man that if he wanted to have eternal life, the young man should sell everything and follow him – in other words, attain a higher perfection and detach himself from the things of the world. The apostles witnessed the exchange between the Lord and the man – who seemed to have genuinely good intentions – and questioned who possibly could enter heaven under such heavy demands. Jesus assured them: “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Considering detachment with that thought to encourage me should help. But it doesn’t. I wouldn’t say I am wealthy by American standards; I possess more earthly wealth than much of the world’s population, though, and I am rich from almost every perspective. I was raised by loving parents who were married for almost 55 years before my mom passed last spring. I have good relationships with my two sisters. I have a wife who loves me, our marriage still strong after nearly 31 years. I have four healthy children and two fine sons-in-law, all of whom have jobs and are good people. I have two terrific, healthy grandsons. Since I was 15 years old, I never have gone without a job. I have many good memories in life and hope for more good times to come.

My home is filled with material things of luxury such as a big-screen TV, dozens of books on my shelves, thousands of baseball cards to remind myself of a happy youth, bottles of wine for pleasure, a roomy car that runs reliably. … You see, detachment indeed is a challenge for the rich of this world.

Thank goodness St. Teresa offered some hope, both for me and for those who face a similar struggle:

I say (detachment) includes “everything else” because, if we care nothing for created things, but embrace the Creator alone, His Majesty will infuse the virtues into us in such a way that, provided we labor to the best of our abilities day by day, we shall not have to wage war much longer, for the Lord will take our defense in hand against the devils and against the whole world. Do you suppose, daughters, that it is a small benefit to obtain for ourselves this blessing of giving ourselves wholly to Him, and keeping nothing for ourselves?

Deep in my daily meditation and contemplation, there is no greater desire in my soul than to embrace the Creator alone. I’m not going to deny that I care for many of those “created things” I possess. God did create many of them and, in giving them to me, must have wanted to provide some joy and consolation through them. Right?

I met a man last year who lives in the area of St. Louis County that suffered serious damage from the “Good Friday Tornado” that struck a few years ago. No one in his family was home at the time of the storm. When they returned, they found their house devastated. Virtually everything they owned was wiped out. They were grateful to be unhurt and in time had little trouble accepting the twist in their lives. Imagining myself in their situation, I realized there were many things I wouldn’t miss, replaceable things such as furniture and knick-knacks, food stuffs and clothes. But … what about pictures from my wedding and of my children when they were little? What about letters from friends in college, special Christmas ornaments, copies of special newspaper stories I have written?

In Chapter Nine, St. Teresa gives me perhaps my most tangible hope: “Just as we find everything in Him, so for His sake we forget everything.”

It’s not necessarily a case of detaching myself from something or someone. Rather, it’s a matter of attaching my heart and soul to the Lord, which will make me forget everything else. The secret, Teresa wrote, is to withdraw thoughts of the small, trivial things in life and then turn those thoughts toward God.

Granted, some things Teresa (and God) would regard as trivial might not seem so small to me. Detachment certainly doesn’t mean that the love, admiration, and affection should be discarded, but rather held with a loose grasp and released, if need be.

As I move along the formation journey, I try not to look too far down the road. I constantly am finding enough to occupy my prayer and contemplation in the present without having to peek at what lies ahead. I certainly have enough to ponder for now.

I do know the days are coming as a Secular Carmelite when I will have to consider the virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience, then ultimately decide whether I can make lifetime promises regarding each of them. As far as I can tell, mastering a deep level of detachment will be necessary to make such promises. I can’t be chaste if I cling to self-indulgence and lust. I can’t obey the teachings and will of Father, Son and Spirit if I prefer to pursue satisfaction of my own will and desires. I certainly can’t feel impoverished if I cling to what actually seems my most cherished possession: myself.

“We love ourselves very dearly,” St. Teresa said. She advised that renouncing the self-will is “the most important business of all.”

She both amused and enlightened me with an analogy of locking up one’s house. Figuratively, a person can lock the doors at night and thereby keep out the thieves who might want to get in, the thieves analogously representing all those material things and people from whom we are trying to detach ourselves. In doing that, she said, we foolishly forget that the most dangerous thieves already are inside the house: ourselves.

We need to detach from ourselves. How can I ever do that? I fear that I can’t. Thankfully, Teresa offers a bit of advice that mirrors what I have been pursuing for quite a while. Humility and detachment from self go hand in hand, like “inseparable sisters.” So I try to daily pray the Litany of Humility, along the way meditating on what I actually am saying, prayerful lines such as these:

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus. …

From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus. …

From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.

I like being esteemed. I like being loved. I don’t like being despised. I don’t want to be forgotten. And I know that, in and of themselves, those desires aren’t evil, those fears aren’t welcome. If they happen… hold on loosely. Being firmly attached to those desires and fears can keep a camel from passing through a needle’s eye and this rich man from entering eternity and embracing the Creator alone.

Without detachment, St. Teresa wrote, there can be “no freedom of spirit or perfect peace.” In 2016, I will commence the effort to practice that most important business.

(This piece written by Mike first appeared at www.catholicstand.com.)

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Mike & Donna Eisenbath



Offering HOPE for the journey...