Understanding Detachment

Detachment has been a central theme in Christianity from the start. Recall the story of the rich young man, found in all three Synoptic Gospels. He asks Jesus what he must do in order to be better. Jesus answers, “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. . .and come, follow me.” The young man goes away sad because, the evangelist tells us, “he had great possessions.” (Mt 19. 21-22) He wasn’t detached – he needed to practice detachment about something big, and couldn’t bring himself to do it.

Not just for rich young men, but for all of us who would like to imitate Christ and live by his teaching, detachment is of crucial importance. But what is it? And why is it so important not just for people who have “great possessions,” but also for those whose possessions are quite modest? Let me offer a definition that may lead to an answer.

The definition is mine and carries no authority. Accept or ignore it:

To be detached, to practice detachment, is to establish and maintain
a relation to everything and everybody in one’s life according to
which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in
our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of
other people.

A mouthful, I admit. What follows may help explain what it means.

By the late Middle Ages, the best thinking on detachment took the form of what is usually called contemptus mundi – contempt for the world. You find this in a pure form in The Imitation of Christ, a spiritual classic (1419) usually attributed to Thomas à Kempis, although others may have had a hand in it. It preaches the message of contemptus mundi throughout, starting with Book One, Chapter One:

   This is the highest wisdom: to despise the world and to aspire to the
kingdom of Heaven.
   It is vanity, therefore, to seek riches which must perish, and to trust
in them.
   It is vanity also to be ambitious of honors, and to raise oneself up to
a high station.
   It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to desire that for
which you must afterward be grievously punished.
   It is vanity to wish for a long life, and to take little care of
leading a good life.
   It is vanity also to attend only to this present life, and not to
look forward to those things which are to come.

And so on.

The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
The Rich Young Man Went Away Sorrowful by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

The message of the Imitation is perennial wisdom that has been crucial to the spiritual lives of countless good people for six centuries, and remains so now. Still, there’s no denying that its view of life in the world is in contrast, not to say conflict, with the view expressed in “Passionately Loving the World,” a famous homily by St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei:

God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, material and secular activities of human life. He waits for us every day, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.

There is an obvious tension between that and contemptus mundi. So what are Christians who want to practice detachment supposed to do: regard the world with contempt or love it passionately?

            The tension is resolved, I believe, in a little-noted but extremely important text of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes (“The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World”). Theologians don’t seem to have known what to make of it. But in my judgment, it could make a huge difference in the way Christians view life in the world.

The Council is discussing the meaning of human activity in the perspective of faith. Recalling the scriptural teaching that “the form of this world, distorted by sin, is passing away and. . .God is preparing a new dwelling and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” And continues that, rather than “diminishing our concern to develop this earth,” that expectation of a final fulfillment to come, but already begun should “spur us on,” inasmuch as it is here and now that the yet to come makes its first, tentative appearance:

When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our Enterprise – human dignity, brotherly communion, and freedom. . .we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the state of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom. . . .Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes, it will enter into its perfection. (GS 39)

Clearly, this means at least that the human goods for which we labor now and which we sometimes realize, though imperfectly, will not disappear in the next life. There is a real continuity. The human goods will be present in heaven, too, in a perfected and fulfilled form. And although this passage doesn’t say so, I suspect the model for what the Council Fathers had in mind is the resurrected humanity of Christ.

Here, then, is the starting point and foundation for a true detachment that cherishes and works to realize human goods, and uses them in serving God and one another, without attaching to them, in their imperfect form, the permanent value they will only have in their perfected form in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Passionately loving the world, means we can bear to let go of it thanks to the promise of resurrection and eternal life, confident that we will find in heaven the best of what we have labored to realize on earth. That is the heart of detachment.

Russell Shaw is a former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently (with David Byers) Revitalizing Catholicism in America: Nine Tasks for Every Catholic.