Thursday, February 5, 2009

THE DETACHMENT OF A CHRISTIAN

“Detachment” is one of the more important virtues in our struggle for sanctification—not, perhaps, by itself, but because its opposite, “attachment”, lies at the very essence of sin. “Sin”, following a definition given by St. Augustine, is a “turning away from God”, aversio a Deo, and “turning towards creatures”, conversio ad creaturas (Belmonte, ed., Faith Seeking Understanding, Vol. 2, p. 67). Sin is our inordinate attachment towards creatures.

In terms of its ultimate causes, the “form” or “formal cause” of “sin” (what gives “sin” its “act of being” as such) is one’s “turning away from God”; while the “matter” or “material cause” (what gives it the potency or capacity to become what it is) is his “turning towards creatures”. Thus, the “essence” or “mode of being” of sin (always, the combination of “form” and “matter”) is our “turning away from God” and “turning towards creatures”. This also explains why “the end never justifies the means”: an act that is “intrinsically evil”, i.e., “incapable of being ordered to God” (cf. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, No. 80), would already, in itself, involve a turning away from God, the ultimate and highest good; hence, could not be justified by any intermediate intended good. On the other hand, every turning away from God involves placing a creature—the self, the world, or the devil—above the Creator. Every running away from God involves running into something infinitely less, a loss, an unworthy enslavement for man.

Even from a human perspective, detachment is a virtue that makes a person attractive. The manly traits listed in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”, can almost all be reduced to detachment: “…If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;/ If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;/ If you can meet with triumph and disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same;/…If you can make one heap of all your winnings/ And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,/ And lose and start again at your beginnings,/ And never breathe a word about your loss;/…If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/ Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;/ If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;/ If all men count with you, but none too much…”

All this is not to say that creatures are not to be loved. All creation—all existence, all being—is good; and therefore, lovable. God created everything, and “God saw that all that he had made was very good” (Gen 1:31); and it is an internal contradiction—a logical absurdity—to think of God, Goodness Himself, as causing “evil” to come into existence. Indeed, evil must be non-being. Metaphysically, “evil” is simply the absence of a good that should be there. Thus, strictly speaking, there is no “evil” in the physical order: animals, plants and things follow the natural course which inexorably bring them to their proper end. Evil entered the universe through the choices of creatures endowed with “freedom”, the angels and man. Because we are free, we could turn away from our proper end, and trigger a chain of causation (more disorder). Of course, God created us free not so we could turn away from our end, but so that we could “direct ourselves” (freely) towards Him.

Because “sin” is materially-caused by our inordinate attachment towards creatures, we need to be detached from these (including ourselves)—loving them (in the proper order: some more than others), but also ready and willing to discard or let go of them when these become obstacles to reaching our union with God. We need to love the “world”—the term embraces all authentic natural, human and material reality—yes, even “passionately”, as St. Josemaria would put it, but with a supernatural outlook. Detachment means, for the ordinary Christian, being very much “in” the world but not “of” the world (Jn 17:14-18).

The very first beatitude—“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:2)—demands detachment from material possessions. This does not necessarily mean having to do without things, but to treat them properly, as intermediate goods that are of relative value; secondary or, better, contributory, to attaining our ultimate good.

The same principle applies to other “goods”: power, fame, our job, and also our fellowmen. That is why “charity” should be understood as “loving God above all (his creatures) for his own sake, and loving our neighbor as ourself for the love of God”. We cannot “idolize” people, or even put too much importance to what they want, think or say. That is the defect of “human respect”, doing things to please men rather than God (cf. Acts 5:29).

The human heart was meant to love, but the proper end of that love is God alone. If we do not commit ourselves to loving God above all things, we will wind up enslaved by false, disordered attachments to all sorts of lesser things.

Beyond mere stoicism or a “self-emptying” mindlessnes, Christian detachment means placing our natural attraction to creatures at the service of a supernatural desire for God. Commonsensically, this means avoiding whatever may lead us away from God; and, conversely, drawing closer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to persons and things that lead us to God.

O.C.P.A.J.P.M.

5 comments:

Butch said...

Beautifully expressed, Dennis. This is one of the most incisive meditations on detachment I have ever come across, whether it be based on Catholic dcotrine or some other faith. I have saved it for my future reference. Heartfelt thanks!

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