Detachment and Engagement

Christians sometimes think of detachment as a Buddhist virtue, failing to realize how deeply Christian both the concept and practice are. Jesus’ whole earthly life was one of detachment. It was his non-attachment to his human ambitions and normal ego needs that allowed him to offer his total consent to the will of the One he called Father. And it was this same non-attachment that allowed him to fully expend himself in self-emptying love.

Jesus also taught non-attachment.  Think, for example, of his teaching about the impossibility of loving both God and money (Matt 6:24), his warning of the danger of attachment to material possessions (Matt 19: 16-30) or even one’s family (Matt 10:37). If someone didn’t know better, Jesus could easily be confused with a Hindu sannyasi or a Buddhist monk!

Detachment (or non-attachment) is a demanding spiritual practice.  But it lies right at the core Christian spirituality.  It is for all who seek to follow Jesus and who seek to make the heart and mind of Christ their own.  It is how we make space for God’s transformational work within us and is central, therefore, to the Christian wisdom path.

Detachment involves loosening our grasp on the physical, psychological and spiritual things that reinforce our fundamental orientation toward possessiveness. These things might be good in themselves but when we allow them to become precious to us they deprive us of freedom and rob us of the ability to know our essential lightness of being. This is because they fill us up and keep us from the state of emptiness that is so essential if we are to be truly open to God.

In more concrete terms, detachment involves:

  • Releasing our quest for power and control; safety and security; even love and esteem
  • Refusing to be defined by feelings, thoughts, beliefs or the things we can see, accomplish or possess
  • Refusing to allow our life circumstances to determine the fundamental state of our mind and heart
  • Releasing anything less than love as having the authority to define who we are

Ultimately the answer to the question of what we need to detach from is everything – even our images of and thoughts about God, and even God. Paradoxically, only when we stop clinging to God can we know that God is clinging to us. Only when we detach from the God we sometimes are tempted to think we possess can we know the God who possess us.

Meister Eckhart argues that detachment is the fundamental Christian virtue – more foundational even than love because without detachment, love remains self serving and only the poorest imitation of the genuine thing. He defines detachment as standing immovable against whatever may come, whether it is joy or sorrow, honor or shame, health or illness, pleasure or pain – as immovable as a mountain of lead stands before a little breath of wind. If we are honest we have to admit that to most of us, this sounds deeply unattractive – even unnatural. But that is because we have believed the lie that our deepest fulfillment comes from comfort and pleasure and that pain, suffering, shame and illness rob of us this ultimate good. However, once we begin to realize that God alone is our deepest fulfillment and that God is as present to us in joy as in sorrow, in honour as in shame, and in health as in sickness, detachment is simply letting go of an illusion. It is freedom from our knee-jerk pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of suffering. It is acceptance of whatever life brings to us as the blessed context for our encounter with our God.

Detachment is not indifference or a wilful, teeth-clenching refusal to enjoy what is good and beautiful. It is primarily an action of the heart. The purpose of detachment as a Christian practice is to make interior space for God. It is simply a way of opening ourselves to the inflow of grace.

But detachment is simply a means to an end and it is very important that we not lose sight of that end. The ultimate purpose of detachment is to prepare for authentic engagement. We detach so our attachments can be re-ordered and re-aligned. Then, cooperating with the inflow of Grace to our deepest self, we can allow love to pass through us to touch and heal others and the world.

Detachment makes it possible for us to passionately and creatively engage with God’s transformational work in the world. Far from passivity, detachment prepares us for true action as opposed to simple reaction. It prepares us for full participation in God’s cosmic plan of making all things new and whole in and through Christ.

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