Saturday, December 06, 2008

Further reflections on detachment.

As I've promised to do not once but twice, I'd like to share some thoughts on what Jesuits and others schooled in Ignatian spirituality refer to as detachment. A great deal could be said about this topic, so I'm going to to try to keep things brief by focusing on my personal experience of detachment. Though this experience is conditioned by the fact that I'm a Jesuit, I hope that what I write here has some value for others as well.

St. Ignatius gets at the meaning of detachment at the very start of the Spiritual Exercises. In the Principle and Foundation offered at the beginning of the First Week, the person making the Exercises is reminded that material things "are created for human beings, to help them in pursuit of the end for which they [i.e. human beings] are created," namely "to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of doing this to save their souls." Thus, Ignatius counsels us "to use these things to the extent that they help us toward our end, and free ourselves from them to the extent that they hinder us from it." This means that we should seek to cultivate a healthy indifference toward created things, recognizing that their value rests in their ability to bring us closer to God. This indifference is manifested in an attitude of detachment, which is best understood not as a lack of care but as a well-ordered love and careful stewardship of God's gifts to us. As Ignatius writes in the Rules for the Discernment of Spirits accompanying the Exercises, a soul that is experiencing true spiritual consolation "can love no created thing on the face of the earth in itself, but only in the Creator of them all."

Cultivating a genuine sense of detachment in our daily lives can be a positive challenge. In the course of an ordinary day, I seldom treat the objects that I use as gifts from God that are meant to help me live in closer relationship with my Creator. When I go down to the kitchen in the morning for the first of several daily cups of coffee, I rarely take the time to reflect on how this habitual activity points to God. If I often fail to feel a conscious sense of gratitude as I go about my morning routine, I certainly feel some ingratitude when this routine is unexpectedly varied - when, for example, there are no clean coffee cups available or the coffee pot is empty. In a similar vein, I typically don't express gratitude to God when the New York City Subway gets me where I need to go on time, but I do get upset when unexpected delays or disruptions in service cause me to be late. In short, I (like many others) tend to take a lot of things for granted.

Not taking things for granted is an important part of spiritual detachment. As a Jesuit, I've often been reminded that many of the things I have been given are to be used for the good of the apostolate and not as ends in themselves. Even so, internalizing a proper attitude of detachment - and freeing oneself of attachments to particular things - can be difficult. One concrete if mundane struggle I felt as a candidate for the Society had to do with books. I've always enjoyed perusing used bookstores, and it's hard for me to leave such a shop without a new acquisition in hand. If I became a Jesuit, I wondered, would I be able to buy books and keep them for my own use? I felt little comfort when I learned that I could take up to ten books with me to the novitiate - at the time, this quota struck me as unduly restrictive and perhaps even a bit anti-intellectual. Ultimately, my fears were assuaged by a conversation with my Jesuit spiritual director, a seasoned academic and a bit of a bibliophile himself. Pointing to the many tomes lining the walls of his office, my director described his books as "tools" that enabled him to do the work the Society asked of him. I quickly came to realize that the question I should ask myself wasn't whether I could keep my books but how having books would impact my life as a Jesuit. As I would learn, the proper use of the material things that a Jesuit has at his disposal is a matter for careful discernment.

Making the thirty-day Spiritual Exercises as a first-year novice, I grew in detachment in ways that I could not have anticipated at the start of the retreat. My consumption of carbonated beverages bears witness to this growth in a seemingly mundane but undeniably significant sense. Before the Long Retreat, I usually drank several cans of Coke a day - not simply because I liked the taste, but because soda was readily available at the novitiate. Arriving at the Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester, I found that soda wasn't available in the dining room but could be purchased from an ancient vending machine of questionable reliability. Thus, I decided to go without soda for the duration of the Long Retreat. A month later, I was surprised to discover both that I didn't miss my daily intake of Coca-Cola and that I actually felt a lot better without it. I reached this realization with a great sense of gratitude, finding that I had reached a sense of detachment regarding my consumption of soda almost by accident.

The realm of communications presented me with more substantial struggles during the Long Retreat. Having been told by my director that I shouldn't read the daily newspaper during the retreat, I had to make a titanic effort not to let my eyes wander to the fresh copy of the Boston Globe that found its way to the reading table in the house library each morning. Accustomed not only to reading the paper daily but to checking e-mail and using the Internet throughout the day, I had a difficult time settling into the enforced 'radio silence' of the retreat. Since retreatants were allowed to receive limited mail and messages at different points of the retreat, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of any kind of communication from the outside world and treasured the notes and letters that I received. In this sense, I don't think that I fully succeeded in attaining a true sense of detachment regarding communications during the Long Retreat. Even so, dealing with this challenge helped to enlarge my understanding of what Ignatian detachment is.

A final concrete story of my experience with detachment comes from my time in First Studies here at Fordham. Having had a cell phone for several years before I entered the novitiate, not having one was both liberating and frustrating for me. I definitely appreciated the freedom of not having another technological device to worry about, but I also found myself in various situations - particularly while traveling or trying to meet up with people - in which not having a cell phone proved to be a real inconvenience. Though having a cell phone was out of the question in the novitiate, it became possible (albeit with permission from superiors) after I took vows and moved on to studies. During my first year at Fordham, I remained appreciative of the freedom that came with not having a cell phone and regarded the occasional inconveniences that came with this as a positive experience of poverty. Eventually, though, I decided after much thought and prayer that the apostolic and practical benefits of having a cell phone in particular situations outweighed the arguments that I'd made against getting one. After explaining all of this to my superiors, I received permission to purchase a cell phone and to add the monthly service fees to my regular budget. In the process, I also learned a salutary lesson in detachment - I had learned that I could live without a cell phone, and I had also learned that a cell phone isn't a good in itself but a tool to be used responsibly in the larger context of my vocation and ministry as a Jesuit.

Having offered lengthy and perhaps a bit rambling reflections on my own experience, I'd like to reemphasize a point I made at the beginning of this post: detachment should be understood as a well-ordered love and careful stewardship of God's gifts. This means being grateful for what we have, but it also means asking challenging questions about how our use of material things brings us closer to (or drives us further away from) the One who created us in and for love. We should not strive for a kind of indifference that allows us to capriciously cast our possessions away in the false belief that they keep us from being better disciples. On the contrary, we should ask what sort of difference doing with or without something makes for our relationship with God. If we can answer these questions in a prayerful confidence that brings us a sense of peace, I would submit that we have learned something about the true meaning of detachment. AMDG.


At 12/06/2008 10:55 PM, Blogger Michelle said...


Thanks for a lovely and thought-provoking reflection. I'm not a Jesuit (obviously!), but well-schooled by Jesuit spiritual directors current and past; this resonated with my experience of indifference a la Ignatius - and of my own struggles with it.

The letter that recently came in the mail from Gloucester said leave all my books home. No books? For 35-days? I already see opportunities for practicing indifference.

The 'indifferently' performing vending machine at Gloucester has departed - and in its place is a well-stocked 'fridge on the honor system. My learning curve last summer there was all around the lukewarm water with which tea drinkers were expected to make do...or not. I'm STILL grateful for my first morning cup of tea.

I may take a stab at writing something more about this for the blog; I wrote a piece for the archdiocesan paper a couple of weeks ago, quoting Ignatius and the Principle and Foundation, which explored this territory a bit.

At 7/05/2012 8:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very good Father. I like the play off St. Ignatius showing how goods/activities are tools to lead us to the ultimate end. I find so much beauty in the ascetic life and wish more people could have the opportunity to at least try it out, as you did. There is so much attachment to technology especially that a break from it all sounds like a much needed breath of fresh air.


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