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Attachment and Detachment

Last time I posed a vital question for a genuine renewal of the Catholic priesthood:

What does it look like for us who are celibate priests to become truly secure in our relationships?

Before discussing “secure attachment” in this Catholic context, we need to be aware of a lurking conflict. There is a long spiritual tradition – especially for priests or consecrated religious – lavishing praise upon “detachment” and warning against getting attached.

During the last three to four centuries, many religious communities and seminaries admonished their young candidates against the dangers of “particular friendships.” Don’t get attached to people or places or things. Be indifferent. Be detached. Be free.

Needless to say, that approach didn’t work.

Likewise, it was not hard to find spiritual writings during those same centuries, urging an annihilation of self as one becomes absorbed in God and utterly other-focused. After all, doesn’t Jesus command us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him?

Errors that are almost true tend to be the most seductive. The very nature of heresy is to pick out parts of the truth and ignore the larger whole. The result is always a distortion of who God is and who we are as humans. The damage is always at the expense of healthy relationships with God and self and others.

In this case, we’re talking about the heresy of Jansenism and other parallel currents in the modern Catholic West. Jansenism took an especially dark interpretation of the teachings of Augustine of Hippo on original sin. It left a legacy of fear and insecurity: scrupulosity over mortal sin, mistrust of human desire, shame around human sexuality, and an all-around tendency towards self-contempt.

Yes, there is a twenty-century-long Tradition of spiritual detachment. It shows up repeatedly in the New Testament, and in every great mystic. But that Tradition of “detachment” always presupposes the more foundational truth of communion (koinonia). Any detachment the Lord invites us to is always for the sake of secure attachment in rightly ordered relationships. Authentic detachment allows us to claim fully and flourish in our identity as beloved sons and daughters of God.

If you want to get a feel for the invitation into communion, prayerfully read Jesus’ priestly prayer in John 17. Let his words soak in. Feel his intense desire on our behalf. Feel the connectedness and the sweet intimacy – with the Father and with each of us who are invited to share in this intense intimacy and love. John summarizes the same truth of koinonia at the beginning of his first letter:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us – that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have koinonia with us; and indeed our koinonia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that your joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

We were originally created for koinonia, and the New Covenant invites us into an even richer koinonia. Desire (so rooted in our bodies and our sexuality) is not the enemy but the very means by which God “moves” us with his grace! He never coerces or forces. He allures and attracts. All the great mystics in our twenty-century Tradition were inflamed with desire.

Isn’t desire also what gets in the way? Yes and no. Yes, we are at war with a spiritual enemy. Each of us has been wounded – by our first parents, by our immediate parents, by others, and by ourselves. Amidst that harm, through the malice and lies of the evil one, our desires are disordered. And that is where authentic “detachment” becomes important – for the sake of truly secure attachment.

At first glance, speaking of “disordered desire” seems shaming. But it’s quite affirming and freeing when you look at the fuller truth. First of all, a disordered desire is still (at its core) a very good desire – because the devil cannot create. He pretends to be creative and to offer us something new and better – but all he really does is take the amazing “very good” things God has created in us and twist them in order to mock and ruin and torment. Once we are in his web, he seduces us to turn against our own desire and see it as bad. He will gladly use whatever tool suits him (e.g., sexual temptation, food, success, human praise, etc.). But he hates our desire and delight. His endgame is to ruin our capacity for relationships and joy, not to offer us pleasure.

Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) is perhaps the best-known spiritual spokesman of “detachment” or “indifference.” The context is critically important! It is best to look directly at the “Principle and Foundation” meditation that retreatants begin pondering right away as they go through his Spiritual Exercises:

“Man is created to praise, glorify, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in pursuing the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him from his end. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we do not seek health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so forth; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us toward the end for which we are created.”

Notice the fuller context here. Indifference does not at all mean not caring or not desiring. Detachment does not mean isolating ourselves from healthy relationships. Rather, it’s all ordered towards full human flourishing – glorifying God and remaining in our relationship with him as he always intended.

Ignatius does not here state, but most certainly presumes another dimension: healthy communion with each other in the Church. He was not advocating a merely individualistic human flourishing, but a way of discipleship that allowed each person individually and all collectively to flourish, always in a way that brought greater glory to God. Just watch The Mission (1986) if you want an imaginary but genuinely historical glimpse into that vision of human flourishing lived out concretely among the early Jesuits in the mission field.

Do human beings sometimes get attached to people or places or things in a way that impedes the much more robust koinonia that God desires and intends? Absolutely. There are ways of clinging to others and calling it “love” – when in fact it is using or consuming the other person as an object. There are substitute versions of communion that allow us to avoid intimacy (and the risk of rejection) but leave us isolated and lifeless.

Some of our Catholic spiritual traditions confront those counterfeit versions of communion with an invitation to “detachment” or “indifference.” Contemporary psychology identifies insecure approaches to relationships and invites us into “secure attachment.” Both are seeking to remedy the same human woundedness. Both are inviting us into healthy and flourishing relationships.

Next time, we can look more specifically at what “secure attachment” is, and what it looks like for celibate priests.

To be continued…

Categories: Affective Maturity Attachment Theory Chastity Developmental Trauma Neuroscience and Trauma Research

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Fr. Derek Sakowski

1 reply

  1. Okay, you have me on the edge of my seat…I have spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the conflicting instructions I received growing up in the Church (b. 1955) with what the Scriptures have spoken to me as a preacher and proclaimer of the Word. You are tapping into some of the wonderful lessons I began to learn on my Ignatian 30-day retreat. I am anxious for the final installment. Thank you.

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