Detachment: Self-emptying leads to holiness

The world is constantly bombarding us with stuff. We are told that to be fulfilled we need to buy this new gadget, that fancy car, that big house, get that high-paying job, wear these particular clothes, and any number of other things. There is a profound and dangerous attachment to things of this world, which results in a damaged relationship with God, whom we are called to love above all else.

We are called to reach out and follow God’s will — to reach out and be in alignment with God, according to Kevin Johnson. Johnson is a professor at Sacred Heart University, and he also runs a Catholic nonprofit organization called The Inner Room, which focuses on silent prayer, contemplation and Catholic social teaching.


Our ultimate goal is union with God, the beatific vision, he said. “Attachment is a problem because, for most of us, attachment connects us in a very self-centered and selfish way. Attachment precludes us from reaching out to God, because attachment oftentimes is what we think we should be attached to.”

The problem is that this is very insidious, very subtle: We are attempting to achieve what we think is good. “So if we go with our sinful desires, attachments make us the focus of the universe,” Johnson said. “The Christian path is about self-denial. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. The Christian path is a way of life which asks us to drop all things and follow Christ, to surrender, to turn toward God.”

This is about a training of the will, according to Johnson, which has always been part of the Christian path. If we read St. Augustine, or just about anyone in the Christian tradition, we will encounter the problem of the will, and how to will what God wants of us. Even in seeking to live a holy life, attachment can be a problem, because we start to think that we know what God wants. “This is deeply problematic because then we substitute our beliefs about what God wants and actually can be tricked into substituting our beliefs and desires for God’s,” said Johnson.

Through the sacraments, prayer and the Christian path, we train to learn to let go, and to surrender ourselves to God. “The entire path is a letting go,” he said.

Johnson points to the famous Suscipe prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola as an exemplary prayer of detachment: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou has given all to me. To Thee, O Lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.”

Wired for God
T.J. Burdick is the author of several books and articles on the Catholic faith, writing and speaking on how to grow in holiness among the distractions and difficulties of the current age. His most recent book is “Detached: Putting Your Phone in Its Place” (Our Sunday Visitor, $16.95).

Our cluttered lives

Our society and culture contributes to the problem of things and noise and clutter because we make the world about achievement and doing. “So in order to become a full human being, I get stuff, things to buy, or more ideas, or nice models and thinking and plans,” Johnson said. “And I clutter my life, and I try to control life by having things, having ideas, having plans.”


We can’t detach ourselves, he said. “Letting go is a non-doing. You can’t choose to let go. You just let go.” This is what he has dubbed the paradox of intention: the more you intend it, the less you can do it. He refers to the similar problem experienced with sleep: the more you try to sleep, the more you just stare at the ceiling. “So we cannot let go, we cannot achieve surrender,” said Johnson. “It is a grace, the Lord gives it.”

“We are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of our Lord,” he said. “We are called to love as God loves. And when we do that, we become fully who we are. Sadly, our culture and everything that we think about teaches us that we have to achieve and do. But there’s nothing to achieve and do — you are already at the greatest dignity. All that you need to do, what you’re actually made for, is to give yourself away in love and compassion.” We must fulfill our calling to go beyond ourselves, sacrifice ourselves, empty ourselves and serve.

“How can we serve? How can we help others become fully who they are? Let go of who we think we are and who the world tells us we are, and silently listen to the Lord who calls us to love all.”

Holy role models

The saints are those whose lives are exemplary, showing us how to live our lives pursuing virtue and true happiness, detached from worldly desires.


One modern luxury that has greatly exacerbated the problem of worldly attachment is the smartphone. While, like any tool, smartphones can be utilized for many good things, “Many people today are attached to their phones in a way that is unhealthy for their spirituality,” said author T.J. Burdick. “We seek out our cell phones when we are sad, lonely, curious, and bored, and it is precisely in these moments that we should be reaching out to seek the light of God instead of reaching to unlock the light from our screens.”

In one form or another, everything in life can be a distraction, said Burdick, except prayer. Work, entertainment, possessions can all be obvious distractions, but even service, loved ones and self can keep us from becoming happier and holier.

“Your sanctity is defined by your prayer life because that is the only means by which you are able to submit yourself spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, mentally and physically to God’s will,” said Burdick. We should be attached to prayer, because it binds us to God.

Burdick observed that we can use new technology for purposes of evangelization. “We can use these technologies to communicate and evangelize people we never would have been able to reach without our devices, a noble use of such technologies, indeed,” he said. “But statistics show that we are not doing that. On the contrary, we are viewing more porn, wasting time scrolling through social media feeds, playing games, binge-watching television, and buying millions of dollars’ worth of things we don’t need while online shopping.” These technologies are distracting us from preaching the Gospel. Burdick asks if we have “gained the whole world” into a technological net but in the process “lost our souls” (cf. Matthew 16:26) in the process.

God calls us to empty ourselves of our attachment to material things. Shutterstock

Tools for detachment

As Catholics, there are many tools at our disposal to detach ourselves from worldly things. Many of these tools are uniquely Catholic, including what is known as redemptive suffering, Burdick said. “Jesus’ sacrifice was the sacrifice par excellence and in it there lacked nothing, but God has given to us a very special grace in becoming co-strugglers with Jesus as a means of affecting the world around us in a profoundly spiritual way.” Archbishop Fulton Sheen compared redemptive suffering to a spiritual blood transfusion. “If we can help others in a merely physical way by giving them our blood,” Burdick asked, “why wouldn’t we be able to help them spiritually by accepting struggle on their behalf?”


Redemptive suffering, then, is the means by which we are able to detach ourselves from the things that keep us from loving God and neighbor to the highest degree that we are able, according to Burdick. In fasting from our unhealthy behaviors, we begin to solidify ourselves in the habit of virtue. “Redemptive suffering provides us a means to do that that is ‘others-centered,’ for when we deny ourselves our passing joys for the benefit of others, we effectively avoid becoming ‘self-centered.’ We are then free to ‘deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus’ (Matthew 16:24).”

“We are made in the image of God, the Trinity, and so we are made for relationship, and the connection we desire is communion with God and others,” said Dr. Amanda Osheim. Osheim is associate professor of practical theology and director of the Breitbach Catholic Thinkers and Leaders Program at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. However, she said, in the spiritual life it is too easy to forget the creator and put creation in God’s place. “This is when attachments go awry.”

Proper order

It is good to appreciate God’s creation, just as God saw that it was good. But this must not get in the way of our right relationship with God, which must always come before everything else. “In ‘The Dialogue,’ St. Catherine of Siena reminds us that we must not only see the gift but also the giver,” said Osheim. “If I received a birthday gift and was so excited about it that I ignored the friend who gave it to me, my attachment to the gift would prevent me from seeing the love of my friend.” Ignoring the giver in favor of the gift can lead to entitlement instead of thankfulness. “Even more dangerously for myself and others, if the ‘gift’ is my relationship with another person, I might treat that person as an object that I possess, or start expecting them to be able to meet all my needs, or exploit them as a means to an end,” she said. “I can even be attached to ways of thinking about and relating to God that keep me from being able to receive and respond to God’s love more fully.”

Osheim also sees a danger in the culture of consumerism that is rampant in the United States. Thomas Merton described consumerism as a false self in his “New Seeds of Contemplation.” “Instead of living from my true identity in Christ, my false self depends upon comparing myself with others — what I’ve achieved, the money I make, the relationships I have, the size of my home, whether I have the latest technology, what shows I watch, where I go on vacation,” Osheim said. “For Merton, this problem arises from a deep inner worry present in us all, that we are unworthy of love. And so we seek to overcome that fear of unworthiness by ‘proving’ our worth through our attachments.”

In a search for self-worth, the danger is to become attached to terrestrial things, to worldly things, to seek out noise and clutter in order to drown out “the niggling fear of our unworthiness,” Osheim said. “Merton thinks the good news is that we are loved by God without regard for our worth or what we ‘deserve.’ Freeing ourselves from attachments that are preventing us from recognizing that our true identity is in God, rather than in our possessions or status, is essential for learning how to receive God’s love and to offer ourselves freely in response.”

Made for God

We are built by God, for God, called to attach ourselves to him above and before all else. St. Augustine famously wrote that God made us for him, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. We have an innate desire for communion with God, Osheim said. “However, God goes beyond our thoughts and words to describe, and so silence becomes a place of discovery. Like all great explorations, when we enter into silence we may be uncomfortable with the experience and uncertain where we are going. But silence also offers us the opportunity to simply be with God, whose Spirit dwells within us through baptism.” God is always reaching out to us, offering himself, and we need only accept the invitation. Detachment from worldly things is an important step on the way.

It takes a certain amount of discernment to determine whether or not our particular attachments are leading us away from God, and the Church offers a variety of ways to discern this, Osheim said. First and most clearly is the example of Christ, who St. Paul says “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself …” (Phil 2:6-7). “Reflecting on Christ’s refusal to grasp at being God — instead becoming one with our human vulnerability, his life of material poverty, his mission to serve rather than to be served, his willingness to lay down his life for his friends — are all ways to consider how we might imitate Christ more fully,” she said.

Osheim also points to the Church’s tradition of asceticism, which is often associated with penance, like when we give up something that is good to show sorrow for sin. “However,” she said, “asceticism can also be a way of practicing loosening the hold of an attachment so we are better prepared to offer ourselves freely to others in the future.”

For example, someone who buys a coffee each day might practice freeing themselves from that attachment by not buying coffee for a week. In turn, Osheim said, the weakening of the attachment might give that person the freedom to consider whether those who are laboring to produce the coffee are earning a just wage and receiving fair treatment.

“Rather than simply being governed by my attachment to a daily dose of caffeine, I could be noticing the needs of others and be better able to deny myself in order to seek solidarity and justice.”

To become detached from the world, and to reach out and attach ourselves to the Lord, is our calling. God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in heaven.

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

Pope Francis on Attachment to Things
People use phones to capture images of Pope Francis as he leads a meeting with young people in the square adjacent to the cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 22. CNS photo via Paul Haring
Life is for loving, not amassing possessions, Pope Francis said. In fact, the true meaning and purpose of wealth is to use it to lovingly serve others and promote human dignity, he said Nov. 7 during his weekly general audience.