These shocking words of Jesus—If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off—how can we understand them? Christ is calling us to a radical purity and integrity that affects every aspect of our being, right down to the parts of our bodies. The Lord’s love for us is so all-encompassing that he does not want anything to separate us from it. For this reason we ourselves need to be proactive in separating certain things from our life.
The call to cut some things off from our life is a summons to spiritual detachment.
A helpful definition of detachment is provided by the 14th-century Dominican mystical theologian Fr. John Tauler:
What is true and genuine detachment? It is voluntary separation from all that is not simply and purely God. It is the searching of the soul with careful scrutiny, to discover if there is even the least thing, though it be in its inmost depths, that is not simply God. It is constantly enquiring whether or not God and God alone is kept in view in all the things done or omitted. And when anything is found that savors of something other than God alone, it means cutting it off absolutely. And this preparation is the task not only of people whose lives are very holy and interior, but of every good person without exception.
The life of St. Charles de Foucauld is a valiant personal witness to the power of detachment …a favorite theme in his writings.
Faith detaches the soul completely from earthly things by showing up their total lack of importance. If I love Jesus, I shall be attached to him alone, to his words, his example, his will. If I wish to possess him, to obey him, to imitate him, to be one with him, lose myself in him by losing my own will in his, all these things cry aloud the need for detachment from everything that is not he. The desire to possess nothing but him cries out: detachment. His words cry out: detachment. His example cries out: detachment. His will cries out: detachment. I must resolve to see, unceasingly, Jesus in myself, dwelling within me with his Father.
But detachment is not about gritting our teeth and grudgingly giving up coveted delights. Because whatever good we may be going after in finite, created things only points us to the Highest Good for which our heart is made, and without which life makes no sense. Detachment is the commitment and risk to pursue the unsurpassable Something More. As the 8th-century St. Peter of Damascus wrote: “Detachment has its origin in hope, for he who hopes to acquire elsewhere eternal wealth readily despises that which is material and transient, even if it offers him every kind of comfort.”
What better exemplifies this than the harrowing true story from 2003 of Aron Lee Ralston. The avid outdoorsman, while climbing in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, suffered an accident that wedged him under a boulder. After over five days of agony, he opted to free himself by amputating his right forearm with a pocket knife. Thank God he survived. Reflecting on the experience, Ralston said this: “This rock has been waiting for me my entire life. I’ve been moving towards it my whole life. … Everything happens for a reason, and part of the beauty of life is that we’re not allowed to know those reasons for certain.”
Detachment enables us to be realistic about reality and what we really want in life. And to free ourselves from what entraps us.
There was a dark period when I was afflicted with an attachment so severe that peace came only by way of mediation of a powerful prayer by St. Basil the Great … which I prayed over and over—my spiritual pocket knife:
God of mercy, receive me who comes to you, in your holy name and that of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy and all-powerful and life-giving Spirit. Drive away from this soul all helplessness, all faithlessness, all unclean spirits, greed, lust for gold, love of silver, madness, licentiousness, all evil—dark, faceless, and shameless. Thus, Lord, drive away from me all the work of the devil, all witchcraft, all idolatry, all passion for pleasure, all concupiscence, love of money, drunkenness, debauchery, shamelessness, anger, love of discord, restlessness, and all deceitful intentions. Our Lord God, breathe into me your spirit of peace.
Jesus Christ asks of us only what it is possible for us to do. No matter how big the boulder pinning us down, it is better for us to lose one of our members so that we can rejoice in the unfettered freedom of being members of the Body of Christ. This is the mystery poet Rainer Maria Rilke heralds in a heartrending prayer:
Put out my eyes: I still can see You;
and without feet
I still can come to You;
Break off my arms from me,
I still will take hold of You and grasp You with all my heart as with a single hand;
arrest my heart, my brain will keep on beating;
and should your fire, at last, my brain consume,
the flowing of my blood will carry You.