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What are Attachments, and What Are They Not? Learning from a Fine Spiritual Teacher.

July 25, 2011

On Sunday we heard a Gospel about two men, who finding a treasure and a pearl, went and sold all that they had to have those treasure. Of course the treasure and the pearl were images for the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus selling all they had was a sign of radical freedom from attachments to this world. For most of us, attachments are THE struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth.

But what are attachments, and what are they not? Are there ways we can distinguish attachments from ordinary and proper desires? What are the signs they we are too attached to some one or something? To address questions like these, I want to turn to a great teacher of mine in matters spiritual, Fr. Thomas Dubay. Father died a little over a year ago, but he left us a great legacy of teaching through his books, audio recordings and programs at EWTN. In addressing these questions I would like to summarize what he teaches in his spiritual classic Fire Within in which he expounds on the teachings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

Here then are some excerpts (pages 133-135). Father’s  teaching is in bold, black italics. My own poor remarks are in plain text red. You may wish to read only Fr. Dubay’s text to begin with, and only read my additions it you think you want elaboration.

I. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS NOT  – for sometimes it is easier to say what a thing is not prior to saying what it is. In this Fr. Dubay disabuses us of wrongful and sometimes puritanical notions that are neither biblical nor Catholic since they reject as bad what God has made as good, and as a blessing. Scripture says,  God created [things] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3-4).

1. First of all, attachment is not the experiencing of pleasure in things, not even keen, intense pleasure. The complete avoidance of pleasure is neither possible nor advisable in human life…..There is no doubt that the pleasures of the five senses easily lead to a selfish clinging to them for their own sakes, but nonetheless, the pleasures themselves are not blameworthy. God made them, and they are good.

The remarks here are very balanced. Of itself, taking pleasure in what God has made is a kind of thanksgiving and surely an appreciation of what God has created and given.

Yet, due to our fallen nature, we must be sober that our experience of pleasure, like all our passions, can become unruly, improperly directed and take on a life of its own. Pleasures can divert our attention from the giver to the gift alone, if we are not mindful to look beyond the gift to the giver and the purpose He intends.

Consider that a husband properly enjoys intense pleasure in his intimate experiences with his wife. Properly understood, there is little way he can NOT enjoy this, other things being equal. But these intimate moments have a meaning beyond themselves. They summon him to greater intimacy, appreciation and love for his wife, and ultimately, for the God who created her. Further these moments draw him to share his love and appreciation through an openness to the fruit this love will bear in his children.

Hence the gift of intimacy is wonderful and to be enjoyed to the top, but it is not an end in itself. When it becomes its own end, and exists in our mind only for its own sake, we are on the way to attachment and idolatry.

2. Nor is possessing or using things an attachment to them. We must all make use of things in this world to accomplish what God has given us to do. God is surely pleased to equip us with what we need to do his will, to build the Kingdom, and to be of help to others.

3. Nor is being attracted, even mightily attracted, to a beautiful object or person an unhealthy attachment. As a matter of fact, we should be drawn to the splendors of creation, for that is a compliment to the supreme Artist. Saints were and are strongly attracted to the glories of the divine handiwork and especially to holy men and women, the pinnacles of visible creation.

A gift to pray for is the gift of wonder and awe, wherein we appreciate and are joyful in God’s glory displayed in the smallest and hidden things, as well as the greatest and most visible things. We are also summoned to a deep love, appreciation and attraction to the beauty, humor and even quirkiness displayed in one another.

But here too these things are meant to point to God, they are not ends in themselves. And it sometimes happens that we fail to connect the dots, as St. Augustine classically describes:  Late have I love you, O Beauty, so ancient, and yet so new! Too late did I love You! For behold, You were within, and I without, and there did I seek You; I, unlovely, rushed heedlessly among the things of beauty You made. You were with me, but I was not with You. Those things kept me far from You, which, unless they were in You, would not exist. (Confessions 10.27)

So, once again, to be attracted by beauty is, of itself, good. But it is not an end. It is a sign pointing to the even greater beauty of God and his higher gifts.

II. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS – St  John of the Cross [observes] that if anyone is serious about loving God totally, he must willingly entertain no self-centered pursuit of finite things sought for themselves, that is, devoid of honest direction to God, our sole end and purpose. St. Paul makes exactly the same point when he tells the Corinthians that whatever they eat or drink, or whatever else they do they are to do all for the glory of God….. (1 Cor 10:31)

St John of the Cross explicitly states that he is speaking of voluntary desires and not natural ones‚ for the latter are, little or no hindrance‚ to advanced prayer as long as the will does not intervene with a selfish clinging. By natural desires the saint has in mind, for example, a felt need for water when we are thirsty, for food when hungry, for rest when fatigued. There is no necessary disorder in experiencing these needs….to eradicate these natural inclinations and, to mortify them entirely is impossible in this life.

Of course even natural desires can become unruly and exaggerated wherein we seek to overly satisfy them and they become ends in themselves. Fr. Dubay makes this point later. St. Paul also had to lament that there were some whose god was their belly and who had their mind set only on worldly things (cf Phil 3:19)

[More problematic and] especially damaging to normal development are what John calls, “habitual appetites,” that is, repeated and willed clingings to things less than God for their own sake. And here we come to some critical distinctions.

[W]e may ask when a desire becomes inordinate and therefore harmful. I would offer three clear signs.

1. The first is that the activity or thing is diverted from the purpose God intends for it. And this is very common today with sex and with many matters related to the body.

2. The second sign is excess in use. As soon as we go too far in eating, drinking, recreating, speaking or working, we show that there is something disordered in our activity. We cannot honestly direct to the glory of God what is in excess of what He wills. Hence, a person who buys more clothes than needed is attached to clothing. One who overeats is clinging selfishly to food.

Yes, beer, for example, is a sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy. A couple of beers is gratitude, ten beers is a betrayal. God gives in abundance to be sure, but more so that we can share with the needy and the poor, than that we should selfishly cling to it our self as though it existed as its own end.

Sharing spreads God’s glory, as St Paul says, All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. (2 Cor 4:15) And again, You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God (2 Cor 9:11). Thus the abundance of God is directed to the spreading of his glory and to the widening of thanksgiving, NOT as an end itself, that we should hoard it. God’s gifts point back to Him not to themselves.

3. The third sign of attachment is making means into ends. We have one sole purpose in life: the ultimate, enthralling vision of the Trinity in glory, in our risen body. Everything else is meant in the divine plan to bring us and others to this final embrace with Beauty and Love. …As soon as honesty requires us to admit that this eating or that travel, this television viewing or that purchase is not directly or indirectly aimed at Father, Son and Spirit, we have made ourselves into an idol. We are clearly clinging to something created for our own self-centered sake.

This is often the hardest of the three to discern but I think the heart of the difference between a thing becoming an end rather than a means, is the question of gratitude. How consciously grateful are we to God for the things and pleasures we enjoy? Do they intensify our gratitude or do they merely distract us from thinking about God?

Further, do they help me in my journey upward to God or do they merely root me more deeply in this passing world?

Another (scary) question is, “How easily could I give this up if I discovered that it was hindering me from God or that God no longer wanted it in my life?” This is hard, because we really enjoy certain things. But the key question is not that we enjoy them, but whether they honestly lead us to God. And we must be honest about this, avoiding puritanical notions, but also avoiding self justifying ones.

Here too, an important thing to seek from God is not that we merely give up things with a sour face and bad attitude, but that we actually start to prefer good things in moderation over distracting things in excess. If we let God go to work, the good begins to crowd out the bad in an incremental, growing way.

[Therefore:] an attachment is a willed seeking of something finite for its own sake. It is an unreal pursuit, an illusory desire. Nothing exists except for the sake of God who made all things for Himself. Any other use is a distortion.

Here’s a short excerpt by Fr. Dubay. Please be careful with this clip. It is not a critique of liturgy (new or old) per se. It is about interiority and integrity in the spiritual life.

Father Thomas Dubay-What Jesus Hates (My Title) from RSAofYAP on Vimeo.

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  1. Vijaya says:

    This is a wonderful topic and it has brought clarity to my own thoughts about the attachments I have, which ones are good, and which ones distract me from God. Thank you.

  2. Chase says:

    Father, what about things like hobbies and the like that really do bear no relation to Eternity, but also don’t hinder it. For example, I love painting and building models as a form of recreation and developing talent. I also enjoy reading and collecting books, though I have become careful and discerning about the kind of books I read (and gottten rid of those which would be nothing but detrimental to my spiritual life). Ditto for music.

    In reality, how can ANYTHING enjoyed as simple entertainment or the satisfaction of non-religious knowledge NOT be considered disordered? I mean, when I enjoy a comedy or listen to music, I can’t honestly see the connection to God, at least not directly.

    And lastly, how much clothing is too much? 🙂 I know it’s a ridiculous question, but it certainly culturally conditioned. Americans tend to “need” more than Indians for example, but is it somehow sinful to have 4 pairs of shoes when someone else has none? I do get rid of clothes and stuff often, but I often feel guilty for “having too much” when compared to others. I guess there’s no real way to determine these things objectively, since what we need for our jobs and the like will differ wildly.

    • I suspect you are over applying some of what is said here and reading it more as a mathematician than a poet, as you suggest in your last sentence. As for hobbies, they are to be enjoyed, but not as an end in themselves, but as something which increases our gratitude to God and our appreciation of the of his glory on display in creation. Hence, as the quote from St. Paul says in the article, God created [things] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3-4). So thank God for musicians, authors, and your own talents. Enjoy them but see them as means to deeper gratitude and appreciation of God who gave them. Obviously, as you imply by your last sentence, I cannot give you a total poundage of clothes beyond which we are in sinful excess. But it sounds like you are generous. Evey Lent I tear into my closet and my stuff and give away what I no longer reasonably need.

  3. David H. says:

    With all the talk of Fr. Corapi, it is nice to see a saint on EWTN. We should canonize this holy man. He is one of my favorite spiritual directors. Pax et Bonum Fr. Thomas, we miss you!

  4. Nguyen Thuong MInh says:

    Epistle 208
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope said that “On Sunday we heard a Gospel about two men, who finding a treasure and a pearl, went and sold all that they had to have those treasure. Of course the treasure and the pearl were images for the Kingdom of Heaven. Thus selling all they had was a sign of radical freedom from attachments to this world. For most of us, attachments are THE struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth”.
    In the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope excerpted some teachings of Fr. Thomas Dubay in bold, black italics, and poor remarks of Msgr. Charles Pope are in plain text red.
    Secondly, now permit me to talk about some my poor thoughts to clarify further the homily hereafter:
    In yesterday’ my epistle, I introduced you a sample comment (remark) which is used common in defending a doctoral thesis.
    For example, on 1996, when I finished my doctoral thesis, I ought to send it to 100 old doctors so that they remark on doctoral thesis. All their remarks said that my doctoral thesis is good. Therefore I was recognized by a State Council including 9 professors to become a new doctor.
    Then I also wrote about ten my remarks for other doctoral theses later.
    In today’s homily, Msgr. Charles Pope also introduced his sample comment. Msgr. Charles Pope excerpted some teachings of Fr. Thomas Dubay in bold, black italics, and poor remarks of Msgr. Charles Pope are in plain text red.
    Gist of the homily is that “what are attachments?”
    In introduction part of Msgr. Charles Pope “On Sunday we heard… our spiritual growth”, the phrases all that they had, all they had are attachments.
    Thus, attachments are all that we had so that we can sell them for buying treasure or the Kingdom of Heaven.
    For example, if a new student wants to study in University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City, then he or his parent ought to sell all that they had so that they had money as his tuition. Here, “all that they had” is attachments, and “to study in University of Economics Ho Chi Minh City” is happy./.

  5. Karen LH says:

    On the second sign (excess in use): I just recently finished reading Fr. Groeschel’s book, “The Virtue Driven Life”. In the chapter on the virtue of justice, he says that giving out of one’s excess is not charity but justice. That really set me back on my heels, because a corollary to that is that an excess of possessions can be a kind of theft, because it’s holding back things that someone else might be able to put to good use. Especially when the excess leads to waste. I think that an inordinate concern with material security can masquerade as prudence, while really reflecting an inordinate reliance on material goods and an insufficient trust in God.

    • Yes, the Catechism has a whole section on this notion of the universal destination of goods under the 7th Commandment “Thou Shalt not steal”. The poor have claim on us not merely in charity but in justice when we have more than we need. Thus when I fail to render my debt to them and to God, I am stealing. Thanks for your important reflection here.

      • John says:

        Yes Karen, you strike at the core of what I struggle with the most. What are the excesses in my life that I must give up as a matter of Justice? And am I stealing from the poor, so that my family can live an upper-middle existence? Dunno? If I could sell everything I own, and give it to the poor (trusting that God would take care of me and my family) should I? Because, truth be told, most everything I have is “excess”- especially, when compared to the poor.

        • Will says:

          I struggle with these thoughts too John, practically on a daily basis. And Karen, St Augustine has some interesting things to say as well on these very topics. A year ago I threw out most of the things in my closet and I’ve done it twice more since then. i.e. I try to keep two pairs of work/Sunday shoes (a brown and a black), two pairs of sneakers, etc.

  6. John says:

    As a thought experiment, I wonder what Jesus might say to me if I was magically transported to His day, with all the comforts I possess today? Wouldn’t I be the subject of the rich man parable? Yes, I think I would. So if true then, why would that be different today, where over a billion people live on less than $1 a day? It makes me wonder if I’m even close to the Kingdom of God, with all these possessions weighing me down. What must it be like to live as 1/4 of the word must? Somehow, I imagine I am more pitiable than the are in God’s eyes. Lord have mercy on all of us rich folk!

  7. Peter Wolczuk says:

    Firstly, I like your comment on poetic perspective in the response to Chase, which reminds of a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.” Probalby translated into English.
    At any rate, the reference to the pearl and the treasure in the field, reminds me of something I read in a book called, “The Treasure Principle” (as best I can remember) where the author told (in what I perceive as opinion) of a metaphor where a person who was preparing to move ahead of time to another place. If one is sensible then it would be best to arrange ahead of time for a home there and the means to support oneself or to be supported. Purchasing real estate, sending money on to a local bank account, etc. If one does not do that, but instead squanders all the resources here on attachments, such as hedonistic pursuits, then arrives at the new place with little or nothing, then life there would be of poorer quality than if one had prepared.
    I’m left wondering if this ties in with “…the Great Reversal” as in the more that we spend here on feeding our egotism and denial the less we’ll have in heaven and… the more of all of our resources (not just money) we direct to serving God; deep prayer, faith inspired works James (2:14-19) and more then wouldn’t we have greater treasure in heaven?