For most of us, attachments to this world are THE struggle that most hinders our spiritual growth. 80% of the spiritual life is a battle about desire and the fundamental question, “What do you want most, the world and its pleasures, or God and his Kingdom?” So easily this world gets its hooks into us and we become attached to it. It is hard to break free from inordinate desires.
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 that we are too attached to someone 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 red text. You may wish to read only Fr. Dubay’s text to begin with, and only read my additions if you think you want elaboration.
I. WHAT ATTACHMENT IS NOT: 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 cautious that our experience of pleasure, like all our passions, does not become unruly, improperly directed, and take on a life of its own. If we are not mindful, pleasures can divert our attention from the giver (and His purpose) to the gift alone.
Consider that a husband properly enjoys intense pleasure in his intimate experiences with his wife. Correctly 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 fullest, 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 most hidden things, as well as in the greatest and most visible things. We are also summoned to a deep love of, appreciation of, 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 loved 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 to the point that 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 cling to it selfishly 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 Himself.
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 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 merely the strength to give up things with a sour face and bad attitude, but that through His grace we actually begin 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.