What are Attachments… How Can I Determine if I am Attached to Something?

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Dear Sister,

In your series on getting stuck in spiritual growth (which was very helpful by the way) you mentioned the idea of “attachments.” I think I understand this as I have read a bit of St. John of the Cross. However, I would be grateful if you could help me understand it a bit better and for any practical advice about identifying attachments and then shedding them. I remember St. John of the Cross said that a bird is tethered to the earth with a small string or a large rope. It doesn’t matter how significant the attachment, but any attachment will hinder our flight to God. Thank you for giving your life to the Church sister. We are so grateful to you for your love of Christ and the depth of your ability to help us love him too.

What are Attachments?

Dear Friend,

St. John of the Cross uses a striking example to illustrate the need for the mortification of all voluntary desires. Just what did St. John of the Cross mean when he said that a bird is tethered to the earth whether with a small string or with a large rope (Ascent, Chapter 11, #4)?  Simply this, it doesn’t matter how significant the attachment, as any attachment will hinder our flight to God.

Not too long ago I was called upon to help a bird in distress. It was a female Gambel’s quail that had flown into our chain-linked fence and become totally attached. The bird, which obviously had been there awhile, looked frightened and miserable with its neck stuck in one chain link and each foot and wing in a different chain link. It was held immobile by five different links. There was no way the bird could free itself!  I slowly approached to lessen the stress of fear for the bird and worked on freeing its neck first, then each foot. I was apprehensive about working with the wings for fear of breaking them. All went well however and when the second wing was freed, the bird immediately knew it was no longer attached and exploded into the air winging its way across the desert.

Certainly this example shows how attachment hinders freedom. But let’s move this to the spiritual realm. In the Modern Catholic Dictionary, Father John A. Hardon, S.J. defines an attachment as follows: “Emotional dependence either of one person on another, or of a person on some real or illusory object …the first condition for progress in sanctity is some mastery over one’s attachments.”

Scripture affirms that Creation is good; after each creation account we read,”… and God saw that it was good.” When God had made man He saw that it was very good and He gave him dominion over the other creatures. Thus there was a hierarchy in creation. God provided for man’s needs. Endowed with sensory perception we not only interact with creation to supply our needs but we take pleasure in creation through our senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. In creating the world in which God has placed us He has endowed it with a beauty, perceived through our various senses, which is but a meager reflection of His own infinite Beauty. He intends that we enjoy this beauty as a way of leading us to Him, not to seek it for itself.

We fail to practice mastery over our attachments when we use them

  • in excess of our needs;
  • for purposes other than that for which they were intended;
  • as ends rather than as means to a legitimate end.

The most fundamental basis of our spiritual life is the recognition that we are creatures and that God is our Creator. To prefer a creature to the Creator has made us prefer a lesser good. When we cling to a creature we become like that creature. No matter how good that creature may be, it is nevertheless finite. If we are attached to what is finite we will be unable to enter into the transforming union of the infinite – Divine Beauty.

“For what has the creature to do with the Creator? What has sensual to do with spiritual? Visible with invisible? Temporal with eternal? Food that is heavenly, spiritual and pure with food that is of sense alone and is purely sensual? Christlike poverty of spirit with attachment to aught soever?” (Ascent,  Chapter 4, #1)

We have defined and illustrated what attachments are and how they can hinder our flight to God. Now, we will talk a bit more about attachments and then provide a few questions and guidelines to help us identify our own attachments.

Attachments are often difficult for us to recognize or admit in ourselves. We can become quite adept at rationalization and transferring the responsibility for our situation on someone else or something else. In the book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one of the child characters, Edmund, has a fondness for Turkish Delight, a sweet tasting treat. On entering Narnia he encounters the Witch, who in order to gain information from him provides him with this treat. The more he eats of it, the more he wants. No matter how much he eats he thinks only of eating more. She eventually stops giving it to him with the promise that if he comes to her home bringing his three siblings she will provide him with rooms of this delight.

His desire for this treat now has its negative consequences. Not only does he feel ill from having eaten to excess, but his desire to still have more of this food breaks down his relationship with his siblings causing him to lie to them. He begins to form negative feelings toward them by becoming suspicious of them as well as blaming them for the situations in which he finds himself, and eventually he betrays them.

How Can I Determine If I Am Attached To Something?

Selfish clingings position us in a spiritual fog hindering our supernatural vision. It then becomes difficult to discern between what is a legitimate desire and what is an inordinate attachment.  The following questions may help us in our honest self-knowledge:

  • Am I using created things in excess of my real needs? Example:  How many pairs of shoes do I have as opposed to how many I need? We can apply this to any material possession. How many hours do I spend viewing TV?
  • Do I use things for the purpose for which they were intended? Example: If my employer provides me with a computer for my work, do I spend time in using it for personal e-mail, needless internet surfing or entertainment (assuming there is a policy against such use)?
  • Do I make persons or things ends in themselves rather than as means to an end? Example: Is my relationship with another the way by which my own needs are provided for more than my concern for the good of the other?

In responding to the above as regards my relationships and my use of things, am I more drawn to God through them and do they cause me to think of Him more frequently?  Am I led to deeper prayer as a result?

Identifying inordinate attachments, recognizing them in oneself, and addressing them through a practical plan of detachment enables one to experience a greater freedom and to be open to the gifts that God wishes to lavish on us. “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.”

Sincerely in the Sacred Heart of Jesus,

Sister Mary Colombiere, O.C.D.


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Promoting a Deeper Spiritual Life Among Families through Healthcare, Education and Retreats

The Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles strive to give striking witness as a vibrant, thriving community of dedicated women with an all-consuming mission. It is our God-given mission, a mission of the heart, a mission of loving service to the poor, the sick, the needy and the uneducated. Our loving service overflows from each sister’s profound life of prayer. We strive to reflect His life and hope and His promise to all that light has come into our world and darkness has not overcome it.

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4 Comments

  1. Dear sister,

    thank you for an insightful article on an important but seldom-discussed topic.

    My question is to do with the third criteria of attachment: relating to things “as ends rather than as means to a legitimate end.”

    Now, I understand that this criteria applies to persons also, and I tend to think that this is problematic, in that it would seem that persons ought not to be treated solely as means to another end. I say this because I have seen and been involved in examples of this criteria in the spiritual life of some, which showed precisely the problematic side of detachment (of which they were very eager) as interpreted in this manner. Having said this, of course creatures are not our finality; only God is. So, there is seemingly a paradox here, where they should not be treated as means nor as ends, simply.

    So, naturally, this is something I have been thinking about, and the only happy resolution I have come across is through the understand of the role of Our Lady. I think, if I recall correctly, I read a response to the Protestant objections against Marian devotions, where, in the Catholic response, it was explained that there are such things as “intermediate ends”. This would seem to apply here also, in that persons, while they should not be treated as ultimate ends, should not be treated simply as means to and end (even the Divine End), either.

    Would this be a correct view, namely to treat persons as both ends in themselves – but not ultimate ends – and as means to God – but not simply as means?

    Thank you!

    Regards,
    Tim

  2. Dear sister,
    I’m a school boy from Sri Lanka. I got to know of this article by a good friend of mine. Though I had this article in my inbox I never went through it till now.
    Right now it’s early morning hear in Sri Lanka and I was finding it hard to fall a sleep. So I made up my mind on reading the article. Well it’s great love and peace of mind I’ve experienced early today after reading it. It’s totally worth the time and effort.
    Me personally ain’t much of a reader.I’m really fond of all da hard ships that is taken by you sisters in bringing poor soles like us closer to Christ. Please keep up da good work.
    Though I’m not in a financial position of helping the good work that is been done I already send a thank you reply to my friend for sharing the link and I too started sharing this with my friends.

    May God bless you sister.
    You will always be in my prayer.

  3. Dear sister,

    I’m a school boy from Sri Lanka. I got to know of this article by a good friend of mine. Though I had this article in my inbox I never went through it till now. Right now it’s early morning here in Sri Lanka and I was finding it hard to fall a sleep. So I made up my mind on reading the article. Well it’s great love and peace of mind I’ve experienced early today after reading it. It’s totally worth the time and effort. Me personally ain’t much of a reader.I’m really fond of all da hard ships that is taken by you sisters in bringing poor soles like us closer to Christ. Please keep up da good work. Though I’m not in a financial position of helping the good work that is been done I already send a thank you reply to my friend for sharing the link and I too started sharing this with my friends.

    May God bless you sister. You will always be in my prayer.

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