Q: Dear Sister Carmen, in your recent 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?
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)
In our next post we will provide some insight into how we can identify our own attachments.
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