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What are “attachments” and how do they hinder my spiritual life? Part I of II

October 4, 2012 by  
Filed under Attachments, Carmelite Spirituality, Detachment, Sr. Laudis

Q: Dear Sister Carmen, in your recent series on getting stuck in spiritual growth (which was very helpful  by the way) you Tony Achilles - Tethered Birdmentioned 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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  • JoFlemings

    This is so wonderfully stated: “If we are attached to what is finite we will be unable to enter into the transforming union of the infinite – Divine Beauty.” This really makes me think about the things that I focus on, on what has the most influence over me, etc. I am really looking forward to Sister’s next post!

  • LizEst

    This is a great post, Sister Carmen. For the longest time, I read the snare in Psalm 124:7 (“Our life, like a bird, has escaped from the snare of the fowler. Indeed the snare has been broken and we have escaped.”) as being sin, both original and personal. Today, while praying this, after reading of the Gambel’s quail you freed, I also saw the snare as attachment. Thank you so much for this writing. Your beautiful insights really expanded this Psalm for me and were a blessing.

    Also, this reminds me of the beginning of Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical “Fides et Ratio”: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth…” And, attachment can definitely keep one wing or the other, or both, from rising to this contemplation. “O that I had wings like a dove to fly away and be at rest” (Psalm 55:7)!

    Likewise, this article dovetails (no pun intended) nicely with our Book Club reading about Blessed Pope John XXIII’s daily battles with attachment. Thank you again. May God continue to fill your life abundantly with His grace.

  • abandon56

    Sister, will you please comment on the relationship between St. Therese and the young, struggling Fr. Maurice? St. Therese was at pains early in their correspondence to correct his ideas of her being perfect. As Therese neared her death, their correspondence included unabashed expressions of mutual affection for one another. We know that each one’s spiritual directors were aware of this correspondence. Therese spoke of meeting in heaven when they wouldn’t have to worry about appearing disinterested as they would if meeting in the presence of others here on earth. It seems to me there can be a fine line between affection and attachment. Of course, once in heaven these concerns no longer exist.

    • Becky313

      Until Sr. Carmen can get back to you, I would offer the explanation that this is simply the result of two very spiritual people who are not free to demonstrate their Godly love for one another because of the possible scandal it could create. Especially since they were religious.
      It is a fine line indeed between attachment and affection…..the way I discern the difference is this: if I am able to give something up if the Lord (or my SD) asks it of me then there is no attachment. This includes people and things, temporal and spiritual. If I am not able to give a thing up when asked, then I do have an attachment to it. This does not mean it won’t be painful….but if it is excessively so, then that is a good indicator that I may be more attached than I thought.
      St. Teresa of Avila talks somewhere about her growing love (and need) for her holy friends. As we give ourselves more completely to God, it usually happens that we have family and friends who do not understand…..and our relationships with them can become strained….we can become exiles in our own family……and there can also be jealousy. While we continue to pray for our biological relatives (or community members)…..God does not fail to provide new, spiritual, family members for us to associate and converse with.
      It is a heavy cross indeed to have a great love for God….and yet have no one who can appreciate or understand this gift. When you find one who does…….the love of God in each soul is then able to grow at a greater rate because of the confirmation each receives from the other. (Thus the beauty of this site)
      I would love to be able to throw my arms around my spiritual director, give him a big hug, and sit very closely on a park bench for several hours chatting about the beauty of God and our faith……..but I can’t……because it could cause others to sin.
      When we really see Jesus in other people….they become very attractive to us….I am grateful for every minute I can spend with holy friends…we support and encourage one another to persevere….and also share the joy in our lives that others do not appreciate or understand.

      • MelissaStacy

        Becky, This post was very helpful to me…thank you and blessings!

  • Cecilia

    Sister, I read your post earlier in the day & the image of the little bird caught in the chain link fence came to me all day & into the late hours of Adoration. The gentle manner in which you approached the bird so as to not frighten it and then proceeded to remove it from its bondage was the teaching I was to learn. So many of us have attachments to others’ opinions about us that hold us back from helping others. To learn to wait patiently & listen on a deeper level to the words another gives takes much practice. Thank you for this visual reminder for me to use when I’m teaching or listening to another person/soul.

    • LizEst

      Beautiful…and so it is, although God can do otherwise when it suits His purpose, that the Holy Spirit whispers gently to our souls. God bless you, Cecilia. Patience is also one of His gifts.

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  • judeen

    lots of questions..-  can a person detatch to much..  or is it a gift from God? like 1 does not feel imbarressment… or anger… or if one does , fights the feeling and trys to trust all things are in Gods hands..  and just a peaceful feeling .. yet no emotion except for prayer…..   now is this to far? is this an attactment to control of ones emtions? the devil is tricky….
        2. attachments are also spiritual… such as addictions .. are spiritual attachments of the devil to give cravings.. so on…temptations… ok.. so padre pio talked about sin  and the smell of it…  so why do some people smell like old urine… to the point of wanting to throw up… and just some.. ? if there is answer please explain a saint or understanding of testing of attachments.. and how far is too far?