At a dinner out the other night, we left our children’s favorite book at our table. By the time we realized we’d left it, we simply were not going to recover it. The book wasn’t valuable or extraordinary, but I liked it. My daughter played with the little finger-puppet farmer tethered to the binding (we used to call him her boyfriend) and my son was taking a shine to it. I’d thought all my kids would play with this toy.
It’s silly that losing this book should matter to me. But I felt the tug on my heart. Likewise, the other day while I was cleaning out my office, I felt an unwelcomed nostalgia for many of the things long since forgotten about, as I decided to toss or donate them. I found pictures of people who were no longer in my life. I saw books that I bought but hadn’t ever read. And with each file I poured over, the lawyer in me thought, “That might be useful.”
The smallest things seem to grab hold of us without us realizing it. This makes living detachment a tough act.
Detachment and Humility
Detachment stems from humility. Detachment is a recognition that in the here and now, the goods we own are, for the most part, things we can live without. That is, even though we have basic necessities, we decide which things we keep around us to help us in everyday life. We can decide to hold on to something, be it a thing or a decision, or to give it up. It is a virtue that asks and tests what commands my affections and attentions.
To an American, detachment doesn’t come easy. We have lots of stuff. Our houses are bigger because we want to fill our basements and attics with boxes of things we won’t get rid of. This accumulation also reflects that deeper, American need to “have it my way.” The more things we have, the more possibilities our possessions give us, the freer we feel ourselves to be. That’s the joy of freedom as commonly imagined.
Although we know “you can’t take it with you,” we also hold onto our things because “you never know.” We hedge to the point that we become inflexible and are owned by our things.
Giving away things requires a kind of stoicism. We think that detachment is simply a virtue of learning to let go of things without becoming upset like a two-year-old. In a way, that stoicism and detachment becomes a possession just like any other. It’s another thing that lets us have it our way.
We cling not only to our things but to our ideas, particularly our political preferences on everyday matters. This inflexibility makes it impossible to let go of ideological commitments even when they fly in the face of facts or to compromise when compromise is required. This week’s issue is the festering refugee crisis. Next week’s will include not only the issues the world presents but the various “focus group”-tested ideas thrown out by political operatives seeking an advantage for their candidate or cause. Our own attachment to our various narrow view on “the issues”—however formed they may be—combined with our need to always “have an opinion” leave us open to manipulation.
It would do us Catholics good in the coming electoral storm season to cultivate this virtue of detachment in relation to our opinions on contingent matters. Politicians promise change, or stability, or a return to the past, but each promise depends partly on a false sense of control—theirs and ours. Vote for me and this issue will be advanced or that cause finally served. Many voters go all in for a candidate or cause, while many others drop out entirely.
We Catholics must be properly detached and able to discuss and debate the serious issues in our public square with the seriousness they deserve. We are called to render unto Caesar what we should render to him as good citizens, but we should also render that which we render unto God, our Love. The feast of Christ the King renews the political reality of our heavenly citizenship.
As Pope Pius XI says in Quas Primas, the encyclical creating the Feast of Christ the King: “If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire.” He describes what this means:
He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone.
If we were better at this, we would be more valuable in the political realm to our fellow citizens. This detachment must be cultivated with a life centered around prayer, the sacraments, and our community of fellowship. It’s tough to be sucked into the debate of the day on Facebook or Fox News when my Catholic life takes first priority. Few of us would consider a daily Holy Hour an act of political engagement. But from where will our strength and wisdom for political decisions come? From this sacramental encounter and other acts of the spiritual life.
We give our Caesar the aid it needs because we serve Christ the King. That is a service we achieve not through letting ourselves be caught up in voracious sound-byte debates and all-in commitment to candidates or causes, but through discerning thoughtfully, with minds and hearts prepared for that discernment through prayer and charitable acts towards those in our most immediate circles of need.