Detachment has been a central theme in Christianity from the start. Recall the story of the rich young man, found in all three Synoptic Gospels. He asks Jesus what he must do in order to be better. Jesus answers, “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. . .and come, follow me.” The young man goes away sad because, the evangelist tells us, “he had great possessions.” (Mt 19. 21-22) He wasn’t detached – he needed to practice detachment about something big, and couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Not just for rich young men, but for all of us who would like to imitate Christ and live by his teaching, detachment is of crucial importance. But what is it? And why is it so important not just for people who have “great possessions,” but also for those whose possessions are quite modest? Let me offer a definition that may lead to an answer.
The definition is mine and carries no authority. Accept or ignore it:
To be detached, to practice detachment, is to establish and maintainA mouthful, I admit. What follows may help explain what it means.
a relation to everything and everybody in one’s life according to
which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in
our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of
By the late Middle Ages, the best thinking on detachment took the form of what is usually called contemptus mundi – contempt for the world. You find this in a pure form in The Imitation of Christ, a spiritual classic (1419) usually attributed to Thomas à Kempis, although others may have had a hand in it. It preaches the message of contemptus mundi throughout, starting with Book One, Chapter One:
This is the highest wisdom: to despise the world and to aspire to theAnd so on. (Read more.)
kingdom of Heaven. It is vanity, therefore, to seek riches which must perish, and to trust in them. It is vanity also to be ambitious of honors, and to raise oneself up to a high station. It is vanity to follow the desires of the flesh, and to desire that for which you must afterward be grievously punished. It is vanity to wish for a long life, and to take little care of leading a good life. It is vanity also to attend only to this present life, and not to look forward to those things which are to come.