Common Wisdom: Detachment


March 1, 1998

Ignatius Loyola is a tough saint. Although he is one of the greatest and ranks near the top of my list of favorites, I have never come close to living with the detachment that Ignatius requires.

Mincing no words he lays out the First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises:

“Man is made to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.

“The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created.

“Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him.

“Therefore we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under any prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.

“Our one desire and choice should be what is more conducive to the end for which we are created.”

The rule that Ignatius prescribes— to make ourselves indifferent to created things—has always seemed nearly impossible, especially because created things include human persons. How can I love things of God’s creation so much and yet be detached, ready to give them up?

This is an incarnational world, after all. God loves matter and takes delight in it. We are not a world of pure spirit. Material things, created things, are good and wonderful because God made them. How, then, can I love my farm, my intensely incarnational place, marked by the finger of God, and be detached? Detached? I never want to leave it.

How can I love my family and be detached? How can I be a wife, mother, and grandmother, whose very nature is to give my whole life for those I love, and be detached? How can I love and give until there is not a drop left and yet be detached? Does Ignatian indifference fit particularly with the natural and proper feminine desire to spend all of life for family and loved ones? I think there is a way out of this dilemma, and if I am wrong, I expect St. Ignatius will correct me.

I can—and should—love the things of creation because God gave them to me. He gave me people and things to love and care for. I therefore can love them, in the nature of women, by giving my very life on behalf of these beloved creatures. Yet I must love them because they are God’s creatures, not because I might deceive myself that I own them. As dearly as I love them, I have to be ready to give them up, even my family, if God asks, for their goal is to follow Christ’s will, not mine.

Ultimately I can love and enjoy creatures only insofar as I love Christ and am one with him. The more I love Christ, the more I love his creation—in the rightly ordered way of seeing him as its cause. If I know and accept Christ as the source of things, then I gain a certain freedom of detachment that comes from recognizing that Christ, not I, is the true owner of creatures.

In that light, I can love my home, for example, not primarily because I own it, but more properly because of the transcendent reality it symbolizes, that is, my home in heaven. A home is always a metaphor for heaven, our home with God. We can love our home passionately, so long as we realize that the real source of the permanence of a home is not we ourselves but God, so long as we know that we do not own our family, our friends, our things. Rather than owning these beloved creatures, we receive them as gifts that reflect Christ in his beauty and goodness and draw us to him.

These are the gifts—this husband, these children, these parents, these brothers and sisters, these friends, this home, these things—through which, in God’s incarnate world, we reach Christ. In sum, we and our household are in the service of Christ.

Ignatius captures the essence of our creaturely humility, our greatest gift. He concludes the Spiritual Exercises with my favorite prayer: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Everything I have comes from you, and everything I have I give hack to you to be used wholly according to your purpose. Give me only your love and your grace, and I will desire nothing more.”


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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