In whatever state we may find ourselves, whether in strength or in weakness, in joy or in sorrow, to whatever we may feel attached, we must renounce it. —Meister Eckhart, sermon on Luke 1:57
For CAC teacher James Finley, practicing contemplative detachment helps us recognize that our feelings, real as they are, do not ultimately determine who we are. From his work as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, Finley offers a gentle way of understanding this teaching:
Do not become attached. If you’re in sorrow and utter loss, don’t become attached to the experience of yourself in moments of utter loss. Rather, be detached from your loss. It’s real—but know that the loss doesn’t have the authority to name who you are, for only the infinite generosity of God giving itself to you in this very moment has the authority to name who you are. So, the loss is real. Feel it; it’s real. But don’t yield to its claim to carry you off, as if the sorrow that you’re in has the authority to name who you are and what’s possible for you. Because only the infinite love of God has the authority.
Likewise, if you’re in a moment of joy, like real joy over something, be joyful, but be detached from your joy. Because the joy is finite, the joy is ephemeral, the joy is passing away. Enjoy it but realize that compared to the eternal joy—“the joy that death does not have the power to destroy”—this joy that you’re experiencing is fleeting. Don’t get hung up over your joy. Be detached from joy.
Finley offers wisdom he learned from Thomas Merton (1915–1968), who was his novice master when Finley was a young monk:
Often, when I’d go in to see Thomas Merton for spiritual direction, he’d say, “How’s it going?”
And I’d say, “I’m doing well!”
And he’d say, “Don’t make much of it; it’ll get worse.”
And other times I would go in really down about something. And he’d say, “Don’t make much of it; it’ll get better.”
It ebbs and flows, it ebbs and flows. But what is the infinite love that unwaveringly permeates the wavering ways of our heart? And how can we reserve this inner core place within ourself that cannot be accessed by the finite because it belongs completely to God?
By the way, we should even be detached from that by also being aware of our inability to practice that, because we’re just a human being. We know that when we’re down, we’re really down. And when we’re joyful, we’re joyful. So we have to be very careful not to become attached to the goal of becoming detached!
We have to take a deep breath, and roll with the waves of the unfoldings of ourselves.
Adapted from James Finley, “Meister Eckhart: Session 3” in Turning to the Mystics, season 7 (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2023), podcast, MP3 audio. Forthcoming episode.
Image credit: A path from one week to the next—Margi Ahearn, Exercise on Grief and Lamentation. McEl Chevrier, Untitled. CAC Staff, Untitled. Used with permission. Click here to enlarge image.
On retreat, the CAC staff used watercolors to connect to our collective grief. This is one of the watercolor paintings that came from that exercise.
Story from Our Community:
When I was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I struggled to understand how a loving God could allow me to suffer so. A visiting minister … shared the hymn, “He Giveth More Grace,” and let me know its composer, Annie Johnson Flint, wrote it after becoming disabled. It guided me in seeing that grace not only sometimes removes the source of our sufferings but also accompanies [us] on our journey with illness. After forty plus years of living with the illness, I have come to see how resurrection happened for me through this experience. To see the hymn quoted in the meditations was a sweet reminder of how the song was grace for my journey.
“When we have exhausted our store of endurance / When our strength has failed ere the day is half done / When we reach the end of our hoarded resources / Our Father’s full giving is only begun.” —Carolyn R.