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Holy Spirit disruptions: Detachment with love

Lynne Baab • Saturday September 11 2021

Holy Spirit disruptions: Detachment with love

A few years ago a friend started attending Alanon. She taught me a phrase she learned there: “detachment with love.” In Alanon, the phrase is used to describe a stance that supports family members and friends who suffer from addiction, without enabling or rescuing. For me, those words unlocked a door I had been trying to get through for years, not so much with addicts but with people I find challenging. I had seen the kind of detachment that hurts: family members completely rejecting other family members, friends who completely turn away from friends. I had seen the kind of love that engulfs: “love” with unrealistic expectations for the recipient of that love, a love that seemed to be more about the person attempting to show love rather than the recipient.

I had also seen healthy detachment in friends and family members who keep a cautious but neutral distance from people they find difficult. Of course, I have seen many examples of healthy love that focuses on the needs of others in a supportive and encouraging way.

“Detachment with love” gave me language to describe the very best of the models for detachment I have observed. Related to addictions, it means caring enough about others to allow them to learn from their mistakes. In an article in Psychology Today, Fran Simone, the mother of an adult son with substance abuse, describes how that phrase has helped her. Detachment with love is not tough love. Rather, we “learn how to make wise choices rather than react out of anxiety, fear, and anger.”

In all relationships, it means acting toward others in a way that does not involve trying to validate ourselves. We use boundaries kindly and gently, and we love in a way that frees people to be themselves. When someone tries to love us in a form that erases who we really are, we set a boundary that keeps their actions from engulfing us.

I learned only recently that the concept of healthy detachment comes from Ignatius of Loyola (1491 to 1556), the Basque priest and theologian who founded the Society of Jesus. I’m sure most of you are familiar with Ignatian spirituality in one way or another. Perhaps you’ve engaged in the Ignatian spiritual exercises or you’ve prayed the prayer of examen or you’ve tried out Ignatian Gospel contemplation.

One way to begin to understand Ignatian detachment is to recognize its opposite, possessive attachment, a disordered clinging to possessions, habits of thought and action, and people who do not help us grow closer to God. In relationships, we can be attached to our own perception of what we can do for others, how we can help others, or how perfectly we can conduct our relationships. Ignatian detachment involves showing sacrificial love without an agenda of what will happen next. We separate ourselves from expectations of how things will turn out. Detachment with love is one way to summarize Ignatian detachment.

In my faith journey, I have been growing in my ability to release outcomes into God’s hands, exactly what Ignatius would recommend. I simply cannot control the events of my life. I simply cannot change other people. As a young adult, I truly believed I had nearly complete agency in so many areas of life, but I see now that so many components of life and so many relationships are far beyond my control.

I’ve tried to practice detachment with love for several years now, and I can attest to the difficulty of figuring out what it looks like in practice. Sometimes we need to make policy decisions about how we will act in the future when certain situations recur. Sometimes we need to rely on God’s guidance moment by moment. Sometimes destructive things happen in other people’s lives, and we wonder if we should have loved more actively. Sometimes we are baffled about what love would look like in a situation.

When we try to live into a pattern of detachment with love, the Holy Spirit disrupts our desire to control things and know the outcome. The Holy Spirit calls us to trust God in new ways. This is both very hard and very freeing.

Light of the World, help us know how to leave outcomes in your hands while showing your love. Be the light on our paths. Be the lamp for our feet. Be the morning star who guides us into the path of Christ-like love. Amen.

(Next week: Seeing people in the light of the cross. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love to get new subscribers. Sign up below to get a link when I post on this blog.)

One way to nurture the ability to practice detachment with love is to detach from work for a period of time each week. The space we give ourselves to cease productivity helps us see our unhealthy attachments to getting things done and people-pleasing. As most of my readers know, the Sabbath has been a big topic of my writing:



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