Banishing our false gods – the importance of detachment in Carmelite spirituality

Jammin’ with Mammon from https://kauaiartist.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/mammon.jpg

The first commandment, I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange gods before me seems fairly straight forward.  We know to worship only the One True God and not other deities, pagan gods, etc.  We also remember Jesus’ words that “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Mt 6:24) and realize we are not to place worldly riches or money ahead of God.  Back in the day, I thought I was doing okay with this; I thought I had a healthy perspective about money and I knew to worship only God.  I was sorely mistaken and God made me aware of it through listening to a talk by Elizabeth Scalia a few years ago and then reading her book “Strange Gods, Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life”.  I had created idols everywhere!  As do most of us without even realizing it. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc.” (2113) Elizabeth Scalia illustrates how this plays out in our everyday lives. For example, did you know that even your plans can be an idol? She provides a tragic example of this when one of her friends discovered she was pregnant 6 months before her wedding date. Instead of embracing this new life, she chose the idol of her plans instead, choosing abortion; in her friend’s mind a baby would have upended her plans for the perfect wedding, honeymoon and some time with her new husband in their own apartment. “Plans that we hold too dearly to do not give God room to operate in our lives….When making plans, include within them a willingness to bend into the curve of the Holy Spirit, rather than resisting.  Things have a way of working out when God is given straight access to our lives and our hearts.”[1]

In his paper “Becoming Carmelite” Fr. John Welch, O.Carm. says that Carmelite spirituality is a “continual process of discerning the true God” and that the “perennial Carmelite challenge is: which god do we serve?” This is a life-long process and battle. “The word for idol-making in the Carmelite tradition is attachment.”

…how completely our soul must be detached from all things if it is to journey to God.

St. John of the Cross

The Rule of the Third Order Carmel sets out the following:

Jesus’ message – to love God with all one’s being and one’s neighbor as one’s self – demands from the Tertiary a constant affirmation of the primacy of God, the categorical refusal to serve two masters and the pre-eminence of love for others which fights against all forms of egoism and self-centredness.” (from paragraph 12)

and

The spirit of the evangelical counsels, common to all Christians, becomes for the Tertiaries a plan for life which touches the areas of power, of sensuality and of material goods. The vows are an ever greater demand not to serve false idols, but to attain that freedom of loving God and neighbor which is above all forms of egoism. Holiness lies in the fulfillment of this double command to love.” (from paragraph 13)

St. John of the Cross had a lot to say about detachment.  For instance, “the soul that is naked of desires and whims, God will clothe with his purity, pleasure and will”[2] and “those who love something together with God undoubtedly make little of God, for they weigh in the balance with God an object far distant from God….”[3] and “If a person is to enter into this divine union, all that lives in the soul must die, both small and great, so that the soul must be without desire for all this and detached from it.  This St. Paul teaches us clearly in his epistle to the Corinthians”  (Referring to 1 Cor 7:29-31: ‘I tell you brothers and sisters, the time is running out.  From now on, let those having wives act as not having them, those weeping as not weeping, those rejoicing as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully.  For the world in its present form is passing away.”   “Paul says this to us in order to teach us how completely our soul must be detached from all things if it is to journey to God.”[4]

St. John of the Cross not only wrote or spoke about detachment but he lived it.  He was such good friends with St. Teresa of Avila and had kept a packet of letters from her.  He made the really difficult decision to burn those letters.  Why?  He knew that “there could be danger, not in their case of any obvious sin, but of slight, imperceptible clingings that could result from retaining a packet of letters.”[5]

Pandemic:  Opportunity to Detach

This time of pandemic has been a tremendous opportunity to reflect on and realize what false gods, or idols, we have been putting ahead of and in place of God.  What had we become attached to prior to the pandemic that has perhaps been taken away from us now?  Or have we, during the pandemic, developed new attachments?  Have we made idols of our health, anxiety, jobs, calendars, busyness, people in our lives, our routines, our income, our families, politics, our leaders, devotions, etc.?  Things to ponder and ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit so we can route them out.

In her Spiritual Diary, the lay Carmelite Elizabeth Kindelmann recounts the following:

Jesus: You are too immersed in earthly things, My little one…I did not say that to discourage you. I want to encourage you so that you do not seek relief by looking to the earth in your battles. Look only at Me. I want that, while snuggling yourself right against Me and surrendering to Me in your arduous struggles, you never stop looking only upwards”

Kindelmann, Elizabeth. The Flame of the Love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary: The Spiritual Diary. 1st Edition, 2014, p. 141

We can’t journey to God if we have our feet planted firmly on earth and our souls immersed in earthly things.  But we can’t detach from our idols on our own either.  “It’s only when God comes into a life and kindles a deep love in that life are we able to let go of these lesser loves…and then the idols they couldn’t rip themselves away from before start to melt away.”[6]  With Lent coming upon us quickly, perhaps we can use this Lent to become more detached and so better focus on God, always looking upwards.  By making the effort to be attentive to God in our lives, and so loving Him more and more, then too, our idols will start to melt away.


[1] Scalia, Elizabeth. Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life. Ave Maria Press, 2013.  p. 101

[2] Editors at Paraclete Press. Holy Thirst: Essentials of Carmelite Spirituality. Paraclete Press, 2019. p. 48

[3] Ibid., p. 56

[4] Ibid., p. 154

[5] Dubay, Thomas. Fire Within. Ignatius Press, 1989, p. 36

[6] Welch, Fr. John, O.Carm., Becoming Carmelite, pp. 4-5

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