Detaching Ungracefully

By Jenny Haigler

My last article was not meant to lead to a sequel but, shocking, I know, it seems I had more to learn. Turns out when you tango with detachment, all strains of rebellion start screaming against the invitation. That’s my humble experience, anyway, and since I lack expertise in anything other than humbling experiences, I write the following as an Expert.  

Previously, I discussed the need to follow in the steps of St. Ignatius, identifying and pursuing only those things which bring us closer to our Lord. And life going topsy-turvy is a great way to identify what’s been working or not. If we are floundering, it makes sense to return to the classic Christian disciplines, as well as pray for Christ’s mercy, so that we might receive the grace of detachment, which allows us to relinquish control and entrust our everything to God. 

This enables us to discern spirits and His guidance. By the end of writing the article, I had a significant amount of solace; I felt steadied by the foundation that these rediscovered, basic truths provided.

Shortly afterwards, I watched the film War Room and promptly undertook massive storage re-arrangement in our crowded house (à la Marie Kondo conducting a Navy SEAL team), until I managed to fashion my own little [corner of a] prayer closet. 

Simultaneously, I initiated a couple manageable habits that would get me on the right track with the classic Christian disciplines, as outlined by Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. His Sanctuary of the Soul inspired me further; I read a bit of Henri Nouwen, for good measure. Then, having cognitively and creatively “solved” my faith dilemma, I promptly fell off into the abyss of self-reliance and zero progress, yet again.

Since the deluge of spring rains finally dried out, I renewed my walks along trails that had been flooded, which was handy for pondering my most recent state of Major Fail. Laughably, also annoyingly, the conclusion was that I ponder too much. Thinking so hard, unravelling, restructuring, analyzing — in regards to understanding people I know, the recent riots, political fuel and influence in this age of COVID fear, the Chinese Communist Party, my personal shortcomings, all my attempts to “fix” and do better — this broaches sheer insanity. 

What would happen if my emotional churning and obsessive thinking simply did not exist? So WHAT if I’ve spent decades unraveling predispositions, expectations, hopes, dreams, reality, life? Really — so what? If I died today, all that fabulous churning under my belt, and... with what result? Quite simply, the sun still rises and sets. The churning would have tangibly altered nothing.

Has it done any good to figure out life, solve all the problems, name all the current demons? Or do I sigh contentedly because I get it, and then do nothing? Usually, I’ve drained so much energy on my self-important reckonings, that I have little energy left to actually DO all those things that Christ instructed us to do. 

In as much, I imagine St. Ignatius would conclude that the stupendous fireworks in my brain are not bringing me closer to God, and I should, in fact, put the kibosh on about 95% of my thinking. This was heart-wrenchingly convicting… and simultaneously, strangely freeing.

But wait, there’s more. The humbling realizations don’t end there.  

In addition to over-analyzing, I’m a bit of an over-achiever,  aka I strive to make everything nice and orderly, which my eternally patient husband describes as “kinda controlling.” In my defense, I simply figure if I’ve solved various conundrums in life, I should inform all the participatory parties so that they can enact the appropriate measures to rectify the problems. Sometimes they disagree (wrongly), or won’t (because they are so wrong), or can’t (they so wrongly claim). Which is frustrating, because I could use some cooperation in making everything nice and orderly! 

And here is where the Spirit says my churning fails on a secondary level: not only do the brainworks drain me of energy to actually do the things Christ did, they also fall short of understanding that God works through struggle, through the same imperfect situations that I’ve been straining to fix because they are uncomfortable and impeding my sense of peace.

In actuality, struggle is the beginning of hope. To grow impatient with a struggle is to deny that God works through it, that the struggle is necessary. Trying to usurp that by demanding resolution is, in fact, controlling (and we mustn’t let our husbands be right!).

Our worth does not come from making things good. Our worth doesn’t come from things around us being good or staying good. It definitely doesn’t come from things looking good. Our worth does not come at the end when they finally might become good.  Our worth comes from placing our faith in God, in every messy moment, full stop. 

That means letting the struggle progress in His timing. We have to allow purpose to come from the ugly, disorderly pain, which means we can’t quit, in any way, shape, form, or fashion, before Good comes of it. Good with a capital G.

St. Mother Teresa said it better, “I was never called to be successful; I was called to be faithful. And in my striving to be faithful, my life will be fruitful, and because it is fruitful, you could say I am successful.” It turns out, what I have most needed to detach from are my own ideals, my self-devised definition of success, the inner-strivings that have been serving no purpose.

In the midst of this path-plodding purpose-pondering, God had immense pity and inspired a leader at my church, whom I’ve known for a while, to reach out with some golden spiritual direction. One of the things she shared was this Prayer for the Brokenhearted (emphasis mine).

Merciful Lord of Life,
I lift up my heart to You in my suffering
and ask for Your comforting help.
I know that You would withhold the thorns of this life
if I could attain eternal life without them.
So I throw myself on Your mercy,
resigning myself to this suffering.
Grant me the grace to bear it
and to offer it in union with Your sufferings.
No matter what suffering may come my way
let me always trust in You.

This idea of allowing the struggle to form us, shape us, even when we think we already know the answers and outcome, brought Jonah to mind full-force.  

I find the Book of Jonah bittersweet and way too relatable. His passion for God is clear; he is a devout prophet, after all, and certainly doesn’t lack a solid assurance that God is real. They interact. His genuine love for God is hindered only by his preoccupation with God’s attributes. Namely, this guy wants to be RIGHT. He also doesn’t want to waste his time. 

I am efficient to a fault and always right… so I get that. I’ve even done my own version of stomping outside a city and watching in hopes that it would all go to shambles, per my predictions. (Though, unlike Jonah, my ego would have feasted on the fact that these people listened to me and changed their ways.) 

So, in Jonah’s defense, what appears like unwilling petulance on his behalf might also be read as him simply being very stuck in his own head. He believes he has it all figured out, including God Himself, and has entrenched himself in his narrative to the extent that he undergoes dramatic struggles against God. Compassionately, God uses these struggles to draw Jonah closer by giving him tremendous insight into His mind.  

In chapter 4, while Jonah is stewing in self-righteousness, God uses the shade plant to place him squarely in the wrong. When it withers and the scorching east wind blows into his booth, Jonah ups the ante, claims he’s angry enough to die, and furthermore, says he has every right to be! (Maybe Jonah is a teenager?) To which God replies, “What right do you have to be angry about the brief lifespan of a bush, in which you invested nothing? Whereas, I have the distinct right to care about 120,000 utterly lost people whom I formed in their mothers’ wombs, when they repent!” 

God’s purpose was, is and will always be to draw His creation unto Himself. He knows us intricately and perfectly (Psalm 139). And here’s my point: as much as He loved the Ninevites, He also intricately knew and loved Jonah, which is proven by Him revealing Himself to Jonah via his dismal struggles.  

In conclusion, our world has no shortage of struggles, lately. We have endless impetus to analyze them to pieces, and so many pieces to analyze that we could spend every waking hour doing so. It’s tantalizing, but I’m here to say, humbly, experientially, that you might find yourself no closer to God at the end of it. 

Let the struggles be what they are. They are shaping people, including ourselves, and God is working through them. Resist Jonah’s temptation; it isn’t our place to figure out what God will do. 

Ask Him simply, “What should I do next?” Replace the brainworks and inner striving with action, by doing the next right thing, and pray to St. Ignatius for help to do so. The grace of detachment involves relinquishing our own mental churning. As our Lord showed Jonah, we must trust Him in everything; He will reveal himself, in glory and through struggles, as He wishes.

Jenny Haigler is a Roman Catholic laywoman, she lives in Dallas, Texas.

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