Feed your spirit: Detachment, starting point for prayer

Feed your spirit: Detachment, starting point for prayer

By Fr. John Orme Mills O.P.

Photo: “Solitary” by spodzone on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

VOCATION MINISTERS ARE ASKED to have supreme detachment: to not focus on results, to allow discerners freedom in decision-making. The late Meister Eckhart scholar Father John Orme Mills, O.P. explores this theme of detachment, which is a major facet of Eckhart’s spirituality.

Let’s listen to Meister Eckhart giving advice in the middle of the 1290s to the young Dominicans in the priory at Erfurt. This is what he’s telling them this time:

Brothers, people say: “O Lord, I wish that I stood as well with God and that I had as much devotion and peace with God as other people, and that I could be like them or could be as poor as they are.” Or they say: “It never works for me unless I am in this or that particular place and do this or that particular thing. I must go to somewhere remote or live in a hermitage or a monastery.”

Start with yourself therefore and take leave of yourself. Truly, if you do not depart from yourself, then wherever you take refuge, you will find obstacle and unrest, wherever it may be. Those who seek peace in external things, whether in places or devotional practices, people or works, in withdrawal from the world and self-abasement: however great these things may be or whatever their character, they are still nothing at all and cannot be the source of peace.

First of all, people should renounce themselves, and then they will have renounced all things. Lo and behold, yet once again Eckhart is saying seemingly dismissive things about devotional practices and withdrawal from the world and self-abasement—the things which were considered so important in monasteries and convents at that time and which, in various disguises, have gone on being considered important in much of the Christian world. He’s saying to this group of young men that these things “cannot be the source of peace.”

But I’ve picked this passage because in it we hear Eckhart saying that if we are in a confused state of mind, if we don’t feel we’re making any progress towards sharing God’s life, the answer is not to go rushing off somewhere, or go climbing rocky mountains in bare feet, or whatever. No, we must, as he says, “start with ourselves.” And what does this mean? He goes on to say we must “take leave of ourselves,” we must “depart from ourselves.” And what does that mean?

The key word in Eckhart’s account of how we human beings can enter into union with God, can share God’s life, is the word in Middle High German abegescheidenheit, translated into modern English as detachment. As far as Eckhart is concerned, detachment is the supreme virtue, the virtue which in fact comprehends all the other virtues—even faith and love and humility.

This sounds very odd to English speakers of 2000 AD. Detachment is a virtue which we think judges should have and inspectors should have, and possibly the people who assess your suitability for a job or a mortgage, but we’re inclined to think of it as a cold virtue which many of the most lovable people we know don’t possess. But when Eckhart is talking of detachment he is talking about something very different. As far as he’s concerned, to be truly prayerful is to be detached. In one of his sermons he says, “All our perfection and all our blessedness depends upon our breaking through, passing beyond all createdness, all temporality and all being, and entering into the ground that is without ground.” And that “breaking through” is what he means by “detachment.”

Eckhart was certainly not a hermit—he was, on the contrary, a member of the Order of Friars Preachers, a Dominican. He was a man whom we know was constantly on the go, a man who was continually having to travel (by foot, remember), preaching and lecturing, making visitations to convents, attending meetings, defending himself against his critics, relating to all sorts of people. But detachment was not, in his opinion, something attained by busyness—by filling one’s life with all sorts of activities. Quite the contrary. His language and his thought were riddled with paradox, and you could also say this about his life.

The one thing that makes sense of all his teaching on how we can enter into union with God is his understanding of what God is like. He says somewhere, “If God is God, he has it from his immovable detachment, and from this detachment he has his purity, his simplicity and his immutability.” God is profoundly unlike any creature. To sum up what Eckhart says about God in a number of places: he is not a being; he is eternal and changeless; he is wholly One yet present in the deepest depths of every created being. As he puts it himself:

God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore he is everywhere and is everywhere complete. He is everywhere on account of his infinity, and is everywhere complete on account of his simplicity. Only God flows into all things, their very essences. Nothing else flows into something else. God is in the innermost part of each and every thing, only in its innermost part, and he alone is one.

 And, in answer to the question, “What does God love?” Eckhart replies: “God loves nothing but Himself and what is like Himself, in so far as He finds it in me and me in Him.” It is for this reason that we are to seek to become detached: for, in becoming detached, we become most like Him, and, in Eckhart’s words, “God is bound to give Himself to a detached heart.” Note that he says bound. I leave you with his words from another occasion:

True detachment is nothing other than this: the spirit stands as immovable in all the assaults of joy or sorrow, honor, disgrace or shame, as a mountain of lead stands immovable against a small wind. This immovable detachment brings about in man the greatest similarity with God.


The late Father John Orme Mills, O.P. was a member of the Dominican Order in England. He edited the journal New Blackfriars and at one time served as assistant to the master of the order in Rome. This article is part of a talk he delivered to the Eckhart Society, and is reprinted with permission. Find the full talk at eckhartsociety.org.

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