Learning detachment

This post is part of a series about re-thinking my relationship to food, which I call “The Saint Diet” to remind myself that the ultimate goal is deeper union with God. You can read all the posts on the subject here (scroll down to see them all).

Over the past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time in prayer in order to get more clarity on what, exactly, God is leading me to with this clear call I’ve heard to rethink my relationship with food. After a lot of mental gymnastics and overanalysis on my part where I tried to figure out if this is about cutting out sugar or being more healthy during pregnancy or getting set up to get to a good weight postpartum or what, in prayer one day it became crystal clear that there is just one simple goal that I am being led to by following this path:

Detachment.

That’s it. I need to discern the unique path (a path that’s different for everyone) that will release me from the unhealthy attachment I have to certain nutritionally void foods and put food in general in its proper place in my life. The other things that I might want to see happen — reaching a goal weight after breastfeeding, cultivating a taste for nutrient-rich foods that are conducive to physical and mental fitness, etc. — will probably come as part of the process, but they’re not the main goal. They can’t be. Even though those things are very important, 17 years of experience have taught me that I cannot achieve those goals on a long-term basis on my own. I must have God’s help; and the more detached I am, the more room I give him to help me.

This is probably obvious to a lot of people, but it was a big breakthrough for me. To be detached from food (or anything) doesn’t mean that you think it’s bad or you don’t enjoy it, just that it has no power over you, that you don’t ever want it more than you want God. (Aimee Cooper has more on the subject of detachment in a great post here. The last two paragraphs are especially helpful.)

This is critical for someone like me to understand, because it’s easy for me to get derailed into sin or self-indulgence when I get too focused on the sub-goals that are part of the detachment process. For example, I might discern from prayer and talking to my doctor that I need to cut out foods full of refined sugar for some period of time, and that might be a good and worthy goal. But if I fall into the mentality of thinking that the entire goal is “to cut out sugary foods,” that too easily leaves me open to developing new attachments to other foods, overeating because I miss the pleasure of sweets, fixating on this one plan even if it’s clearly not doing what it’s supposed to do, developing a controlling, perfectionist mentality that will inevitably lead me to throw in the towel, etc.; whereas if I see the goal as “to cut out sugary foods as part of the overall process of becoming detached from food in general,” with an openness to carefully modifying the plan if it doesn’t bear good fruit spiritually or physically, it helps me approach it in a much more God-focused way and not get derailed into sin or self-indulgence when I hit roadblocks.

This is why I thought I’d go ahead and share my ramblings on this aspect of my spiritual life, even though I know many people don’t share my specific issues with food: because most of us have some worldly thing (or, for some of us, many things) to which our attachments stand in the way of our relationship with God. And this part of my spiritual journey is not about a diet; it is, I now realize, about detachment.

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24 Responses to “Learning detachment”
  1. needagoodnickname says:

    I’m looking forward to the comments on this. I’ve been confused by my reading of the “old books” which often seem to me to take such a dim view of actively seeking happiness in this life (other than in the relationship with God through prayer, or seeing others converted, etc.), and the emphasis by some more modern orthodox Catholics on how we can still enjoy, and actively seek to enjoy, so much of what we have ever wanted in this world, while still obeying God and the Church. Sometimes you might read or hear from the same people some sort of nod to the idea that we need to be “detached” from things even as we seek them out, but to me it’s not very clear in meaning. Hope I’m describing my confusion correctly but probably am not. And it is primarily confusion and not criticism of the “moderns.” I want neither to dismiss what the classics seem to me to be saying, nor to decide that I must be held to erroneously severe standards that make me one of a tiny little faithful remnant among the laxists all around.

  2. coffeemom says:

    Great stuff, keep rambling. It’s very much worth reading and I’m thinking along these same lines too. I have a lot of the same food behaviors and possibly issues as you…and yeah, it’s always about the detachment – food or otherwise isn’t it? And I’m just so bad at it, detachment, that I keep needing more opportunities to practice. Sigh. Love this series of posts. M

  3. chelsey says:

    I am so enjoying these posts, as I think I share many of the same issues with food. The verse that keeps coming back to me is when Paul says in 1 Corinthians, ‘All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.’ For me, that’s how I need to view food.

    There isn’t any one food that’s sinful for me to eat, but my eating becomes a sin when it starts to take hold of my life, when all I can think about is food, when my desire for a certain kind of food completely rids me of any self-control or discipline.

    Last week for the first time I started paying attention to how I felt when I ate, and asking God for awareness. I exercised as usual. I lost four pounds and now weigh less than I’ve weighed in two years, after all that time of maintaining weight in an unhealthy way.

    I’m so totally with you, and I’m so looking forward to future posts.

    –Chelsey

  4. Sebastian says:

    This is a good way of looking at the change, not a categorizing or counting of each bite of food, but a reordering of food as less important than your relationship with God. It is detachment from unhelpful food, but a closer attachment to God.

  5. SWP says:

    Everything you’ve said about detachment from food as a means of overcoming what sounds almost like an addiction could equally apply to vices such as internet porn use or cursing.

    It’s so hard to unlearn behavior. I am so impressed with your diligence and your desire to overcome in a wholistic way; you acknowledge that every attempt at self-improvement necessarily involves thwarting the Evil One.

    Godspeed, Jennifer!

  6. aimee says:

    Thanks for the link, Jennifer – and great post! Many – all, probably – of the saints practiced a simple diet. The interior disorder caused by original sin also affects our appetites, you know!

    I think that anything we have unhealthy cravings for (not just food – could also be alcohol, sex, porn, shopping, TV, money, anything) could be pointing to an inner emptiness that needs to be filled by God – the only thing that can really fulfill us and make us happy.

    For the first commenter who noted being confused between older and newer books, Catholic spirituality has always gone through phases. Older books might focus more on what’s called “negative theology”, more on sin and penitential practices; newer books on “positive theology,” the love of God and goodness of creation.

    Both are true, but it’s important to realize that either way this world is passing away, and it is in and through God, our union with Him, that we are saved and brought into the new creation. The practice of detachment is not because the world is bad, but because we and the world are fallen, and need to be restored. The restoration begins in us, interiorly, and as we are remade through the sacraments and prayer and following the teaching of the Church; and then God works in and through us in the world to restore and raise up the world.

    So, do what brings you closer to God, avoid what takes you away, and use everything to glorify Him – even if it’s something as little as keeping your house clean and being polite to people at work!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hello. "Happy are you Poor: The Simple Life & Spiritual Freedom," by Thomas Dubay (the author of Deep Conversion, Deep Prayer and Prayer Primer) helps a great deal with detachment from food. All the best.

  8. Laura says:

    This is a great post. I know I struggle with the same issues. Why is it that I can give up chocolate and other sweet stuff for 40 days in Lent and not let it bother me, but the minute Lent is over, I’m back at it? I, too, struggle with this same attachment. I look forward to following your journey!
    God Bless!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I have really enjoyed your posts and they are now a part of my daily life. This post and the one about surrender have really changed my outlook over the past week.

    My commute to work takes an hour so I recently started to pray the rosary, 2 decades on the way to work and two on the way home. However, I have noticed that my mind wanders to things like work, finances, family issues, volunteer issues and my own personal addictions and I am really just “saying” the rosary. I realized, thanks to your blog, that I need to surrender all of those “things” of my life, detach myself from their power, and focus on what is really important. I gave up my opportunity to truly praise God and filled it with my own trail mix of problems, issues and concerns. If I surrender all to Him and for Him, I can truly praise Him.

    This past week my addictions led to my not accepting communion at mass on Sunday. I was truly heartbroken. I gave up the Ultimate Gift for my addiction. Once again, your post on surrender echoed in my mind. Tying to the discussion on spiritual dry spells, we can see that surrender and detachment are the actions we need to take to get to the next step (i believe it was illuminative way) on our journey to achieving our ultimate goal. We have to take the steps necessary to put Him at the center of our life. We have to remove those things in our life that keep us away. To truly seek Him, not for our glory or “good vibrations” but because we truly want Him. I will be attending confession this week and I will be a joyful servant, accepting the Gift of the Father.

    Thanks to “aimee” for her post, a good concise answer to needagoodnickname. The ability to connect the past with the present is a difficult thing to do when defending the faith. Great answer!

    Thanks to Jennifer for her “ramblings”!

  10. Josephene says:

    What has been most wonderful about learning detachment from food — something many people in our Western world should develop — is a freeing of mental space! Every day my mind was pre-occupied, to the greatest degree, with food: what to eat, what I ate, what I want, what I shouldn’t, how much, calorie counting, depressed about eating failures. I woke up each morning wondering what to eat, and went to bed struggling to stop eating.
    It was obsessive, exhausting, depressing.
    I became vegetarian for a few reasons, this being one major reason, and have educated myself on many things food related (ingredients, organics, local food, alternative sources for various nutrients). It’s been helpful.
    Of course, all this has been bundled up with prayer, the encouragement of my husband, and having children.
    God bless this journey of yours!

  11. Anonymous says:

    What an insightful and convicting post. Answers all my concerns about “some people need carbs to be healthy”.

    You blow me away every time I come here. Thank you for being such a presence in my life!!!

  12. Katie says:

    This is good stuff. I am a new reader (I found you by way of Willa at Sierra Highlands), and appreciate your ideas.

    I thought you might like to know you have a new reader. :O)

    I struggle with disordered loves too (I’ve also heard it called unlawful love, because we are loving whatever-it-is more than we love the Lord), and I appreciate you pointing out the Catholic idea of detachment.

  13. MichelleF says:

    I almost shouted out in agreement about the detachment. There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing all aspects of life dovetail. If you revisit the Daily Schedule for the Missionaries of Charity you will notice they eat three meals a day at the same time everyday plus a short tea break. They don’t ever have to wonder if it’s time to eat, when they last ate, or if they’re eating because they’re hungry or because they’re emotional. It’s 12:30, time for lunch, eat and get on with doing the work God has asked us to do. This is also what is so appealing about NoS. Same principal. It is exactly as you say. You can’t be detached from something if your bogged down in the minutiae of carbs, sugar and fat. Important to be aware of certainly, but just as big of a problem. Your just trading obsessions. Good luck. I love watching (reading) your mind work.

  14. My Year Without says:

    What an interesting way of looking at our relationship to food! I have never thought of it in such spiritual terms before.

    I cut out refined sugar last year for my 2008 New Year’s resolution. I found some really easy, simple things to do that really helped….like replace the junk in my kitchen with healthy snacks.

    I DO NOT view food the same, since. I am going another year (at least) without sugar, because I have control over it now that it’s completely out of my diet. I could not control it in moderation. I had to quit cold turkey.

    I realize this isn’t the right way for everyone! I learned a lot about myself and the psychological aspects of “needing” a food. I am so glad to be over that, because I really believe that sugar was the one thing that kept me distracted from things more important.

    Now, when I go to parties/weddings I don’t even think about the goodies that will be there, because I am not going to eat them. I actually think about the people I will see and talk to! Imagine that!

  15. Abigail says:

    I love this series, thank you!

    I struggle with a short temper. My “short fuse” has gotten much better with going to Daily Mass, but its still an up and down recovery process.

    Something I learned this year helped a lot. Jesus has the power to instantly remove something from my life. If he’s keeping some “weakness” in my personality after much prayer on the subject, its for some greater glory.

    For me, I’ve been horrified that after months of a calm temper, I have days were I revert back to my bad temper. My outbursts are never as bad as before I became Catholic, but they still used to “shock” me.

    “How can I still lose my temper like this when I went to Daily Mass today?” was something I used to think frequently.

    I’m pretty sure that my continued struggle with my temper is to teach me the virtue of humility. If Jesus had healed me instantly from one “one big fault”, I’m sure my resulting pride would be dreadful. Instead, my frequent slips of temper remind me how helpless I am on my own. They keep me humble, return me to frequent prayer and keep me in frequent line in the confessional.

  16. Therese Z says:

    I have just been praying like crazy about this very thing: detachment, especially in terms of food. God bless you and ain’t it something about that Holy Spirit for urging you towards this blog topic just when I needed to read it!

  17. Spring says:

    Love these posts about the spiritual side of food addiction. I had never thought about it in this light and I’ve found these posts insightful and meaningful in my own struggle with food. Hope you’ll write more about this!

  18. Erika says:

    Jennifer, I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog over the past year or so, and I’m intrigued by this turn toward the topic of food. As a former sufferer of eating disorders, I have given a great deal of thought to food, especially throughout my own conversion. I’m not sure I have any answers, but your recent posts have brought up a couple points in my mind.

    Jesus instituted the last supper saying “eat, drink, this is my body.” He shared meals with his friends during resurrection appearances. Our main act of worship as liturgical Christians is eating. A previous post of yours was about a revelation that took place during Eucharistic adoration where you gazed lovingly at our Lord in, er, a piece of food.

    I get your drift about not letting our worldly loves separate us from God and not letting our desire for control do the same; however, I wonder how detachment from food can be squared with Jesus’s obvious preference for it as a vehicle for his union with us? Especially in view of the Catholic belief that the bread and wine actually become Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity–it’s not food as a symbol, it’s food as the incarnate living God.

    I liked that a previous commenter revisited the daily rule of the Sisters of Charity as a model of how we might structure our days to clear out decisions about food (and the attendant angst) that might clutter our minds and keep us from God. I also wonder if the Orthodox practices of fasting and feasting might offer the same kind of freeing structure. Interestingly, both approaches are rooted in tradition and the communal practice of the Church. Neither could ever be said to be influenced by the diet whims of the age, nor the preferences or proclivities of the individual.

    Thanks for giving me such great food for thought! (Sorry. I just couldn’t resist.) This conversation has helped me decide to plan out meals and snacks for the week ahead of time so I can focus on my toddler and newborn more and worry about meal prep (and the risk of unhealthy snacking!) less. Peace–

  19. Juli says:

    I definitely share your attachment to food. I did really good a couple of years ago with eating healthy and breaking that attachment with food, but then I got pregnant again and started my same old bad habits. I am now just starting over at trying to get out of the bad habits and break my attachments. It is really a lifelong process and should be done during pregnancy as well. You don’t have to rule out ever eating sweets again. Just not often. And of course in moderation.
    Sometimes reading too many books and how-to’s can be overwhelming. If you listen to God I really think he tells you what is good and bad. You know when you’ve gone overboard in eating, because you feel horrible. On the other hand when you’re eating what is healthy, you usually feel great. I’ve had so much energy and my mood has been wonderful since I’ve started eating better these last couple of weeks.
    I look forward to more posts on this topic, because I know that I have that same attachment to food as you do.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jen,

    He fills the hungry with Good things. That says it for me.
    as does: Feast on Him not on food.
    Stop being a slave to food.

    Sugar? makes me ravenous and hyper..
    I am amazed at how sweet pumpkin,
    green peppers and brussel sprouts are..
    Want crunch? Ezekiel 4:9 bread..
    In short: 3 meals a day like the monks and nuns..
    This structure along with prayer for detachment eliminates the ” thinking about food all day long”.
    All that food obsession left no time for real prayer, being fully present to God, to others, and, good grief, even to myself.
    Ok, enough food chat.
    What am I doing with all the free mental time? You guessed it:
    praying and listening and getting
    serious about the barriers I confess every Saturday.and, get his, thinking more about other people and how not to be the straw that breaks their backs.. not to mention how to leave them happier than they might have been before we
    came in contact. Thank you for this
    blog. I read two blogs a day.This is one of them.

  21. Jennifer @ Conversion Diary says:

    Thank you for all these great comments!

    Erika -

    I wonder how detachment from food can be squared with Jesus’s obvious preference for it as a vehicle for his union with us?…

    It’s funny you mention that. One thing that really jumped out to me that was part of making the whole “detachment” thing click was when I read the line in Chapter 6 of John that says, “My flesh is true food, my blood is true drink.” It occurred to me how crazy it is for me to be attached to earthly food when I have TRUE food available to me at the Mass. Again, this doesn’t mean that I think we should eschew or dislike food — we can appreciate and enjoy it as the gift from God that it is — but that the only Food we should be attached to is that which we receive at the Mass.

    It’s something I’ve been thinking about a LOT and will definitely write more about soon, the way receiving Christ in the Eucharist has impacted my view of food.

    Thanks!

  22. Tracy says:

    I recently found your blog and would love to spend more time reading your posts.

    BTY, I have passed along the “Marie Antoinette” blog award to you for being “real in who you are”. See my last post for details!

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