Detachment is one of the most important, and difficult, of monastic concepts. The basic definition is to “separate from”. In brief, detachment refers to the “separation” of a person from their desires. Thus it has elements of renunciation in it. Detachment carries with it the concept that desire will still be present, but the person will not obey it or let it produce evil behavior or attitudes. In this regard it resembles resisting a temptation. This use of the term applies to detachment from illicit or immoral desires.
More importantly though (and more difficult to understand) is detachment from valid, morally neutral or “normal” human drives. Thus, for example, a person may find within themselves a desire for acceptance by peers or authority. These are not sinful desires in and by themselves. Yet, because of the choice to live a humble and serving life a person may release these drives and “detach” from them.
This raises many questions. For one thing, how does a person “detach” from a licit desire without becoming proud of the accomplishment? The answer is that the monastic feels the pleasure of God in their choice. They surrender one desire to gain a greater gift. They must be in prayer to gain this trade. Furthermore, the monastic realizes their weakness. They realize that this ability to detach is a gift. It is not dead works, but grace. They are called to a private life of communion with God, but the “price” is accepting His will to forgo some desires. Any attempt, however, to be proud about the detachment will remove the communion. It is rather like the difference between legalism and the conquering of sin by grace. A quiet, humble and resting heart marks true monastic detachment.
Another question that arises is this: why just some desires? Why not all desires? In short, the answer is that detachment doesn’t derive from principle but from leading. The person feels they are called by God to surrender some desires. To renounce all desires on the principle that pleasure is evil leads to excess self-denial and is not supported by biblical teaching (see asceticism).
A person can exercise detachment from self importance (or significance, ambition, power or “ego”) and instead be motivated by concern for others and for the advancement of the kingdom. This is an extremely useful application of detachment. It is greatly needed today in the church world and can produce excellent results. In the individual it produces surrender of self will to the will of God and great rest. In a corporate context it reduces competition and promotes body ministry and unity.