Catholicism: Day 29 – Stoic vs. Christian Detachment

Yesterday’s spiritual exercise asked us to read the introduction to the Spiritual Exercises, which is titled the “the first principle and foundation.”

It states that humans are meant to “praise, reverence, and serve God our lord” and as a result, “save their souls.”

It then goes on to state that everything else in the world was created as a means for us to more appropriately serve God.

The closing sentences are particularly striking:

Consequently, on our own part we ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one, and so on in all other matters.

Rather, we ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created (SE 23).

Consider these Stoic quotes:

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple ,a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s. – Epictetus

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well. –Epictetus

This is what I mean, Lucilius: a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian. As we treat this spirit, so are we treated by it. Indeed, no man can be good without the help of God. Can one rise superior to fortune unless God helps him to rise? He it is that gives noble and upright counsel. In each good man  

A god doth dwell, but what god know we not.       Seneca

If Seneca, and Epictetus had been born 1500 years later, they would have made good Jesuits.

It’s fascinating to study how the Jesuits and the Stoics taught others to live with the randomness of the world, and how to become detached from it.

The Stoics focused on desiring things as they are and to only focus on things within their control.

The Jesuits focused on using the material world as a way to move closer to God, to fulfill our purpose and save our souls.

We spend so much time trying to manipulate our material environment. We want to live in a nice house, have a nice career, have health bodies, etc.

But what’s the point? Even if we have those things will we fulfill our fundamental purpose as human beings?


Cal Newport writes about the importance of having a mission when shaping your work life.

To have a mission is to have a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on your world— a crucial factor in loving what you do. 

He goes on to give good advice about finding a specific, actionable, and impactful mission that requires developing enough career capital, placing small bets, and marketing the mission.

This is all well and good, but that could potentially take decades. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, but perhaps there is some “intermediate” mission we can take on.

The Jesuits have the right attitude. They recognize that the most important mission is to serve God to save our souls.

This mission has a few distinct advantages:

  1. It is fundamentally meaningful. If serving the divine is not meaningful, I don’t know what it is.
  2. It is indifferent to your status or wealth. This means you don’t have be the pre-eminent scholar in your field or some superstar to contribute to this mission.

Let’s take the example of Saint Alphonso Rodriguez. Rodriguez faced significant tragedy during his lifetime, losing his father at a young age and eventually, his wife and three children by the time he was in his 30s.

He eventually entered the Jesuits as a brother, serving as a doorkeeper at the College in Majorca, Spain for 46 years.

Most of us, including myself, would find a job as a doorkeeper as beneath us. I would probably find ways to become cynical about the organization that employed me and think about ways to escape my menial job and pursue a much more prestigious and lucrative career.

In short, I would be miserable.

Contrast this with Rodriguez’s attitude towards his work:

St. Alphonsus was devoted to finding God in the present moment. “Lord, let me know you. And let me know myself,” he would pray. Each time the bell rang, he looked to the door and envisioned that it was God himself who was standing outside seeking entrance. On his way, he would say, “I’m coming, Lord!”

Because Rodriguez was able to detach himself from the material conditions he found himself in (widowed, uneducated, etc.), he was able to find meaning in his work. He was able to serve God in his capacity as a doorman.

Detachment Today

To find happiness and contentment, I suspect it is necessary to first detach yourself from the material world.

This doesn’t mean we all need to become ascetics or monks, but we do need to let go of our baser ambitions.

As we become more detached, we have more mental space to focus on what truly matters.

The Jesuits believe what matters is God, but I think you can substitute God with what God represents (love, compassion, etc.). This representation of God serves as an overarching mission that can guide us in our everyday life.

Then, we take into account reality, and find some ways to integrate our mission into this reality.

You may not, for example, have the skills to make the discovery that finally cures cancer, but perhaps you are in a position to serve as an administrative assistant at a cancer research institute.

As your skills grow, you can find more impactful ways to contribute to the mission of curing cancer.

Instead of focusing on the indignity you suffer as an administrative assistant as a basis for making future decisions, you instead focus on the bigger mission, the greater good and see how you can humbly contribute to the greater good.

This, of course, takes work. You cannot force yourself to be humble in a single day. It takes a lifetime of training.

Consider the difference between the self-centered and happiness focused modern approach and the detachment and mission centered approach.

Modern advice uses your unhappiness or the indignity you suffer at your job as reasons to quit your job to find something that will make you happy. It starts with the question, “Am I unhappy?”

The detachment and mission-centered approach would start with the question “how can I best serve the greater good today given the circumstances and material conditions I exist in?”

Though the latter approach may be vague and confusing, it will lead to greater rewards.

My detachment and humility problems

I personally struggle with being detached from my work. I constantly think about all the ways I am unhappy. The work is boring. The client is an idiot. My co-worker is annoying. Blah blah blah.

Stoicism helped quite a bit with toning down those reactions, or at least, limit the duration of my distress.

But I’ve never had a good overarching mission, a desire to be a part of some greater good. I’ve only had ambitions for myself, not for others.

I’ll need to find ways to

a)    Find a meaningful mission and

b)   Find ways to contribute to that mission in my daily life

Because my Catholicism month is coming to an end, perhaps other ancient philosophies or religions will help me in this quest.