A Reflection on Attachment, Addiction, Psychology, and Spiritual Formation: Part Five

Attachment, as we have seen in previous articles (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four), is central to addiction, recovery, and spiritual growth. St. Ignatius of Loyola describes his Spiritual Exercises as “every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul.”

The order here is critical: First, we are “identifying and letting go of inordinate attachments,” or those things that distract our attention and our love from the one thing that is worth pursuing, namely, the God who has created, loved, and saved us. The more we do this, Ignatius implies, the more disposed we are for “seeking and finding the will of God.”

We often get this exactly backward. I wonder about, pray about, ask others about, and do anything to figure out, who God is and what God wants from me. But we fail to see that our understanding of and relationship with God are obscured by all the distractions in our lives. 

We expend so much of our love on “attachments” that can’t fill us that we miss God completely. Worse, even if we do come to know God in some way, we have no love left for him. Without love, we see God as a judge, as a doting grandfather, or as distant and uncaring. In other words, we end up worshiping an idol.

This is the essence of addiction. Feeling empty, we try to fill ourselves with all the “people, places, and things” that eventually, if we ever do get into recovery, populate Step Four. These are the “inordinate attachments” that St. Ignatius wants us to see littered throughout our lives. They are the bonds that hold us back from God and the obstacles in the road that keep us from moving toward Him. In the end, we end up in a Hell of addiction, surrounded by our failed attachments, and far away from the God who is our true longing, our highest innate desire.

Working my program via Al-Anon certainly helped open my eyes to the number and variety of inordinate attachments in my life that continue to distract me. My mind is still too easily pulled aside from the vision of God by the things that make me feel good, excited, fulfilled, esteemed, loved, or worthy but these things don’t ultimately fulfill me in any lasting way. Even after completing all of the Twelve Steps, I felt helpless in the face of my many addictions and my various “defects of character,” which were now all the more apparent to me.

That’s when my spiritual director suggested St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. In a sequence of four “weeks” (more like seasons than weeks), I am led, in the company of a wise director, through a confrontation with the real causes of addiction in my world, my relationships, and myself. And this is my fundamental estrangement from a God against whom I and every other human being has rebelled and yet who still loves me and longs for me so passionately that he would rather die for me rather than lose me. 

This is a far greater God than I could ever discern “as I understood Him,” and I am brought through the muck of my addictions and character defects to the foot of the Cross, where I can only kneel in dumbfounded gratitude.

And that is just the first “week”…

I then move forward through three more “weeks,” being immersed in the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of this God-become-man. I am shown clearly the “Two Standards,” a spiritual exercise that reveals there is no compromise possible. I can choose either my attachments, which turn out to be the minions and tools of the Enemy of my soul. Or, I can choose my cross, which turns out to be the Cross of Christ himself. 

Through all of these exercises, I am led towards the “contemplation of the love of God,” who has created me, loved me, saved me, and drawn me through all of my attachments to himself. Brought yet again to the foot of the Cross, I can only choose to live a life of gratitude and love while warring constantly against the “inordinate attachments” that still distract me.

St. Ignatius was a highly addicted man prior to his conversion. He found his way to spiritual recovery through these spiritual exercises and he eventually codified and refined them to offer others a grace-filled way forward. They certainly and powerfully augmented my own recovery program. For all of us “Catholics in recovery,” I highly recommend this journey into the very heart of Christ himself.

You can find out more information about Ignatian spirituality here. You can also learn more about an online retreat that can be done anytime here. And you can find a more in-depth treatment of an aspect of Ignatian spirituality that ties particularly to recovery here.


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a therapist, a recovering codependent, and a grateful convert to the Catholic Church. He lives and works in the Pacific Northwest, and is the proud dad of two young adult children.