Dearest monks, artists, and pilgrims,
John Cassian, one of the early theologians in the Christian church, writes about what he calls the three renunciations. In her book Thoughts Matter, Mary Margaret Funk describes his teaching:
“First, we must renounce our former way of life and move closer to our heart’s desire, toward the interior life. Second, we must do the inner work (of asceticism) by renouncing our mindless thoughts.…Third, and finally, we must renounce our own images of God so that we can enter into contemplation of God as God.”
Renunciations are a kind of fast. They are an intentional giving up of certain patterns or ways of being in the world. For Cassian the first one involves renouncing our former way of life and shifting our focus to our heart’s deep desire. He is assuming here that he is speaking to those who have perhaps become too invested in pleasing others, in achievements, or other externally focused motivations for how we live. We begin by intentionally turning our attention inward, to listen for the way the sacred pulses in our own hearts and live from this holy direction.
The second, he says, is to give up our mindless thoughts. Our minds are full of chatter all the time: judgments about ourselves and others, fears and anxieties over the future, overwhelm at world issues, the stress of illness, stories we tell about our lives, regrets over the past, imagined conversations with others, and more. It can be exhausting to follow all these trails of anxiousness. Meditative practice has always been about calming the mind so that the spirit can listen to another, deeper, truer voice. We need to begin by making the conscious choice to listen, then we need to clear out the babble and prattle of our minds so that the heart’s shimmering can become the focus.
The third renunciation I find the most powerful. We are called to renounce our images of God so that we can meet God in the fullness of that divine reality beyond the boxes. So many of us live with images of God we have been taught by others which are not fruitful to our flourishing. Images of a judgmental God, a vending machine God, a capricious God, a prosperity God. We project our human experiences onto the divine. This is a natural impulse but our soul’s deepening is dependent upon freeing ourselves from these limiting images so we might have an encounter with the face of the sacred in all of its expansiveness and possibility.
We do not have to retreat to the desert or join a monastery to find this path of deepened intimacy with God. We each have the opportunity to choose this inner work of discerning what we hold onto and what we release at every season of our lives. We each have the choice to make. Sometimes this kind of radical simplicity accompanies a move, for example when downsizing from a family home to an apartment. Sometimes we are forced by circumstance to change our outer life, perhaps due to illness or taking care of a sick parent. This exterior transformation is not a necessary prerequisite for the inner transformation we are all called to seek.
One of the beautiful aspects of the liturgical cycle is that the call to reflection and intensified spiritual practice returns again and again each year and meets us wherever we are. The purpose of these acts of letting go is always in service of love. When we fast out of a misplaced sense of competition or a diet mentality, we lose this focus and it becomes something that distorts reality rather than clarifies. When we fast, we stand humbly in the presence of the sacred and admit our humanity. We allow ourselves to be fully vulnerable and ask for the support in transformation we all need. We do not fast by our own sheer will, but by seeking the ground of being which supports and nourishes us as we grow.
Ultimately, we fast and let go of what burdens us so as to clear space within our minds and hearts and souls to await what holy newness is being revealed to us and to recognize it at work. We fast to discover our true hungers.
We will be journeying this Lent through a series of non-physical fasts where we explore what it means to fast from multi-tasking, anxiety, rushing, holding it all together, planning, and certainty and embrace presence, abundance, slowness, tenderness, unfolding, and mystery. If you would like to focus your attention in the upcoming Lenten season on your deeper hungers you are very welcome to join us.
Join us tomorrow as we welcome the amazing Melanie DeMore to sing for us and with us. Melinda is leading our monthly yoga class this Thursday, February 16th. Soak in joy and community together!
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Image © Christine Valters Paintner