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Fasting and the Three Renunciations ~ A Love Note from Your Online Abbess

Dearest monks and artists,

This week begins our Lenten journey through the desert of our hearts. If you want to make an intentional pilgrimage with kindred spirits, we invite you to join our companion retreat to my book A Different Kind of Fast, where we explore different kinds of fasting including from speed and productivity and from craving certainty. 

This is an excerpt from the introduction of the book:

One of the early teachings of the Christian church I find helpful to understand fasting is from John Cassian who talks about three renunciations. Cassian, an early theologian in the Christian church, writes about what he calls the three renunciations.[1] Renunciations are an intentional giving up of certain patterns or ways of being in the world and one form fasting can take. 

For Cassian the first renunciation is of our former way of life and shifting our focus to our heart’s deep desire. He assumes his listeners have perhaps become too invested in pleasing others, in achievements, or other externally focused motivations for how we live. By beginning to intentionally turn our attention inward, we listen for the way the sacred pulses in our own hearts calls us to live from this holy direction. 

The second renunciation, Cassian says, is giving 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. 

Intentional thought and meditative practice have always been about calming the mind so that the spirit can listen to another, deeper, truer voice. In the beginning we may need to start by focusing our thoughts on an object of attention, as in centering prayer where we choose a sacred word to bring our awareness back to the divine. As we continue this practice, however, we eventually may find ourselves not needing to focus thoughts anymore, but simply listening to the heart’s wisdom. We begin by making the conscious choice to listen by quieting and clearing 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 even our images of God so that we can meet God in the fullness of that divine reality beyond the boxes and limitations we create. So many of us have inherited harmful images of God 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 depends upon our 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 might feel called to fast from these life-denying images to open our hearts to something wider. 

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 it. 

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. 

Please join us! We begin our Lenten retreat journey on Wednesday. We would love to have your presence with us. 

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

Image: Paid License with Canva

[1] Margaret Funk, Thoughts Matter, Liturgical Press (2013), 9

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