No Man Is an IslandWeek 2: Christian Renunciation

Our Book of the Month is No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton. Last week, we looked at being versus doing. In chapter 6, Merton tackles the difficult topic of renunciation or asceticism. I’m interested in this topic because the mystics and contemplatives from the past sometimes engaged in asceticism and are often misunderstood for it.

So what is Christian asceticism or renunciation? What were all those mystics up to? And what are we up to when we fast or otherwise sacrifice some of our comforts—during Lent but also at other times?

Merton writes:

Self-denial delivers us from the passions and from selfishness. It delivers us from a superstitious attachment to our own ego as if it were a god.

But Merton has a warning. Renunciation is not a matter of ruthlessly denying or perpetrating violence upon our bodies. It begins with God, not us:

It delivers us from the “flesh” in the technical New Testament sense, but it does not deliver us from the body. It is no escape from matter or from the senses, nor is it meant to be. It is the first step toward a transformation of our entire being in which, according to the plan of God, even our bodies will live in the light of His divine glory and be transformed in Him together with our souls.

Here are more of Merton’s thoughts on Christian renunciation:

There is only one true asceticism: that which is guided not by our own spirit but by the Spirit of God. The spirit of man [and woman] must first subject itself to grace and then it can bring the flesh in subjection both to grace and to itself. “If by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live” (Romans 8:13).


Those, then, who put their passions to death not with the poison of their own ambition but with the clean blade of the will of God will live in the silence of true interior peace, for their lives are hidden with Christ in God. Such is the meek “violence” of those who take Heaven by storm.


We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things. To have a spiritual life is to have a life that is spiritual in all its wholeness—a life in which the actions of the body are holy because of the soul, and the soul is holy because of God dwelling and acting in it.


And here’s a wonderful thought. True asceticism, as in the passages above, can lead us to love and serve other people:

To say that Christian renunciation must be ordered to God is to say that it must bear fruit in a deep life of prayer and then in works of active charity. Christian renunciation is not a matter of technical self-denial, beginning and ending within the narrow limits of our own soul. It is the first movement of a liberty which escapes the boundaries of all that is finite and natural and contingent, enters into a contact of charity with the infinite goodness of God, and then goes forth from God to reach all that He loves.


You can read No Man Is an Island here.


For reflection:

Merton week 2