Renunciation and a Proper Relation to the Goods of the World

Among the words that frequently give rise to great misunderstanding is the word renunciation. In the book that adapts Buddhist analytical meditations for Christians (which I’m in the midst of editing right now), I talk about renunciation as a value promoted by all faith traditions.

Some people hear the word renunciation and think it means they have to live a life of complete asceticism, not enjoying any material comforts. Even the word itself sounds negative; we hear it and cringe, thinking it means we are being asked to completely give things up, or at least that we are not supposed to enjoy them.

Renunciation, however, is not fundamentally about what we have or don’t have. In Seasons of Celebration, Thomas Merton writes, “True sanctity does not consist in trying to live without creatures [material goods]. It consists in using the goods of life in order to do the will of God. It consists in using God’s creation in such a way that everything we touch and see and use and love gives new glory to God.”

In order to do this, we have to develop the ability to use the things of this world without being dominated by them. That is, to not be attached to them.

That means that renunciation is about our state of mind. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “the emptiness which God requires [is] that of the renunciation of personal selfishness, not necessarily that of the renunciation of those created things which he has given us and among which he has placed us.”

Renunciation is not easy. And developing the emptiness of which Cardinal Ratzinger speaks requires that we recognize where we are acting out of personal selfishness and attachment. That is a good subject to reflect on during our daily examen.