Friday, August 13, 2010

Reconciling with Renunciation

Recently I re-read a short portion of John Michael Talbot's book The Joy of Music Ministry that struck me in a paradigm-shifting way. I suppose one could say what I read redeemed a paradigm I've lived with, or that it freed me to know that my understanding is limited, and that I can delight in knowing that there is more than one way for me to understand what God does in my life.

In a post last spring called The Human and the Holy I wrote about a classic example involved here: In my young 20s, I loved 60s music, especially the Monkees, but I was persuaded by preaching I heard that this music was worldly and that I should give it up. I did, rather dramatically. Later I became a Catholic, and I learned that being human and having human interests was the way God made me. It's that whole Incarnation idea, you know. It was a very deep aspect of my conversion that is still profound in my life.

But here's the thing. I have been hung up on how wrong it was for me to give up the music like I did. But here's what I read from John Michael Talbot:

Jesus attracted disciples... [He] called people to Himself and asked them to be initiated into discipleship. This initiation was through renunciation. Jesus called His first disciples to renounce all possessions, positions, and relationships in order to follow Him. This is radical, but also typical of all the religious and mystical masters. As Evagrios, the Christian monk and theologian said, we must, "renounce all to gain everything." Why is this so prominent?

I believe it all comes back to being able to hear and make God's music again with one's whole life. We have all fallen into patterns of orientation and behavior that are disordered. We have become part of the discord.... It's not that the things we use are always wrong. Sometimes we just use the right thing wrongly. This results in suffering and death. It results in discord and the death of God's harmony and peace....

Specifically, this means letting go of the senses and emotions of the body and the thoughts of the mind or soul, in order to break through to the spirit.... This is why the masters all demand complete renunciation at the beginning of conversion. Sometimes it is only for a time. Sometimes it is for life. But this renunciation of all enables us to be re-oriented towards a healthy use of our thoughts, emotions, and senses, with the spirit being unquestionably first in our life... even especially [in] the little things of mundane reality in our lives. When these little things become opportunities for the miracles of rebirth, then the big things can be approached without the danger of the old ego and self trying to sneak in. (p. 29-30)

This helped me to realize that the core of what I've struggled with is not the renunciation, but the dramatic and almost violent way in which I tend to approach renunciation. Perhaps I should use the word passionate rather than violent -- that word choice being an example of the very thing! I can appreciate how the music I loved took up God-shaped space in my heart and life. I can see how giving it up freed me to belong to Christ more fully. Yet, as a young 20-something, it was difficult for me to separate out the positive call to discipleship from Jesus from my gung-ho "Yes Lord" that had me straining my spiritual muscles to the point of pain. It's as if I valued the pain more than Christ, or mistook the pain for Christ. Pain is not foreign to discipleship, but I think the crux of the matter is differentiating a sharing in Christ's pain, borne of love, and a pain I undergo in a teeth-gritting, man-this-is-going-to-hurt-but-Jesus-asks kind of way. That goes back to this other post I wrote recently, about gouging out one's eye. Christ is no sadist; He does not love to see us in pain. He loves us to be with Him, and to be immersed in the fire of His passion, in the life of the Blessed Trinity, which is self-donating love.

I still am called to practice renunciations of various sorts from time to time. I believe that in general I have learned to be more gentle in it, but I see that I still have a ways to go before I always realize that real renunciation is always an act of love, of passion, of unity with Christ.

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