What we may ‘give up’ in Lent is simply serves the greater renunciation on which any integrated for of life grows into fullness. Lent helps us remember what this greater ‘letting go’ means and how each of us is called to make it absolutely – when the time is ripe. Until then, we simply learn day by day to be as real as we can be.
In many religions it was widely believed that the big renunciation of life could only be achieved through the monastic path. For the great majority, family and worldly affairs dragged them down and blocked that full gift of self which is the highest human achievement. By turning their back, not only on career and fame, wealth, sex and family but all ‘worldly affairs’ monks soared into enlightenment. on a higher plane of reality. The words of Jesus – the way to life is narrow and few find it – were misinterpreted to imply this.
Of course, lay people can come as close or closer to the renunciation of attachment to the ‘worldly affairs’ in their daily work and family responsibilities. All kinds of vocation have the same primary potential. What matters is not the outward form – the family hearth or the cloister – but how we fulfil the responsibilities associated with the particular path we are following.
To understand this means seeing how renunciation happens. When you push some ‘worldly’ aspect of life away from you – say an addiction or an excess -it does not automatically or immediately leave you alone. Things repressed tend to return. When you expel something by force it often springs back in some way if only as a compulsive desire or fantasy. There is a stray cat on Bere Island which I feed in the kitchen but throw out of the house, only to find it has had the nerve to re-enter through an open door or window in another room. Lent and the mantra both teach us this swing between renunciation and return. What appears to leave often returns.
Renunciation when it comes is a gift, a simple happening, a natural occurrence. To renounce we have to renounce the idea of renunciation as well. We cannot renounce by will-power if the essential renunciation is the renunciation of the will. We can loosen the grip but renunciation happens by itself.
So we come to see that the only renunciation that matters is what leads us into full freedom and spontaneity. This awaits the renunciation of all kinds of force and allows us to be filled instead with the power of the spirit.