I'm currently reading a wonderful book by Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B., Thougts Matter: The Practice of Spiritual Life. With reference to the teaching of John Cassian, a fourth century monk, Funk offers sound guidance along the path toward Christian holiness. She argues, following Cassian, that three renunciations are required of us as we move along this path.
The first is the renunciation of our former way of life so that we might move closer to our hearts true desire: unimpeded communion with God. Often referred to as conversion, repentance, or change of heart, it is basically about reordering our exterior life to facilitate deep soul work. It is about making the necessary changes in our daily life so that we can get past the "automatic chatter of unconscious living" as Funk puts it.
The focus of this book, however, is upon the second renunciation: the renunciation of thoughts and our attachment to thoughts so that we might engage in unceasing prayer. Here, Funk explores the traditional order of mental preoccupations that undermine such prayer: food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia (spiritual listlessness), vainglory (taking credit for what God has done), and pride. These are listed in order of increasing complexity. We must renounce them to attain purity of heart and the peace that flows from it.
The third and final renunciation, is to renounce our very idea of God so that we can love God truly as God is. "Since God is beyond all thoughts, images, and concepts, then we must renounce our cherished beliefs for the sake of loving God as God." This is the most difficult renunciation.
Thoughts matter. "We must seek God and not our own thoughts. If we have not renounced our thoughts, it is easy to think that our thoughts are God. God is both beyond our grasping - not our next thought after this one - and also not a thought at all! It is very difficult to undergo the first two renunciations, to let go of our former way of life, and also to let go of our interior thoughts, but these are only steps, and necessary ones, for the deepest conversion toward God as God and the experience of pure prayer (contemplation)."
Funk has done us a great service by demonstrating that the Christian tradition includes practical instruction on training the mind that seekers often feel they must look to Eastern religions to discover. And she never loses sight of the fact that such mental training is in service to the love of God and neighbor.