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 | By Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, RSM

The pain of renunciation

Self-denial or renunciation of one’s own will happens throughout life. For example, a person might stay with a disliked, but well-paying, job because of responsibilities toward family members. Parents might refrain from (repeatedly) giving unwelcome advice. Beneficial renunciation requires acting for the good of others, rather than “just getting something off my chest.” In order to counter frustration and resentment, the pain of renunciation requires interior transformation to freely give.

As a context for this, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:

There are no passages [or transitions] without the pain of departure or renunciation:  Christ drew the world’s suffering into himself so as to be able to heal it in that way, and we can be healed and healers only if we are willing to take up our crosses and follow after…Now this, of course, is true Christian optimism: to believe and to know that love is victorious, even and precisely when it is defeated in martyrdom.1

Prayer is a vital and living relationship with the living and true God.2 A living relationship develops as we change; prayer nourishes and causes us to grow. Our self-denial and sacrifices are easier to bear when we turn to the Lord in prayer for consolation and guidance.

Yet, we can become fatigued by the work that faith requires and lose a sense of the mystery of belief. Prayer can degenerate, and at a moment of crisis, belief can seem empty. This loss of faith begins in simple ways. I might discredit what is required by the Church in order to validate my own comfort:  “I do not need to go to Mass on Sundays. I can love God wherever I am.” Scorn can also creep in: “The Church will not tell ME what to believe.” We may conclude that God truly does not care.

Degeneration of faith can take many forms. In addition to discrediting faith, we can also demean prayer, thinking of it as drudgery, something that we do when required or as a matter of routine. These thoughts may hold a certain pride of rejecting God – of proclaiming independence from our Creator.

The journey toward faith begins with the inner sense that I am drawn toward some good outside myself, an interior conviction to know and to be known, to love and to be loved by God. St. Luke urges us "to pray always and not lose heart." (Luke 18:1)

Only as we seek God can we embrace both trial and joy3, which Pope Benedict refers to as Christian optimism. The heart of the Christian message is hidden in the embrace of the cross and resurrection. Each trial can be a passage closer to the heart of Christ. 

Where am I called to renounce self-seeking ways? Where am I invited to ask God to lead me toward the greater integrity for which I was created?

  1. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Fortieth Anniversary of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” in Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward et al. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), pp. 580.
  2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, ⁋2558
  3. St. Thérese of Lisieux, Manuscrits autobiographiques, C 25r.

Sister Mary Judith O’Brien, RSM is a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma. She serves as chancellor of the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw.