John Cassian’s Three Renunciations

As a text written for monks,  John Cassian’s Conferences often feels a bit harsh if not extreme to me, as a secular reader here in the twentieth century. But even so, there are still surprisingly relevant treasures hidden within this 1600-year-old text. The third conference, called The Three Renunciations, includes this tantalizing insight, in which Cassian considers three renunciations essential to the vocation of a monk: to illustrate, he quotes Genesis 12:1′s description of Abraham’s renunciations as he seeks to live into his calling:

‘Come away from  your native land and from your family and from the house of your father.’

Cassian sees “native land” as symbolic of renouncing worldly wealth, while “family” suggests renouncing identity and “house of your father” implies renouncing “all worldly memory arising before our eyes.”

But I see another way of understanding these three renunciations: in light of Ken Wilber’s theories of the evolution of consciousness. In terms of moral development, Wilber speaks of consciousness moving from egocentric (“it’s all about me”) to ethnocentric (“my tribe is good, all others are evil”) to worldcentric (universal care and compassion). Ultimately, as consciousness traverses into transpersonal realms, even worldcentric consciousness is transcended. Now, the point is not so much that we renounce early modes of consciousness as we evolve, but it is important that we differentiate from an earlier stage in order to identify with a higher/later stage. Perhaps Cassian’s renunciations are not unlike what a psychologically savvy spiritual guide would mean today when talking about differentiation. And these three differentiations are indeed important: to transcend the egocentric (leaving behind the self-centered will to power), and then transcend the ethnocentric (leaving behind identification with the tribe), and ultimately even leaving behind the world-centric (disidentifying with the manifest realm in order to embrace the transpersonal dimensions). And this seems mighty similar to Cassian’s three renunciations of worldly wealth (the ego’s acquisitiveness), family and identity (the ethnocentric self) and finally even the “house of the father” — or the manifest realm itself.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • sandrar

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.