This is the third and final book of Sr. Mary Margaret Funk’s trilogy of works on spirituality, specifically centering on the teachings of one of the great monastic teachers: John Cassian (360-420), who wrote The Institutes and The Conferences. St. Benedict used John Cassian as one of his sources for his Rule. Funk’s two previous books in the trilogy are Thoughts Matter: the Practice of the Spiritual Life (1999) and Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life (2004).
This book is not a casual read; it is very deep at times, requiring careful reading and thought. It could be used as a private retreat. Toward the end of the book, Funk has dialogues with three saints: St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and John Cassian. These dialogues are hard for a reader to read out loud to and be understood by a group of people, as the reviewer and his monastic community discovered when it was read at the evening meal. That aside, the book has much to teach anyone looking into the spiritual life based on ancient Christian teachings.
Funk discusses the four renunciations based on the teachings of John Cassian:
The first renunciation concerns willingness to convert. The second is divided into three parts: afflictions of the body (food, sex, and things), afflictions of the mind (anger, dejection or depression), and afflictions of the soul (acedia or soul sickness, vainglory, and pride). The third renunciation is concerned with renouncing thoughts of God, which means that God is not what we think or imagine; He is beyond that. In this renunciation, Funk calls upon St. Teresa of Avila to help explain by having an imaginary discussion with her. The fourth renunciation is concerned with becoming detached from our thoughts about our self. God becomes everything for us. We somewhat no longer matter, and we realize we are in the presence of God. Funk uses an imaginary conversation with St. Therese of the Child Jesus to show how this works. St. Therese’s Little Way is an example of this renunciation.
- Former way of life
- Thoughts of former way of life
- Thoughts of God
- Thoughts of self
Funk concludes with an imaginary conversation with John Cassian to better illuminate these renunciations, how a spiritual direction session was conducted in Cassian’s time, and what can be done today. Funk also presents some appendices; in the third one she provides Scripture lectio (readings) on the eight afflictions that are renounced by the four renunciations she discusses in Humility Matters. Funk ends the book with some bibliographical notes on the desert and monastic tradition. After that, she provides a select bibliography on spirituality and prayer.
The reader should not be thwarted if this book looks difficult to read and understand. It is not a book to leisurely read, but it is a book that will help with your spiritual life. It is not based on any Eastern religion like Buddhism or Hinduism; it is based on ancient Christian spirituality that has been tried and found to be helpful. The other two previous books should be read before this one since they follow in sequence.
Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, O.S.B., is the director of the School of Lectio Divina at Benedict Inn in Beach Grove, Indiana, where her monastic community is located. She gave the reviewer’s monastic community one of its annual retreats based on her first book, Thoughts Matter. From 1994 through 2004, she was the executive director of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, the way that the Benedictines carried out its charge from Pope John Paul II to dialogue with non-Christian monks and nuns. She is the author of Islam Is: an Experience of Dialogue and Devotion (2003), El Corazon En Paz (2001), A Mind of Peace (1999) and several articles.