In this humanistic age we suppose man is the initiator and God is the responder. But the living Christ within us is the initiator and we are the responders. God the Lover, the accuser, the revealer of light and darkness presses within us. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ And all our apparent initiative is already a response, a testimonial to His secret presence and working within us. The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening.
Thomas R Kelly, Quaker faith & practice 2.10
The spiritual hunger of the contemplative can be satisfied only by a full surrender of the soul to God. The longing of a contemplative soul finds its completion precisely in this deeper offering and surrender to God. The manner in which God draws this surrender in prayer is a mysterious aspect of each contemplative life. It has its unique variations in each life, but one essential fact is that a complete surrender of the soul is demanded by the nature of love. The need to offer all to God becomes a dominant urge within the contemplative soul and, indeed, within prayer itself. God seems to find circumstances in which the contemplative soul is faced with this need as the only manner in which it can live out its hunger for God. The surrender that takes place in prayer is often simply a response to what God has shown as an exclusive option for a soul if it is to plunge ahead in its relationship of absolute love for God.
Donald Haggerty, The Contemplative Hunger
I have found that, as Fr. Haggerty in fact goes on to say, there is no roadmap for this interior process, no way to predict when one might be brought up against an instance of this kind of surrender. It is not something that could be taught in some imagined course on the contemplative life, or foreseen by a perceptive spiritual director, except in the most general sense. As Haggerty says,
We [come to] release our natural grip on possessiveness, our clinging to passing things that are bound to disappear eventually from our lives. We have to learn at times not to defend ourselves against those losses when they come…
We cannot bargain with God over this kind of surrender, I find. There may be unlooked-for compensations further along this line, strange blessings in place of what we have relinquished. Or quite unexpectedly, what we have given up may be restored to us, maybe in another form. But we can never see these things ahead of time, and we can never ever say to God, “I’ll give up this if you’ll give me that.” That isn’t how it works.
But God is gentle, beyond our understanding or expectation. He does not demand these surrenders, nor force them on us. We come to realise that “God wants nothing but complete surrender, although he will never make an absolute demand for it (Haggerty).” Circumstances, it is true, may take things from us – an illness, an accident, a betrayal may take away things we have held dear – but there is always the opportunity not to surrender them to God, but to fight to recover them, to demand compensation, to find someone or something to blame… Sometimes, though, I have discovered, there is a real inward hint ahead of time: “If you accept this course of action, there will be consequences,” almost as clear as a heard voice. The stronger the call to whatever it is, the more radical the choice, the clearer the inward hint. It is never explicit – one does not know what the consequences may be, in my experience – but it is there, along with the absolute sense of rightness of the possible action.
The realness of these things is inescapable. The call to surrender, to trust against trust in God, is not remotely imaginary. René Voillaume wrote:
All the great Christian contemplatives are unanimous in their testimony: whatever the spiritual path, the union with God is perceived by them as real, a more existential reality, more solid, more full of being and certainty than any other experience of the physical world. In this sense, it is true to say that contemplatives are the most realistic of men.
There are many times in one’s life, though, that these instances of surrender are simply absent, and when they do appear they can be so unexpected as to seem momentarily unreal. They come not usually as answers to prayer, but in the context of prayer – sometimes fervent prayer, maybe not of petition or intercession, but of longing contemplation. I have found them in the smallest occasions of life, as well as at the great crossroads of change and pilgrimage. The one thing that does seem to be common to them all is that they are done in the shadow of the Cross. They are ways to lay down one’s life, with all that that phrase entails. They are ways to pain; and, like the Lord we follow, we cannot see beyond that to whatever unimaginable Resurrection may lie on the other side.
There is something, too, of the forgiveness of the Cross about these strange occasions God brings to us. These losses may come through the action, or inaction, of someone else. Our acceptance of the surrender may open the door to harm, intentional or unintentional, at the hands of someone else. Then they become opportunities not only of renouncement, relinquishment, of some known good, but of love and forgiveness; in the utter mystery of God, love and forgiveness not only of our oppugner, but of ourselves. They can thus be strange acts of cleansing, healing even – a glimpse of purgatory on earth, if that is not a presumptuous suggestion.
Oddly, these occasions of loss – and that is what they are, make no mistake – are also occasions of grace. They lie under the great overarching promise of Romans 8.28, “[a]nd we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” and they can be, like all losses rightly accepted, windows into the purposes of God himself. Weak though our vision is in this life (1 Corinthians 13.12), we can glimpse through them something of the vast economy of Heaven, the fields of blessing and redemption that lie beyond the final door, the last living surrender to God in the arms of Sister Death.
Being a small-s self has its disadvantages… Yet that seems to be God’s will for the most of us. “Give up on giving that up! It isn’t yours to give up.”
If you think of what you want from a child, total submission is most certainly not it. Freedom from the griefs of childhood, eventually, yes. But you don’t want any child bronzed & set into some dead form…
Is trying too hard to comply with God’s wishes a frustration of them?
I didn’t think I was describing “trying” at all – merely what I’d encountered over the years, really!
For me there’ve been occasions when I seemed to have been given an Assignment, and needed to carry that out with great diligence. But then what I’d thought it meant turned out to be more than God had had in mind; succeeding was not the object.
There were moments of feeling God at work in what happened and what I did… but also moments of reconsideration: “This isn’t really the way I’d thought that would turn out.” It’s not that results were harmful, or that they didn’t in fact help some of the people who’d needed it.
Mostly I learned a lot about the obstacles that [for example] block any effective help to the growing homeless population here in the US.
It was a sort of koan: It’s plainly against God’s intention for us that anybody should need to sleep on cold pavement, be fed poorly, be despised by their fellow humans, forced to gather their belongings and move in the middle of the night. It’s not like you need to check your Bible to confirm this. And yet it’s plainly God’s intention that, for now, some people will have to live this way while the rest of us will need to digest the contradiction, like me: not able to personally correct the situation, too old [like many others out there] to live that way myself or to benefit anyone by doing so. And I met some pretty good people in these adventures (though some of these are dead now, and some simply gone out of view…)
Feeding everyone in this city would take a modest effort from a relatively small number of people (aside from ordinances making unauthorized food lines illegal) but it doesn’t happen. When I asked a visiting Zen teacher why that doesn’t happen, he said “Maybe you have expectations.” Um. Not wrong to have expectations, but you can’t expect to have them satisfied.
I wanted an easier Assignment, and got it, and that too was God’s working.
So if you think your Assignment is utter surrender of your s-elf, I can’t be sure you’ve misunderstood something, I just believe so [if I’ve understood _you_!) Hey, a human being misunderstanding the Divine, how unusual…
Ah, I see something of the problem. Utter surrender of the self? No. Utter surrender of, or preparedness to surrender, the self’s possessions, ambitions, expectations, in given circumstances, yes. Enough. It’s gone midnight here!