The Grace of Trust

Looking down 1900ft from the Cabo Girão skywalk, Madeira

There are times when we can do all that a fellow creature needs if only he will trust us. In getting a dog out of a trap, in extracting a thorn from a child’s finger, in teaching a boy to swim or rescuing one who can’t, in getting a frightened beginner over a nasty place on a mountain, the one fatal obstacle may be their distrust. We are asking them to trust us in the teeth of their sense, their imagination, and their intelligence. We ask them to believe that what is painful will relieve their pain and that what looks dangerous is their only safety. We ask them to accept apparent impossibilities: that moving the paw farther back into the trap is the way to get it out – that hurting the finger very much more will stop the finger hurting – that water which is obviously permeable will resist and support the body – that holding onto the only support within reach is not the way to avoid sinking – that to go higher and onto a more exposed ledge is the way not to fall. To support all these incredibilia we can rely only on the other party’s confidence in us – a confidence certainly not based on demonstration, admittedly shot through with emotion, and perhaps, if we are strangers, resting on nothing but such assurance as the look of our face and the tone of our voice can supply, or even, for the dog, on our smell. Sometimes, because of their unbelief, we can do no mighty works. But if we succeed, we do so because they have maintained their faith in us against apparently contrary evidence. No one blames us for demanding such faith. No one blames them for giving it. 

CS Lewis The World’s Last Night

I have been struck recently by the truth of this passage for my own relationship with God. The times in my life when I have come through the most difficult circumstances have been those times when I have been most conscious of the infinite trustworthiness of God. Quite literally, if I had not trusted God’s grace and mercy, especially as Paul explains it in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, I couldn’t have come through to be sitting here writing this. And yet, of myself, I am not capable of that kind of trust, when all the evidence of sense and intellect points to the radical untrustworthiness of the whole situation. To trust God enough to walk out on what appears to be thin air is only possible through prayer; to trust God enough to pray rather than run is sheer grace, an act simply inaccessible to the unaided human will.

The priest, abolitionist and ex-sea captain and slave trader John Newton, who knew a thing or two about desperate situations, wrote sometime before 1779:

Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
   That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
   Was blind, but now I see. 

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
   And grace my fears reliev’d;
How precious did that grace appear
   The hour I first believ’d! 

Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares,
   I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
   And grace will lead me home…

All that is is gift. There is nothing else. The air we breathe, the slender band of temperatures in which we can survive, the earth beneath our feet, the steady beating of our hearts – we brought about none of this by our own will or intention, and we cannot sustain any of it by our own will or intention either. Whatever happens, we cannot fall out of God, who holds all time, all things, within the love that is his istigkeit, his own being:

I saw that [our Lord] is to us everything which is good and comforting for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he is everything which is good, as I understand. 

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand… 

In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third is that God preserves it. But what did I see in it? It is that God is the creator and protector and the lover. For until I am substantially united to him, I can never have perfect rest or true happiness, until, that is, I am so attached to him that there can be no created thing between my God and me.

Julian of Norwich, Showings, Ch. 5

[Originally published on The Mercy Blog, 5/1/2019]

Before I was afflicted…

Walter Brueggemann writes, in Praying the Psalms, of their use of the “language of disorientation and reorientation… as old in the Bible as the call to Abram and Sarai to leave their place and go to another” – where of course they are not only relocated, but transformed, as their new names, Abraham and Sarah, remind us and them. Brueggemann goes on to associate disorientation with “the wrong place”, characterised in the Psalms with the image of “the pit” – as for instance in the opening of Psalm 28:

To you, Lord, I call;
you are my Rock,
do not turn a deaf ear to me.
For if you remain silent,
I shall be like those who go down to the pit.
Hear my cry for mercy
as I call to you for help,
as I lift up my hands
towards your Most Holy Place.

Reorientation Brueggemann associates with the image of finding safe refuge under the protective wings of God – for instance in Psalm 61:

…lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent for ever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.


or perhaps even more tellingly in Psalm 63:

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

As Brueggemann points out, this need not be understood as escapism: it may simply be the acknowledgement of “that the resources for life are not found in “us” but will have to come from another source outside of self. It is the recognition of the disoriented person that a new orientation must come as a gift.” (ibid.)

I have come to recognise, from periods in my own life of desolation and functional solitude (being alone in the sense not necessarily of physical isolation, but of being cut off from understanding and comfort: “You have taken from me friend and neighbour – darkness is my closest friend.” (Psalm 88.18)) the power of this kind of prayer, and how actually to pray the Psalms, to take their words and make them one’s own, brings strength and refuge, comfort even, in the darkest places. I honestly believe that at these times in my life I would not have come through had it not been for the Psalms.

But there is another strand in the Psalms’ treatment of suffering that I have not seen in Brueggemann’s account, and which is found in its fullest form only in Psalm 119; and that is the recognition of suffering as in itself somehow a route to healing and restoration. It was in this darkest time that I mentioned in the last paragraph that I first came to notice these passages clearly, though I must have read them in passing often enough. The three passages occur close together in this longest of Psalms, between v. 67 and v. 75:

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I obey your word.
68 You are good, and what you do is good;
    teach me your decrees…

71 It was good for me to be afflicted
    so that I might learn your decrees…

75 I know, Lord, that your laws are righteous,
    and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me.
76 May your unfailing love be my comfort,
    according to your promise to your servant.

This was for me the key to the whole thing: the way that my loneliness and distress made sense, how it did after all connect with the Gospel – which is after all to be translated “Good News” – and how through some deep mystery it connected intimately with the Cross. I had not at that time read the Catechism of the Catholic Church – not that I have read the whole thing now! – and so I was unaware of this passage:

The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men”. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men. He calls his disciples to “take up [their] cross and follow (him)”,[Mt.16:24] for “Christ also suffered for (us), leaving (us) an example so that (we) should follow in his steps.”[1Pet.2:21] In fact Jesus desires to associate with his redeeming sacrifice those who were to be its first beneficiaries. This is achieved supremely in the case of his mother, who was associated more intimately than any other person in the mystery of his redemptive suffering. Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.[St. Rose of Lima]

Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC618 [some refs. abbreviated]

This is one of those passages which some may find hard to take; but I can honestly say that it was quite simply my own experience. In turning to Christ in the Jesus Prayer, in these words from Psalm 119, and psalms like 61 and 63, the suffering that I had come into became, once accepted for what it was, itself the means of my endurance.

It’s really important to understand that none of this was my doing. None of it came about through any particular insight or perspicuity of mine, still less through any imagined godliness: it was all sheer gift, as Brueggemann recognises. Any resources for this kind of survival must come from beyond the self, which is of course why it is so widely recognised that in matters of mental health the first and often the most vital step is to talk to somebody! Nor am I saying that the ultimate healing of these wounds of the spirit comes purely through the prayerful acceptance of suffering. My survival may, in my own instance, have come that way – but it was only after the passage of many years, and through skilled and patient help, that their effects have finally come to be something like healed. But their value – that is another matter entirely. One of the hardest things to take is the illusion of the pointlessness of one’s own suffering; the realisation that it is not, after all, a waste of life and hope, but a way into endless life and indestructible hope, through and not despite the Cross (as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief…”) is what brings us to that refuge, “in the shadow of [his] wings…”

“I Surrender All”

sdr

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.