Surrendering to Love


Perhaps all of Jesus’ invitations to us can be summarized in one word, surrender. We need to surrender to love.

But why is that difficult? Shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world? Isn’t our deepest desire a longing to find love and surrender to it?

True, our deepest longing is to surrender to love, but we have some deep innate resistances to give ourselves over in surrender. Here are a couple of examples:

At the Last Supper in John’s Gospel when Jesus tries to wash Peter’s feet, he meets a stiff resistance from Peter – Never! I will never let you wash my feet! What’s ironic here is that, perhaps more than anything else, Peter yearned precisely for that kind of intimacy with Jesus. Yet, when it’s offered, he resists.

Another example might be seen in the struggles of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, one of the most gifted spiritual writers of our generation, enjoyed immense popularity. He published more than 50 books, was a much sought-after professor (tenured at both Harvard and Yale), received invitations daily to give talks and lectures around the world, and had many close friends.

And yet, inside all that popularity and adulation, surrounded by many friends who loved him, he was unable to let that love give him any real sense of being loved or of being lovable. Instead, through most of his life he labored inside a deep anxiety which had him believe that he wasn’t lovable. On occasion this even landed him in clinical depression. And so, through most of his adult life, surrounded by so much love, he was haunted by a sense that he wasn’t loved, nor worthy of being loved. Moreover, he was a deeply sensitive person who more than anything else wanted to surrender to love. What held him back?

In his own words, he was crippled by a deep wound he couldn’t quite name and whose grip he couldn’t shake. This was true for most of his adult life. Eventually, he was able to free himself from his deep wound and surrender to love. However, it took a traumatic death experience for that to happen. Standing too close to the highway at a bus-stop one morning, he was struck by the mirror of a passing van which sent him flying. Rushed to a hospital, for some hours he hovered between life and death. While in that state, he had a very deep experience of God’s love for him. He returned to full consciousness and normal life as a profoundly changed man. Now, after experiencing God’s love for him, he could finally also surrender to human love in a way he had been incapable of previous to his “death” experience. All his subsequent books are marked by this conversion in love.

Why do we fight love? Why don’t we surrender more easily? The reasons are unique to each of us. Sometimes we are dealing with a deep wound that leaves us feeling unlovable. But sometimes our resistance has less to do with any wound than it has to do with how we are unconsciously fighting the very love we so painfully seek. Sometimes, like Jacob in the Bible, we are unconsciously wrestling with God (who is Love) and consequently unconsciously fighting love. 

In the Bible story where Jacob wrestles all night with a man, we see that in this struggle he has no idea that he is wrestling with God and with love. In his mind, he is wrestling with a foe he needs to conquer. Eventually, when the darkness of the night gives way to more light, he sees what he is wrestling with – and it is a surprise and shock to him. He realizes he is fighting love itself. With that realization, he gives up struggling and instead clings to the very force he had been previously fighting, with the plea: “I will not let you go, until you bless me!”

This is the final lesson we need to learn in love: We wrestle for love with every talent, cunning, and strength inside us. Eventually, if we are fortunate, we have an awakening. Some light, often a crippling defeat, shows us the true face of what we have been wrestling with and we realize that it’s not something to be conquered, but it’s the very love to which we have been longing to surrender.

For many of us, this will be the great awakening in our lives, a waking up to the fact that in all our ambitions and schemes to show the world how worthwhile and lovable we are, we are in unconscious ways fighting the very love to which we ultimately want to surrender. And, usually, as with Jacob in the biblical story, it will take the defeat of our own strength and a permanent limp before we realize what we are fighting against is really that to which we most want to surrender.

And this is surrender, not resignation, something we give ourselves over to rather than something that defeats us.

A Single Line Says it All!


You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

No single line, outside of scripture, has ever spoken to me as powerfully, as persistently, and as hauntingly, as that line from St. Augustine. In essence, it’s Augustine’s life story – and the story of each of our own lives as well.

As I read and study, I am often struck by a powerful line in some author which I immediately underline and copy. I have a whole booklet of quotes from Shakespeare, Aristotle, Plato, Aquinas, Teilhard, Einstein, Albert Camus, Steve Hawkings, Doris Lessing, Milan Kundera, John Steinbeck, Karl Rahner, John of the Cross, Ruth Burrows, James Hillman, Anne Frank, and Ivan Illich, among others. Yet, Augustine’s haunting line stands out among all these. 

What he asserts is that there is an incurable restlessness inside each of us that keeps us perpetually dis-eased. I have always felt this strongly in my own life and, while still in my twenties, wrote a book, The Restless Heart, in which I tried to articulate a spirituality for the restless (and perhaps mostly for myself) on the basis of this line from Augustine. Through the years, I have kept my eyes open for comparable and complementary expressions of Augustine’s famous axiom. Here are some:

Karl Rahner, a renowned theologian of the late 20th century, in writing to a friend who feared he was missing out on too much in life, offered this counsel: In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we learn that in this life there is no finished symphony.

The biblical author, Qoheleth, expresses it this way. In a passage familiar to most of us (“there is a season for everything”) helays out for us the rhythm of nature as God set it up. He tells us there’s a beautiful rhythm to time and nature and that everything has its proper time and place. However, he then ends with this stunning statement: God has made everything beautiful in its own time, but God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are out of sync with time and the seasons from the beginning to the end. We never peacefully fit into the rhythm of things because something inside us is outside of time.

And who can forget the haunting words of Anne Frank, writing as a teenager locked away in an attic, hiding from the Nazis, jumping out of her skin with the restlessness of an adolescent and the anxiety of an artist, sharing that she simply can never be fully in the moment because I want to be everywhere all at the same time.  

Doris Lessing, the British novelist, asserts that inside each of us there’s a powerful, relentless energy (“1000 volts”) which keeps us perpetually dis-eased. Writing outside of a faith perspective, she asks, what is this energy for? Her answer: For everything and for anything – creativity, love, sex, justice. Nobel prize winning writer, Albert Camus, also writing outside of any faith perspective, had this interesting way of understanding the human spirit. He compared being inside human nature to being a prisoner trapped inside a medieval prison. Medieval prisons were designed to break the prisoner’s spirit by putting him in a room too small for him to ever fully stand up or to ever fully stretch out. The ceiling was too low and the room was too narrow. The intent was that eventually this would break a prisoner’s spirit. For Camus, that’s how we experience ourselves inside our own nature. The world is simply too small for us to ever really stand up or to ever really stretch out, and this wears away on our spirit.

These are some poignant expressions of this dis-ease, but there are expressions of it everywhere. Hinduism speaks of a certain “nostalgia for the infinite”inside us; Plato speaks of a “divine madness” at the center of the soul; Shakespeare speaks of our “immortal longings; Ruth Burrows opens her autobiography by confessing that she was born with a pathological complexity which has made her life a struggle; James Hillman, in a brilliant book, Suicide and the Soul, submits that most suicides occur because the soul is not being heard and consequently kills the body; and Philip Roth speaks of the blizzard of details that constitute the confusion of human biography.

Literature, philosophy, poetry, art, psychology, biography, theology, and spirituality are replete with expressions of this insatiability inside the human soul which ultimately cannot come to full peace with anything in this world. But this is as it should be. For Augustine, writing some 1700 years ago, this restlessness, this timelessness, this homesickness, this divine madness, these 1000 volts of energy inside us, this pathological complexity, and this confusion of human biography which keeps us perpetually restless, is at the end of the day, our greatest attribute; it’s God’s gift to us of immortality and divinity as a constitutive part of our soul.

Hypocrisy’s Two Faces


The subtlety of hypocrisy! How easy it is not to see our own inconsistencies, even as we so clearly see the faults of others. Are we willfully blind, or is it that we just don’t see? Is this a moral problem or a visual one? Consider these examples:

In his travels, the eighteenth-century explorer, Captain James Cook, once spent several years in the Polynesian Islands. He learned the native language and was befriended by the people. One day, they took him to witness a human sacrifice. The tribe still practiced a certain animism and would sometimes offer a person as a sacrifice to their gods. Cook, a sophisticated English gentleman, was understandably appalled. He wrote in his diary that he expressed his indignation to the chief, telling him: This is awful! You’re a primitive people. In England we would hang you for that!

The irony in Cook’s reaction shouldn’t be missed – and it isn’t missed by anthropologists. When we kill someone in God’s name, it doesn’t matter whether we call it human sacrifice or capital punishment. Either way, we are sacrificing a human life and justifying it in God’s name.

A second example comes to us from the writings of Bill Plotkin who once spent time studying various initiation rites which pre-modern tribes use to initiate young boys and young girls at the age of puberty. As we know, puberty can be a dangerous time for a young person. Puberty hits a young person with a certain violence which heats up both the body and the psyche. However, it must be kept in mind that this powerful unsettling force had been designed by God and nature with a definite purpose, namely, to drive you out of your home, to push you towards finding a home for yourself, and to end your childhood so as to enter adulthood. Understandably, powerful energies are needed to accomplish that.

But these energies can be hard to contain and hard to initiate in the direction of adulthood. Indeed, almost all pre-modern cultures had initiation rites to help direct that process. Today most cultures (not least our own) have precious little in terms of explicit initiation rites.  What Plotkin found in his study of pre-modern initiation rites is that all of them were very demanding, physically, and emotionally, on the youths undergoing them that sometimes a youth undergoing them died during the process.

Looking at this, Plotkin comments that our modern sensitivities are offended by this seemingly primitive cruelty. We easily become morally indignant and see these practices as backward and cruel. However, he goes on to point out, these tribes actually lose very few young people in the passage from puberty to adulthood – while we, sophisticated modern cultures, lose thousands of young people every year who are trying to self-initiate through drugs, alcohol, sex, cars, gangs, and at-risk behavior.

Aye, as Jesus once said, it’s easy to see the splinter in someone else’s eye even as we are unaware of the beam in our own eye.

Now I say all this more in sympathy than in judgment because hypocrisy isn’t all of a kind. There is a hypocrisy where the blindness is more willful, and there is a hypocrisy where the blindness is more innocent. Thomas Aquinas once distinguished between two kinds of ignorance. For Aquinas, there is culpable ignorance and there is invincible ignorance, that is, sometimes we don’t see because we don’t want to see, and sometimes we don’t see simply because we can’t see.

In culpable ignorance we do know better. We refuse to look at something because we don’t want to see the truth. Our inability to see is predicated on rationalization and fear, a willful refusal to look lest we see what we don’t want to see, some inconvenient truth. In culpable ignorance, we don’t see the parallel between human sacrifice and capital punishment because we already intuitively sense the connection and we don’t want to see it, and so refuse to look.

In invincible ignorance we don’t know any better. Our shortcomings have to do with the limits of our humanity, our background, and our experience. We aren’t afraid to look at reality. We look, but we simply don’t see. Like Captain Cook, in all sincerity, we simply don’t see the parallel between human sacrifice and capital punishment, and, unlike Bill Plotkin, we can easily judge pre-modern initiation rites as cruel and appalling, even as thousands of our own young people die cruel senseless deaths in trying to find the passage of life from puberty to adulthood.

All of us, liberal or conservative, have blind spots in terms of how we see and assess various social justice issues, be that climate change, poverty, abortion, immigration, refugees, racism, women’s equality, or gender issues. Standing before these complex issues, are we willing to look them square in the face, or are we unwilling to really look at them because we already intuit what we might see? Is our blindness, our hypocrisy, culpable or invincible?