Perhaps the most important thing we ever need to learn is this: It is safe to love!
It is safe to love. Yes, it is safe to be vulnerable because we are in loving hands. It is safe to surrender because we fall into light, not darkness. It is safe to be weak because the strength we need is found when we give up on our own power. It is safe give up the hurts we cling to because these lose their force when we are in love. It is safe to trust, to let our loved ones be free, because a power beyond us loves them more than we do and ultimately takes care of their safety. It is safe to give ourselves over without fear because, as faith teaches, in the end, all will be well. And it is safe to live our lives with daring because God, as Julian Norwich assures us, sits in heaven, smiling, completely relaxed, his face looking like a marvellous symphony. The world is ultimately safe. It is safe to love.
But it’s not easy to believe that. Perhaps if we had all been loved perfectly, had perfect confidence, and had never been wounded, disappointed, betrayed, or made to cry tears of regret, we would find it easier to believe that it is safe, that we can trust, that we have no need to protect ourselves, and that we do not need to be forever anxious about how we are measuring up, how we are being perceived, how we are being understood, and whether we are worthy of love.
Most of the time we find it hard to trust because we find ourselves wounded, lacking confidence, anxious about many things, feeling the need to protect ourselves. It is hard to trust and especially it is hard to show weakness and to be vulnerable. In the air we breathe everywhere (sometimes even in our most intimate relationships) we inhale a distrust that makes us want to show a superior strength, attractiveness, talent, intelligence, self-reliance, and cool detachment. Distrust and self- protection are everywhere. It’s hard to let ourselves be vulnerable, to trust that it is safe to love.
And yet, deep down, vulnerability and surrender are what we most deeply want. At every level, we need and want surrender. Morally and religiously, the entire gospels can be put into one word: Surrender. Emotionally, psychologically, and sexually the deepest imperative inside of us is simply: Surrender. And, deeper than all of our anxieties and our need to protect ourselves, lies a truth we know at the core of our being, namely, that in the end we cannot take care of ourselves, we cannot make ourselves whole, and we cannot hide our weaknesses from each other. We need to surrender, to trust, to let ourselves fall into stronger and safer hands than our own.
But in order to do this we need to trust, trust that it is safe to love, to let go, to reveal whom we really are, to show weakness, to not have to pretend that we are whole and self-reliant. This, as we know, is not easy to do. Indeed, on any given day and at any given moment, it is existentially impossible for us to feel safe, to give ourselves over, to be vulnerable. And so we generally risk the cold misery of detachment rather than risk being misunderstood, rejected, shamed, or seen as needy.
How do we move towards trust? How do we, as Henri Nouwen puts it, move from the house of fear to the house of love?
There is no easy way, no simple formula, no magic bullet, and simply realizing where we need to go is not enough to get us there. Awhile back, at a workshop, a woman came up to me at the break and said: “I agree with what you, trust is everything, but … I can’t get there!” She speaks for almost all of us.
How can we get there? How do we pull the trigger on trust?
This is a journey that takes a lifetime. To master this is to be a saint.
So we shouldn’t be surprised if we still find ourselves, at least on any given day, a long ways from where we want to be. Perhaps the best advice comes from Ruth Burrows, the British Carmelite. In her “Guidelines for Mystical Prayer”, she offers us this:
Surrender and abandonment are like a deep, inviting, frightening ocean into which we are drawn. We make excursions into it to test it, to see whether it’s safe, to enjoy the sensation of it. But, for all kinds of reasons, we always go back to dry land, to solid ground, to where we are safe. But the ocean beckons us out anew and we risk again being afloat in something bigger than ourselves. And we keep doing that, wading in and then going back to safety, until one day, when we are ready, we just let the waters carry us away.