March 2012

Surrender is not weakness, nor resignation

The notion of surrender has little appeal to a post-modern sensibility, perhaps suggesting capitulation and weakness. Yet the word held real strength and potency, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

My friend uttered the word twice. We were having a meal just a few hours before I began my annual retreat. The context in which she used the word eludes me, but not the impact. The word became the focus of my reflection and prayer for the next week and beyond. The word was ‘surrender’.

The notion of surrender has little appeal to a post-modern sensibility, perhaps suggesting capitulation and weakness. Yet the word held real strength and potency for me. Before reflecting on my own need to surrender, I was taken with a new thought stirring deep within – something about God’s surrender.

During the following days I began to see how the ‘big ticket’ items of my faith – Creation, Incarnation, Salvation, Eucharist, Trinity – could be viewed through the lens of this word ‘surrender’. They are all in some way about God’s self-surrender, God’s surrender to me, to us and to the entire cosmos.

The new cosmology which tells the story of the origins and destiny of the universe, thrills me. It stretches my mind and heart as it invites me to reconsider my image of God. Gone is the idea of a universe and a God who is in any way static, mechanistic or fixed. God doesn’t deal in blueprints. The universe, the primary revelation of God, reveals a God who is incomprehensible Gracious Mystery, a God who is Birth-giver, Sustainer and Lover.

In the initial Big Bang, or the “flaring forth” as cosmologist Brian Swimme likes to call it, God pours Godself out endlessly and ceaselessly in creation. Karl Rahner says, “God is the prodigal who squanders himself,” surrendering life, light, power and energy. In the words of Elizabeth Johnson, “The act of creation is already a Pentecost, a first and permanent outpouring of the fiery Spirit of life.”

And there is more. 13.7 billion years after the initial flaring forth, God further surrenders Godself by becoming human. Jesus Christ, doesn’t cling to his equality with God, proclaims Paul in his magnificent Philippian’s hymn, but empties himself as he takes on our humanity – our wonderful, limited, messy humanity.

Jesus models how to live human life well – not wilfully, but in willing surrender to God whom he tenderly calls Abba. Jesus’ one operational mode is self-emptying love.

After surrendering himself to John’s baptism, Jesus allows himself to be led and held by the Spirit in the desert. Here he resists succumbing to the lure of wealth and power. He experiences vulnerability, dependence and his need to surrender in deeper trust to God. In parable upon parable, and miracle upon miracle he invites his followers to surrender themselves to God’s extravagant forgiveness and mercy.

Jesus walks the path of surrender to the very end. In the darkness and chaos of Gethsemene and Golgotha, he doesn’t grit his teeth in superhuman stoicism. Rather, he calls upon God, the love of his life, and enters his passion held in his Father’s loving, trustful embrace. Jesus could not have borne his suffering otherwise. In total surrender he gives his life.

Jesus is the revelation of God. Moving away from a static and abstract scholasticism, modern theologians are rediscovering the Trinity as pure relationality. The Trinity, says Cynthia Bourgeault, “is really an icon of self-emptying love”.

And what about me? It is all too easy to engage in pious thoughts telling myself that I need to surrender to God. That, of course is true, but what does this mean? What might this look like?

Different authors I’ve read since the days of retreat conspire to give me the same message – surrender to reality. Accept, don’t fight, what is.

I am one who rails against reality as I go about trying to control and improve myself and others. “That should not be; this ought not be.” I judge, I criticise, I compare and I don’t accept myself, the other and reality. I don’t surrender to what is.

Thomas Merton says that the deepest problem in the spiritual life is refusing to accept the real, within and without. I surrender to God, I “awaken to the Real within all that is real,” he claims, by accepting my own hidden and dark self. “For me to be a saint,” he continues, “means to be myself.”  This means that I must surrender my go-it-alone self, giving myself over completely to God’s mercy.

Agreement comes from a surprising quarter. Ageing rock star, Eric Clapton, in his tell-all autobiography recounts the despair of his struggle with addiction:

“In the privacy of my room, I begged for help. I had no idea who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with. Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and getting down on my knees, I surrendered.

Clapton concludes, “You are never more of a mature adult than when you get down on your knees and bend humbly before something greater than yourself.”

Surrender is not weakness, nor is it resignation. It is, says Echart Tolle, “the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to, rather than opposing the flow of life”. It is the letting go of mental and emotional resistance to what is. There is great power in it.

Tolle believes that our relationships are changed profoundly by surrender. By accepting what is, I accept others the way they are.

So easy to say, so hard to honour. British Carmelite Ruth Burrows agrees:

“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.”

“It’s all about surrender,” my friend had said. She was right. Surrender shows me what God is like, what love is like, what true humanness is like.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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