In which God and I Disagree about Surrender

Apparently it is not particularly effective to wake up and say, “Today, I will force myself to surrender to the Divine Presence in my life.” This approach, it turns out, is opposed to the whole surrendering gig. It is a little like saying, “Be happy or I will smash you.”

My approach to surrender has looked something like this:

God: I got this.

Me: OK, I’m going to do these five things to put myself in the right frame of mind so that you can get this.

God: But I already got it.

Me: Right, that’s why I have to do these five things—so you can get it.

This tightly controlled worthiness doesn’t seem to be exactly what we’re called to do.

Surrender, like every other gift in life, is not something we can earn. It is given or it is not, and the only thing we can do is create a space so that we can receive it when it comes. Creating space is not the same thing as doing it ourselves. Practice is good, but practicing with the aim of accomplishing any sort of goal is not so good, which is an annoying thing about the whole spiritual journey. I mean, what would a little bit of achievement thrown in here and there hurt?

Here in California, the first trees are starting to blossom. On campus, there are trees covered in flowers, and a hundred feet away there are trees with bare branches. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the bare-branched trees look at the flowering trees and start trying to form buds. They know enough to wait, and when it’s time, buds will form and then surrender to the beauty of full bloom.

Plugging in

I played hooky from writing this blog last week and went to listen to Tommy Emmanuel play guitar. If you ever have the chance to play hooky from anything—even, perhaps, a date with the most amazing chocolate cake of your life—to hear this man play, I recommend it.

He played almost every flavor of music from blues to bluegrass to rock and played with virtuosity. But in addition to his incredible skill, what made him so fun to listen to is that he played with joy.

The program quoted Emmanuel as saying, “When I play, I feel like I’m plugged into something. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t really want to know. I just want to know that it’s there.”

I never considered that approach to whatever It is. I most certainly want to know what It is and how It works before I plug in, but it’s just possible that the socket is not the size and shape of understanding. The socket is much more likely the size of “accepting the imperfections…along with the obvious accomplishments,” to quote the program again.

In his book Listen with Your Heart, Basil Pennington says, “Happiness consists in knowing what you want, and then knowing you have it, or are on the way to getting it. What we want is God.”

He doesn’t say, “What we want is to understand God.” He continues, “Our minds seek infinite truth. Our hearts are made for infinite love.” These are experiences beyond our comprehension. These are plugging into the unknown.

Richard Rohr, in one of his daily meditations, writes, “Your image of God creates you.”

It seems to me that Emmanuel’s God is completely trustworthy and delights in him and his music. I’ll take that.

Beyond Powerball

I should probably start by clarifying that the Californian who won Powerball is not me, just in case you were wondering.

One fun thing about Powerball fever is talking with people about how they would spend the money. Everyone I spoke with planned to share their winnings with friends and family, and some more widely. No one said, “I’m going to put it in a Swiss bank account, buy the biggest yacht I can find, and go live in the middle of the ocean by myself.”

The idea of having $1.5 billion dollars allows us to imagine abundance, which appears to inspire generosity. The thing is, we live inside of astonishing abundance every day.

I was eavesdropping on a conversation between a few students on campus the other day. (Yes, if you’re near me, I’m eavesdropping on you. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.) Two of them wished a third good luck on a presentation, and after he left proceeded to pick his appearance apart in a breathtakingly unkind and thorough way.

Wow, I thought, that’s harsh, and not five seconds later watched myself internally do exactly the same thing to someone who for whatever reason didn’t meet my expectations. It was unsettling.

I think if we were truly conscious of the abundance of gifts we have, that judgmental voice in our heads might quiet down. We might recognize that this other person is a gift, that he or she is part of ourselves in ways that we can’t fully understand and that quite literally make us whole. We might be more generous—with our patience, with our love, with our understanding.

And the odds of success are better than 292 million to one.


Love, Beauty, and Dead French Jesuit Geologists

You have to be careful when talking to dead French Jesuit geologists because they might answer you.

Here’s what happened: Jim Finley says that Thomas Merton said, “With God, a little sincerity goes a long way.” My sincerity meter this week hovered in the low twenty percent range. Every prayer, even the simple “help” that Anne Lamott recommends, came out as a plea to shore up my ego. By the end of the week, I was tired of myself.

Wondering how to access even a modicum of sincerity and at the same time thinking about evolution—because, you know, those two things naturally go together like tea and crumpets—I asked Pierre Teillhard de Chardin how I might locate some sincerity. Teillhard is the French Jesuit who first imagined a Christian theology that took evolution into account. (“First” meaning “that I know of,” not “rigorously researched.”)

I was not expecting an answer, but immediately this advice popped into my thoughts: “You have to accept the beauty and love at the core of your being.”

I am pretty sure I didn’t come up with that because this has not been a beauty and love kind of week. It has been a resistance kind of week, an “I don’t want to be back at work,” “I don’t want to clean up that mess I made” kind of week. I have even been resisting my resistance. (This is an advanced technique—don’t try it at home.)

But the advice makes sense. If sincerity is “freedom from deceit” and “honesty in intention,” to quote, then our lives must be most sincere when moving from our true centers, our true selves to use Richard Rohr’s term, which are made in the image and likeness of God.

Truly accepting that beauty and love are at my center means at the same time recognizing that they are at the center of my fellow humans and all of creation, the ground of our being as Meister Eckhart puts it. I would say that accepting beauty and love as the true reality is my New Year’s resolution, but I expect to have it down by June and will then move onto the next great cosmic truth.

Ready or Not

I’m not ready for Christmas this year. The gifts are purchased—OK, all but one—I gave up on cards long ago, and I have plenty of time to pack. But I spent more time the last few weeks focused on getting things done than on pondering the reality of God with us.

Here’s the thing, though—Christmas will happen anyway. The birth of love in our hearts is ongoing whether we’re paying attention or not.

Maybe we make it more complicated than it needs to be, maybe we needlessly separate—I certainly do—things that are and aren’t preparation for Christ, the presence of God, of the holy, in our midst. Every time we smile at someone in line at the store or let someone who’s exuding stress go ahead of us, we welcome love. Every time we wonder which gift would bring the most joy to a friend or bake cookies for our neighbors, we bring love to life.

Perhaps if we simply pay more attention to the things we are already doing, we will unfold into our own true love nature, as a flower unfurls from a bud. A rose doesn’t bloom from an oak tree—a flower can only come from the plant it already is. And so with love—we are already doing it; we already are it. In it we live and move and have our being.

That’s not to say that we don’t need times of quiet prayer or meditation—they help us open our eyes to what is already within and among us. It’s there in the grocery store and on the beach every bit as much as it is in church. It’s there when we forget or are distracted. It is love, divinity, or whatever you call that connection, that oneness for which you most long, and it is now and continually born in our souls. Now that is indeed reason to be merry.

Wishing everyone a joyful celebration of whichever holidays are closest to your hearts this time of year.

Note: I will be on vacation for the next two weeks as, most likely, will this blog.

Partying with Hafiz

It has been my turn this week to host some of the viruses whose purpose appears to be to slow down human beings by making their heads stuffy, so please allow me to share a poem instead of a regular post. This is by the Sufi poet Hafiz and seems apropos for where we find ourselves these days. Printed in The Gift, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

If God Invited You to a Party

If God
Invited you to a party
And said,

In the ballroom tonight
Will be my special

How would you then treat them
When you

Indeed, indeed!

And Hafiz knows
There is no one in this world

Is not upon
His Jeweled Dance

Come on Down

A couple of weeks ago, my mom and I were in Avila Beach on one of those “death is nowhere in the background” kind of days when the ocean and sky teach you the beauty of the color blue, the sun shines specifically to warm you, and an infusion of sweetness permeates the day in some way you can’t quite put your finger on.

I arrived first and went down to the water. From there, I could see much of the beach and most of the entrances from the embarcadero above. We were texting back and forth, and Mom was trying to figure out which entrance to take and where I was standing. “Just come down and I’ll find you,” I told her. I knew I would see her no matter which route she took, but from where she stood, there was no way to understand the breadth of my view.

I wonder whether God is often saying this to us and we aren’t listening. We are worrying about which way to go or what to do because we think only one way will lead to God or happiness or wherever we are supposed to be. Maybe all we have to do is set out toward the divine and it will come rushing to meet us, like the father in the story of the prodigal son. We don’t have to figure it out because God can see the whole picture, and we can’t.

I told mom to take the stairs closest to her. Many teachers tell us to stick with the spiritual tradition we grew up with, as long as it wasn’t too harmful. Maybe that’s because it’s the closest staircase, the easiest way to head in God’s direction.

Maybe, when we stop trying to figure out where to go, we’ll discover we’re already there.


Note: The quotation “death is nowhere in the background” is a slight adaptation of a line in the poem “From Blossoms” by Li Young Lee.