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Prayer as Surrender

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Spirituality of Letting Go: Week 2

Prayer as Surrender
Tuesday, September 6, 2016

One must fully recognize that mystics like Francis and Clare lived from a place of conscious, chosen, and loving union with God; such union was realized by surrendering to it, not by achieving it. Surrender to Another, participation with Another, and divine union are finally the same thing. Once we have experienced this union, we look out at reality from a much fuller Reality that now has eyes beyond and larger than our own. This is precisely what it means to “live in Christ” (en Christo), to pray “through Christ,” or to do anything “in the name of God,” phrases with which Christians are quite familiar.

Such a letting go of our own small vantage point is the core of what we mean by conversion, but also what we mean by Franciscan “poverty.” Poverty is not just a life of simplicity, humility, restraint, or even lack. Poverty is when we recognize that myself—by itself—is powerless and ineffective. John’s Gospel puts it quite strongly when it says that a branch that does not abide in Jesus “is withered and useless” (John 15:6). The transformed self, living in union, no longer lives in shame or denial of its weakness, but even lives with rejoicing because it does not need to pretend that it is any more than it actually is—which is now more than enough!

After the sixteenth century, the Poor Clares only learned the older tradition of the prayer of quiet through their own desire and through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26). As far as I know, contemplation was no longer systematically taught anywhere. By the time I joined the Franciscan Order, our elders gave us the scaffolding (telling us to “say” the Office, “attend” the Mass), but seldom the substance of prayer. “Fighting distractions” is an impossible goal (“Don’t think of an elephant”); it sent us on the wrong course toward willful concentration instead of the willing prayer of receptivity (e.g., Mary’s “Let it be,” Luke 1:38). Almost all thinking is obsessive, but no one taught us that. I am sad to say that many of my contemporaries just gave up, either by formally leaving, or worse, by staying and no longer even trying.

The “how” of letting go is so counter to ego consciousness that it has to be directly taught, and it can only be taught by people who know the obstacles and have experienced surrender as the path to overcoming them. The contemplative mind, which is really prayer itself, is not subject to a mere passing on of objective information. It must be practiced and learned, just like playing the piano or basketball. I do suspect that the Poor Clares’ overwhelming emphasis on poverty and letting go gave them a head start in understanding prayer as surrender more than a performance that somehow pleased God. They were already experts in self-emptying (kenosis) and letting go. In other words, “poverty” (inner non-acquisition) is first of all for the sake of prayer, never an end in itself.

Gateway to Silence:
Surrender to love.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi (Franciscan Media: 2014), 70-71, 145-146.

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