Sweet Surrender

St. Teresa of Avila


Most of us, most of the time, are rather sure about where we are.  We’re in line at a store, waiting to check out.  We’re driving.  We’re working, waiting for someone to call us back.  Little doubt about where we are or what we’re doing.  But while we’re doing those things, we’re also—so to speak—in the future, wrestling with what comes next.  In fact, when the present doesn’t demand our full attention, don’t we typically use the time to fret and to frame the future?


That’s a uniquely human activity.  Some animals instinctively prepare for the future, but they’re free from the burden of making the morrow’s decisions.  They don’t need to picture it and lay plans accordingly.  We do, and the Book of Wisdom presumes as much: “For who knows God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and uncertain our plans” (9: 13-14). 

For Christ, in the Gospel of Saint Luke, the question, demanding attention, is whether or not we can surrender to the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  Can the disciple entrust the future to God?  “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (14: 26-27).

As we wrestle the future, Christ wants us to wrestle God: Do we truly trust God?  What will we risk because we believe in God?  And ultimately the question: Do we truly want to do the will of God?  That one can’t be answered, once for all.  Every day it arises anew in the human heart

If the notion of life as a perpetual struggle of surrender seems oppressive, take heart from the great saint Teresa of Avila.  In her autobiography she noted a comforting truth: when we surrender to God, rest and relief follow.

Teresa struggled with whether or not to become a nun.  The life attracted her, but so did many other paths.  And how could she tell her widowed father of her desire to leave home?  Her interior struggles produced headaches and fainting spells, and yet she steeled herself and acted.  In her autobiography she writes,

I remember, clearly and truly, that when I left my father’s house I felt that separation so keenly that the feeling will not be greater I think, when I die.  For it seemed that every bone of my body was being sundered.  Since there was no love of God to take away my love of my father and relatives, everything so constrained me that if the Lord hadn’t helped me, my reflections would not have been enough for me to continue on.  In this situation He gave me such courage against myself that I carried out the task (4.1).

Like all of us, Saint Teresa wrestled with God’s will.  Like all of us, her emotions, her desires, ran in rivulets, out from her divided heart.  What she discovered, however, was that surrender brought sweet relief and renewed energy.  She writes:

As soon as I took the habit, the Lord gave me an understanding of how He favors those who use force with themselves to serve Him.  No one noticed this struggle, but rather they thought that I was very pleased.  Within an hour, he gave me such great happiness at being in the religious state of life that it never left me up to this day, and God changed the dryness my soul experienced into the greatest tenderness.  All the things of religious life delighted me, and it is true that sometimes while sweeping, during the hours I used to spend in self-indulgence and self-adornment, I realized that I was free of all that and experienced a new joy which amazed me.  And I could not understand where it came from (4.2).

Most of us aren’t struggling with the question of religious life, but we do wonder how we’re to live our lives.  When we’ve quietly drawn near to the Lord in prayer, we may well have been offered an insight into what God wants, but we aren’t yet ready to surrender.  Saint Teresa offers a maxim worth pondering: “[S]ince the task is for God alone, He may desire that the soul feel this fear before beginning so that it gain more merit.  And the greater the fear it starts out with, the greater and more enjoyable will be reward afterward” (4.2).

When given the time, we picture so many possible futures that our hearts are overwhelmed with fear.  Jesus wants us to picture only one thing: his face, his arms, and the sweetness that comes with surrender.

Wisdom 9: 13-18b   Philomen 9-10, 12-17   Luke 14: 25-33

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