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Nancy SmallSeptember 22, 2023
Photo from iStock

I once heard an older Jesuit quip, “I asked God to take my memory…. and he did!” He was referring to the Ignatian Suscipe, which begins, Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory.  Situated within the Fourth Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, it is a prayer of one who has taken a deep dive into the sea of God’s limitless love. Awed by the immensity of this love, the person is moved to mouth these poignant words of surrender, returning all that God has given with loving abandon.

Another Jesuit calls the Suscipe (the word is Latin for “receive”) the hardest prayer in the Spiritual Exercises:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Dispose of it wholly according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.

The Suscipe is 'the hardest prayer' in the Exercises.

Indeed, giving God all that we possess is pretty monumental. And offering God our entirewill is a prospect that seems more daunting than doable. I can relate to people who hand their will and their lives over to God on their knees every morning, and by the time they stand up, they’ve yanked both of them back. But years ago I discovered a setting where the Suscipe summoned more relief than it did resistance.

When I served as a hospice chaplain, I encountered a steady stream of people struggling to stay afloat in a tidal wave of loss. Much of life as they knew it was being stripped away by terminal illness. Things like their livelihoods. Their independence and sense of identity. Meaningful activities that gave them a sense of self-worth and purpose. Causes that were close to their hearts. Cherished rituals with loved ones. Dreams for the future that fizzled. Parts of their bodies that were taken for granted until they no longer functioned properly.

Giving God all that we possess is pretty monumental.

People spoke of these losses as though the pieces of their lives had disappeared into some giant void which caused them to feel empty, disoriented and discouraged. I was convinced that there must be a better way for them to relate to these losses, but I did not know what that might be. So I prayed about it, and what came to mind was the Suscipe.

“Take, Lord, receive….” Such powerful words, these three. Yet the dynamics involved in giving and receiving differ greatly. When we beseech God to take something from us, we expect God to initiate the next step. But when we invite God to receive, we initiate the next step. We assert our spiritual agency by choosing to hand something over to God.

People spoke of these losses as though the pieces of their lives had disappeared into some giant void.

This subtle shift is significant for those who are terminally ill. Most have experienced things being taken from them without their consent as their disease progresses. They often speak of their illness as a thief that robs them of what they love. Many understandably grow resistant to the notion of taking, even when it comes to God.

Seeing God as a holy ally who readily receives what they offer opens up liminal space in a loving way.

When we prayed, I invited them to name things they cherished and that they lost due to illness. Then we honored each of these precious parts of their lives. For the person who could no longer walk, we celebrated how their legs had carried them along the path of life and stood strong amid each challenge they faced. For those whose athletic prowess led them to championship trophies, we recalled the joy they experienced as they glorified God in their bodies. For those who worked for the greater good, we honored their unique contributions to bringing forth God’s harvest of justice.

We celebrated how their legs had carried them along the path of life.

Then we placed these losses into the hands of the God who tenderly knit them together in their mother’s womb. We prayed that God graciously receive back these parts of themselves and their lives that illness had taken away. I encouraged them to imagine God gently caressing their offering. Let us ask God to hold this part of you for safekeeping, I would say, and bless this sacred part of your life and your legacy.

Tears often flowed as we prayed. Finally, their losses found a home, no longer rattling around in the recesses of their being. They were received by a God who weeps over our losses and enfolds us in a sheltering embrace. And in that warm embrace, their troubled souls found relief.

I encouraged them to imagine God gently caressing their offering.

Entrusting their liberty to God softened the blow of becoming increasingly dependent on others. Asking the God who never forgets us to cradle their mixed-up minds and faltering memories soothed their mental anguish. Their understanding was overshadowed by thick clouds of unknowing, so it brought relief to give it to a God whose knowing surpasses all human understanding.

But when it came to handing over their will in its entirety, they struggled. For most, their will played a pivotal role in their ability to keep on going as their physical health declined. Many had beat the odds associated with life expectancy and seemed to live on sheer willpower alone. It was as if they hoisted their sails high each day to catch every wisp of wind that could carry them just a little further. How could they surrender such a driving force in their lives?

This hardest surrender happened little by little. Each time they handed over a part of life they had lost, they placed it squarely in the lap of God. The more of themselves they entrusted to God, the more they came to trust God. Giving God what they treasured led them to a deeper experience of God’s incarnate love.

Surrender of the will happened little by little.

They related to the humanity of Jesus when he begged God to take away the cup of agony. They found solace in Christ who understood the depths of their suffering and touched their wounds in a way no other could. They felt solidarity with Jesus who relinquished his human dreams and prepared to die. They pinned their hopes for resurrection upon Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross, fervently praying that he would prepare a place for them in paradise.

Eventually, the moment came when it was harder to resist giving their will to God than it was to hand over their will. Their resistance melted in the warmth of God’s merciful invitation to lay down their burdens and find rest for their souls. This was the moment of utter surrender, when the will that had undergirded every achievement, the will that had urged them on in the face of adversity, released its restless hold on life and rested in God alone.

They felt solidarity with Jesus who relinquished his human dreams and prepared to die.

Did I mouth the exact words of the Suscipe as I prayed with those whose earthly lives were ending? Not always. But I invited them into the pervasive love of God that persuades one to surrender all they have and hold, a love that compels and completes us, drawing us like a magnet toward Holy Mystery. What I witnessed in the process was a profound sense of the suscipe’s final words becoming fully alive. Give me only your love and your grace. That is enough for me. Emptied of all they could possibly give, God’s infinite love and intimate grace finally became enough as they stared into the face of eternity.

More: Jesuits / Prayer

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