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  • Writer's pictureLuigi Gioia

Resignation and Surrender

When we ask for the Father’s, for our Father’s will to be done, we are not bowing our heads in resignation. We are doing the exact contrary, we are reclaiming our freedom.

People might be familiar with TikTok, one of the fastest growing social media platforms in the world in which users share 1-minute videos with music, filters, and visual effects. I am not ashamed to acknowledge that I have become quite addicted to it, in a way which has not been the case with any of the other social media. Its almost 700 millions users belong to all generations, the vide0 segments are alternatively funny, emotional, inspirational or just entertaining. Its most attractive feature is that it uniquely stimulates the creativity of ordinary people and not just artists. Among my favourite posts, there are memes: these capture various situations using the same song as background music. And one of the most popular songs for memes at the moment is Natalie Taylor’s Surrender, especially the refrain

Whenever you're ready, whenever you're ready Whenever you're ready, whenever you're ready Can we? Can we surrender? Can we? Can we surrender? I surrender

These surrender’ memes are often heart-warming, sometimes downright cheesy and only loosely related to the theme of the song, other times really touching. My favourite memes are dads with little babies [video]

Love can bring you a level of happiness you never dreamt of and you are won over, totally and without reservations. You are never ready for it. It is the circumstances of life that nudge you at the right time, so that whenever you’re ready in fact means, whenever love is strong and deep enough for you to surrender – for you not to be afraid of making yourself vulnerable, nor anxious about the unknown challenges that lay ahead. You cannot do this at will – it just happens when the time is right, and readiness for it is something that does not entirely depend on us. It resembles to the way a fruit is ripe and ready to be picked.

This is what surrender and resignation have in common. They are inseparably acknowledgment and decision. They are triggered by events on which we have little or no control and both bring us some degree of serenity. They can often be found at the core of human wisdom across cultures, philosophies and religions.

And yet they are not the same. It can even be said that one of the most important stages of spiritual life is the conversion (because this indeed requires a conversion) from resignation to surrender, as we see Jesus doing at the crucial moment of his life when he is about to be arrested, tortured, judged and murdered, and utters the prayer we all know: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”(Mk 14.36).

In our own lives, we are invited to this conversion from resignation to surrender each time that, using the words of the Lord’s Prayer, we say Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6.10).

Let’s start with resignation then.

To an astonishing degree, resignation is deeply embedded in Western ethos, via Stoicism. More than simply a philosophy, Stoicism is a wisdom, that is a way of living in harmony with the cosmos, of neutralizing bitterness, frustration and anger, and seeking inner peace. The core principle of Stoicism is enshrined in a sentence attributed to the Roman philosopher Seneca, Ducunt volentem fata, nolentem trahunt, “Destiny lead the willing and drag the unwilling”. Even though we have no control over most of what happens in our lives, we can decide to embrace both favourable events and adversities with composure and self-control. This is not an invitation to pessimism but to believe that even if we do not always understand how, everything eventually contributes to cosmic harmony. According to Stoicism, whenever illness, accidents, financial setbacks, natural disasters affect our lives, instead of vainly trying to swim against the stream we should just accept that it is our destiny.

It was tempting for early Christians to interpret Jesus’ invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross and lose our lives in this light – and it is still tempting to do so today. Is this not the frame of mind expressed by the famous sentence Keep calm and carry on? The proper way of dealing with hardships is self-discipline, fortitude, calmness and emotional self-restraint.

As a result, Christian spirituality is deeply permeated by Stoicism. This contamination happened very early on in the history of Christianity – some people see traces of it already in the New Testament, for example in the use of the word logos to talk about Jesus in John’s Gospel (Jn 1.1) or in Paul’s speech at the Areopagus, in the book of Acts (Acts 17). One of the greatest Stoic thinkers, Seneca The Younger (4 BC—65 AD) was a contemporary of Paul (c. 5 BC—c. 64–67 AD), and very early on, probably already in the second century, a forged correspondence between the two men started to circulate and was known to several Church Fathers.

Despite fascination for this cross pollination, however, most Church Fathers, and St Augustine in particular, devoted a considerable amount of energy to disentangle their spiritual lives from the resignation taught by Stoicism, and left us two invaluable secrets to help us in the conversion to the authentic Christian form of surrender. These two secrets are hidden in the Lord’s prayer, especially in the sentence I mentioned earlier: Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven (Mt 6.10).

The first secret is contained in the word Father. When we say Your will be done, we are not, like the Stoics, consenting to a rational but impersonal principle that leads the universe (the Logos) nor to an unknowable divinity, nor -we can add- to one of our many projections of God. The prayer Your will be done, is directed to the Father, or, better, to our Father. The our makes the whole difference. It points to reciprocal knowledge, a common history, a relationship. Our Father knows what we need even before we ask him, cares for us, provides for us, wants our happiness and our fulfilment.

When we ask for the Father’s, for our Father’s will to be done, we are not bowing our heads in resignation. We are doing the exact contrary, we are reclaiming our freedom.

How then can surrendering to someone else’s will be an act of freedom?

If we let someone dictate what we should do from the outside, we are not free. This is the core of Paul’s teaching: the law makes us slaves, shackles our freedom (2 Cor. 3.6). What it enjoins us to do might be right and good, but the fact that it compels us from without is a denial of our freedom. This is why Paul teaches that Christians are not under the law but are led by the Spirit: If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law (Gal. 5.18). ‘To be led by the Spirit’ means acting on the basis of an inspiration, a desire that wells up from within – because we want to.

This points to the second secret hidden in the Lord’s prayer, contained in its often unnoticed postscript: on earth as it is in heaven. This postscript tells us that the difference between resignation and surrender can be perceived only if we pay attention not so much to what has to be done, but to how it has to be done. When we say Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, it is the ‘how’ we are praying for: as it is in heaven, i.e. as it is in the relation between the Father and the Son.

When Jesus uttered this sentence in the garden of Gethsemani, and when we repeat it in our prayer, this is what we are saying: “Father, we want to do your will as your Son does it: spontaneously, sincerely, free from selfishness and self-delusion, free from condescendence[NF1] [L2] and fear, free from guilt, duty, compulsion, self-blackmailing and all such forms of bondage that have kept us in slavery for too long”.

What I am asking is the freedom to act as God the Father and God the Son do, not because I have to, but because I desire to, I love to. And God’s will, God’s desire, God’s love, have a name, they are the Holy Spirit. Only if I consciously tune in with the gentle nudge of the Spirit of God in my heart I become able to surrender.

Nobody better than St Augustine expresses the nature of this surrender in his sentence: Where there is love, there is no toil and even if we toil, we love this very toil – in other words, there is nothing we are not able to accomplish when we surrender to a relationship, a common project we love, a common life we share, a common destiny we long for.

This is at the heart of Jesus’ sermon of the Mount. The externalized commandments are replaced by inward dispositions: ‘you shall not kill’ becomes ‘love your enemies’; adultery is no longer defined by outward behaviour, but by the thoughts I harbour in my heart, by the way I look at others; truth does not need the support of oaths when I mean what I say and commit to it with my heart (Cf. Mt. 5.17-48.). In Jesus’ teaching the ‘what I do’ has been replaced by ‘how I do it’, and if my actions are to be patterned on the life of heaven, on the relations between the Father and the Son, what I do must come from within, it has to be free, it has to be not only ‘done’, but chosen, loved, desired, cherished, nurtured.

Conversion from resignation to surrender is the work of a lifetime and we should constantly examine ourselves to verify where we are in this journey. Finding out whether we are more on the side of resignation or of surrender is simple and the little meme of the dad holding his baby expresses it more eloquently than any attempt at explaining it – it is a matter of what feelings we are left with. Resignation might bring serenity, but always tinged with sadness. Only surrendering to the Father’s will and to loving one another will bring us pure, unadulterated, lasting joy.


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