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A fellow I know once sent me virtual chocolates via email on Valentines Day. Quite unsatisfying—images of luscious dark truffles on a computer screen. I replied, “What kind of guy gives fake chocolate?” A few days later there was a box of honest-to-goodness chocolates in my real mailbox; I enjoyed every bite.
Today we begin a twelve-part series on prayer, the inner turning of a soul to God, the simple awareness and presence to Presence. This first reflection focuses on the prayer of surrender, consecration, letting go. Appropriate, perhaps, for a day fraught with longing and unmet expectations—such as my disappointment at receiving e-chocolate.
To be human is to desire, to hunger. Can you find a sense of desire in your heart now? Sit in quiet stillness, open to what you most want, unafraid of the strength of that wishing. Find your desire and be with it. Just hold it lightly for a few moments, without identifying the particular thing for which you long.
To be human is to long for love. And perhaps one of the deepest ways we connect with God is through our endless longing for the Love. We catch glimpses of love in our relationships, in nature’s giving and receiving, in simple daily pleasures of living. Yet the longing remains unmet.
It sometimes seems unbearable, and we try to dull the pain or fill the emptiness. We ignore the sense of loss and dissatisfaction, cluttering our lives with business and things. Or perhaps we try to assuage the ache through substitutes, becoming attached to a particular dream or outcome, believing if we just have this, we will be complete. Gerald May writes: “We may go to sleep, but our desire for love does not. It is who we are” (3). We were born for this immense beauty and pain. It takes courage to face our desire to and live un-numbed. It takes gentleness to let go of our expectations, to open our hands and not cling to what we think we want.
What we really want is both forever far beyond us and already embedded in our beings. We must keep seeking Love, yet it is as close as our own breath and heartbeat. Love is longing within us. Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew who lived and died during the Holocaust, wrote in her diary, “Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto myself and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and deepest in the other. God to God” (204). Love, God, listens and hopes within. It will call us awake and teach us how to surrender our petty longings and how to surrender to the terrifying strength of Love.
I happened upon Etty Hillesum’s diaries during a very liminal, unfamiliar time in my life and found her to be the perfect companion. I was feeling new desires I had never experienced before—for a certain man, Peter—and didn’t know how to handle them. Etty, also a woman with strong desires, wrote honestly of her struggle to love without attachment, without expectation. I read her failures and her successes as I lived my own. And I found the freedom to surrender to the bliss of falling in love, with all the scary risk that entails, through Etty’s journey of loving and letting go. Her story taught me to pray authentically, offering to God the reality of my longing and fear and hope.
Oh, it is so hard to be human. We can’t escape the desiring. There are infinite small loves, nothing inherently bad or wrong in them, incapable of adding up to Love. Etty described the people around her, awaiting deportation to concentration camps, in her prayer: "There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings” (178). Grasping for security, relationship, health, control—whatever it may be we wish for—only shrinks our souls.
Even Etty’s passion for a human being, a man whom she loved desperately, was one of those limited and limiting loves: “There are days when I can no longer carry on, from fatigue or something. That is when I want his attention and his love for myself alone. Then I am nothing but my cramped little ego, and the cosmic spaces inside me are locked away” (141). I wish I couldn’t relate. But there were (and still are) times when my “love” for my own beloved brought out all the insecurity in me and tightened my grip on him until I was very small indeed. Quite traditional in romance, it took much nerve for me to tell Peter I liked him, no way of predicting his response. But once I had him—he liked me too!—I couldn’t let go, and it took all my strength to not demand commitment and a plan for the future. (We’re now engaged and I feel amazingly content, a bit more able to love spaciously.)
What do we do with these precious human desires—for intimacy, commitment, mutuality, comfort, chocolate? To deny them would be to deny who we are, our very being. To recklessly satisfy every whim and fancy would be selfish and foolish. Etty says, “The golden mean between inhibition and lack of inhibition is responsible consciousness.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I’m taking it as invitation to pray. When I speak of prayer, I mean honest awareness and simple being in Love’s presence. I sit before Love’s gaze—oh, the embarrassment and vulnerability in being naked—and let it draw my inner eyes to my deepest desire, Itself. I listen to the Listener call out and honor what I long for. And then I offer that energy of passion as thoroughly as I can, holding it out open-handed, still wanting it but not demanding it. Gerald May calls it consecration: “Every risk we take for love, each step we take toward greater consecration, leads us deeper into the spaciousness of love” (68). Dedicating my desire to the larger Love through prayerful intention opens me to knowing more “how wide and long and high and deep is the Love” (Ephesians 3:18, NKJV).
Gerald May’s book, The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need, has given me so much practical wisdom on this prayer of surrender. He offers a truly balanced and human view. As I fumble along in my longing for and loving of Peter, friends, Earth, suffering humanity, financial security, Gerald’s words give me hope: "Love does not find its fullness in achieving complete nonattachment nor in any other kind of perfection. Love's deepest realization is found in growing, struggling, moving, longing, reaching toward perfection while living life fully as it is in the here and now…. Prayer is the only way we can integrate our intentions with our dependence on grace."
May, Gerald. The Awakened Heart: Opening Yourself to the Love You Need. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Hillesum, Etty. An Interrupted Life: the Diaries, 1941-1943, and Letters from Westerbork. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.
Joelle Chase writes from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.