Surrendering to love

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Perhaps all of Jesus’ invitations to us can be summarized in one word – surrender. We need to surrender to love.

But why is that difficult? Shouldn’t it be the most natural thing in the world? Isn’t our deepest desire a longing to find love and surrender to it?

True, our deepest longing is to surrender to love, but we have some deep innate resistances to give ourselves over in surrender. Here are a couple of examples:

At the Last Supper in John’s Gospel when Jesus tries to wash Peter’s feet, he meets a stiff resistance from Peter – Never! I will never let you wash my feet! What’s ironic here is that, perhaps more than anything else, Peter yearned precisely for that kind of intimacy with Jesus. Yet, when it’s offered, he resists.
Another example might be seen in the struggles of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, one of the most gifted spiritual writers of our generation, enjoyed immense popularity. He published more than 50 books, was a much sought-after professor (tenured at both Harvard and Yale), received invitations daily to give talks and lectures around the world, and had many close friends.

Padre Ron Rolheiser, OMI

And yet, inside all that popularity and adulation, surrounded by many friends who loved him, he was unable to let that love give him any real sense of being loved or of being lovable. Instead, through most of his life he labored inside a deep anxiety which had him believe that he wasn’t lovable. On occasion this even landed him in clinical depression. And so, through most of his adult life, surrounded by so much love, he was haunted by a sense that he wasn’t loved, nor worthy of being loved. Moreover, he was a deeply sensitive person who more than anything else wanted to surrender to love. What held him back?

In his own words, he was crippled by a deep wound he couldn’t quite name and whose grip he couldn’t shake. This was true for most of his adult life. Eventually, he was able to free himself from his deep wound and surrender to love. However, it took a traumatic “death” experience for that to happen. Standing too close to the highway at a bus-stop one morning, he was struck by the mirror of a passing van which sent him flying. Rushed to a hospital, for some hours he hovered between life and death. While in that state, he had a very deep experience of God’s love for him. He returned to full consciousness and normal life as a profoundly changed man. Now, after experiencing God’s love for him, he could finally also surrender to human love in a way he had been incapable of previous to his “death” experience. All his subsequent books are marked by this conversion in love.

Why do we fight love? Why don’t we surrender more easily? The reasons are unique to each of us. Sometimes we are dealing with a deep wound that leaves us feeling unlovable. But sometimes our resistance has less to do with any wound than it has to do with how we are unconsciously fighting the very love we so painfully seek. Sometimes, like Jacob in the Bible, we are unconsciously wrestling with God (who is Love) and consequently unconsciously fighting love.

In the Bible story where Jacob wrestles all night with a man, we see that in this struggle he has no idea that he is wrestling with God and with love. In his mind, he is wrestling with a foe he needs to conquer. Eventually, when the darkness of the night gives way to more light, he sees what he is wrestling with – and it is a surprise and shock to him. He realizes he is fighting love itself. With that realization, he gives up struggling and instead clings to the very force he had been previously fighting, with the plea: “I will not let you go, until you bless me!”

This is the final lesson we need to learn in love: We wrestle for love with every talent, cunning and strength inside us. Eventually, if we are fortunate, we have an awakening. Some light, often a crippling defeat, shows us the true face of what we have been wrestling with and we realize that it’s not something to be conquered, but it’s the very love to which we have been longing to surrender.

For many of us, this will be the great awakening in our lives, a waking up to the fact that in all our ambitions and schemes to show the world how worthwhile and lovable we are, we are in unconscious ways fighting the very love to which we ultimately want to surrender. And, usually, as with Jacob in the biblical story, it will take the defeat of our own strength and a permanent limp before we realize what we are fighting against is really that to which we most want to surrender.

And this is surrender, not resignation, something we give ourselves over to rather than something that defeats us.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher and award-winning author. He can be contacted through his website