Monthly Archives: July 2018

What does surrender to God look like? 1

The phrase surrendering to God is often used and seems to cover a variety of meanings depending on who is speaking. Is it a letting go or relinquishing of power? Is it a giving in but if so what part of us is giving in and if so to what? Is it a momentary glimpse of ‘the something more than ourselves’ or can such an experience have lasting effects?

People’s accounts of how they have experienced this start to offer ideas on what this might all mean.

The theologian Roberta E. Bondi writes of her experiences in this way. She describes one afternoon when overwhelmed by despair and the feelings she had failed as the mother she wanted to be and ‘the wife, daughter, friend, niece, historian, and teacher I had intended to be as well. The memory of all my unmet obligations… I cried out to God…I give up. I absolutely give up.’

She writes that she did give up, utterly:

My heart was torn in half, and out of these halves ran all the unmet and conflicting expectations, good intentions, and desires to please I had ever had. I didn’t care if I was a good mother or a good teacher or a good daughter. I no longer suffered with those who suffered. I did not feel guilty. I did not accept my unhappiness as my due, nor did I reject it. I did not fight against what was happening to me. Emptied at last of everything, I finally felt nothing. I simply sank like a dead body into darkness.

She does not know how long she sat there – whether for a long time or just a moment but without any warning she woke up:

I heard my own voice repeating in my mind the words from the Roman Catholic Eucharistic prayers for Easter, “The joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world.’ Every cell of my body heard them and for the first time I knew that these words were absolutely true, and that they were true for me.

‘The joy of the Resurrection renews the whole world,’ I repeated to myself in wonder, and while I spoke, my long-broken heart was healed…my heart filled up with a joy so fierce that it spilled out and ran through the whole of my body and flickered around me like a flame.

Bondi says that on her journey and quoting from Psalm 84 that, ‘On my way to Jerusalem I had at last found that the Bitter Valley of my life had become a place of springs.’ So for her the surrendering was born from despair and an emptied mind set: ‘I finally felt nothing’ and from the nothing came ‘Something’ – something is inspired within her and she is brought up into life again. She is the same person not an empty shell but perhaps more ‘her’ than before.


An adequate life 5

Thomas Kelly articulated the anxiety and strain of modern life so well because he lived it.  He understood how caught up we can be in achievement and striving for success, even in a religious context.

In the final chapter of A Testament of Devotion, called ‘The Simplification of Life’ he describes how his feverish existence was transformed into a life of ‘peace and joy and serenity.’ In this essay, he insists that the number of distractions in our environment is not the cause of the complexity of our lives, rather he understands that the pressure and strain lie within each one of us. Even in that idyllic environment of Hawaii, Kelly could not let go of his habit of trying to do too much.

As Chad Thralls writes in The Friends Journal Kelly appreciated that the solution to the habit of trying to ‘do it all’ is not found in isolating ourselves from our responsibilities in the world. The problem is a lack of integration in our lives. Kelly compares the voices within that pull us in multiple directions to a variety of selves that simultaneously reside within us. As Kelly describes it, ‘There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self.’ We wear ourselves out trying to fulfill the desires of each one of the voices.

The remedy that Kelly offers to our unintegrated lives is not a simplification of environment but a life lived from the center. For Kelly, the Spirit speaks to us from our deepest center. God speaks through the heart. The key to a life without strain or tension is attending to the Spirit of God within us and submitting to the guidance we receive. This is the ‘simplification of life’ to which the title of his essay refers. Kelly attests that when we take the many activities that currently seem important to us down into this centre, a revaluation of priorities occurs.

To live like this entails falling in love with God and making God’s plans for our lives the determining factor for action rather than our own will. It means being able to say no to some of the important things we are called on to do. For Kelly, learning to say no is not a means of retreating from the responsibilities of life rather it reflects a passionate desire to center one’s life on the leadings of God. As he writes, ‘We cannot die on every cross, nor are we expected to.’

Though Kelly’s life was changed through a profound mystical experience, the damage had been done; he died of a heart attack at age 47. He did not take up the practice of surrendering to the Spirit willingly. When he could no longer avoid looking at his failure, when he abandoned his own striving, God became more real to him than ever before. In the end, God gave him the gift of peace that as Thralls writes Kelly was searching for in all the wrong places.

An adequate life 4

In a fascinating article written in 2011 and published in The Friends Journal Chad Thralls evaluates the cost of the spiritual wisdom that Thomas R. Kelly acquired and so I draw on that paper to consider the psychological effects and suffering involved in his search for God.

In the last chapter of his spiritual classic, A Testament of Devotion Kelly writes about the cumulative outcome of complex and overly busy lives: ‘Even the necessary obligations which we feel we must meet grow overnight…and before we know it we are bowed down with burdens, crushed under committees, strained, breathless, and hurried, panting through a never-ending program of appointments.’

Admittedly quite a bit of the pressure that Kelly experienced was driven by his own desire to be recognised as a scholar and find a place that accorded him prestige. (Perhaps an inner insecurity resulting from his childhood experiences of loss and economic struggle). Finishing one PhD he started a second enrolling at Harvard and hoping for an appointment there; when this did not happen partly because the Depression was on he felt crushed returning to the mid-West. Eventually accepting a post at Haverford College in Philadelphia he reached his goal but the work for this second thesis led to ill health with kidney stones, nervous exhaustion, depression and a severe sinus condition. During the spring of 1935, Kelly ‘got out of bed only to go to his classes and returned at once to rest again.’  He had surgery for the sinus condition but there was added pressure with a young family and much debt.

Paying to publish some of the work done for his second thesis Kelly went for his viva but during this he had an anxiety attack where his mind went blank. This had happened with his earlier viva and there he had been given another chance but the Harvard committee failed him partly out of concern for his health. Kelly was devastated and sank to such a low place his wife worried that he might try to take his own life.

In the midst of this dark place his biographer writes that in November or December of 1937 he was ‘shaken by the experience of Presence— something that I did not seek, but that sought me.’ As Kelly hit rock bottom, he realized that he could not reach perfection and completeness through his ability and intense drive for success. He writes in a letter to his wife,

‘In the midst of the work here this summer has come an increased sense of being laid hold on by a Power, a gentle, loving, but awful Power. And it makes one know the reality of God at work in the world. And it takes away the old self-seeking, self-centred self, from which selfishness I have laid heavy burdens on you, dear one.’

Later in the same letter, he writes, ‘I seem at last to be given peace. It is amazing.’


An adequate life 3

The last part of Thomas R. Kelly’s life included another spell back in Germany and about this time he wrote in a letter to a friend about the fellowship he had found in that which is eternal, speaking of those whom he had met who know the ‘depths of the Divine Presence, the peace and creative power that you know, and through no grace of my own, I know also. Such consecration of life is amazing.’ He later wrote more about this inward fellowship that he felt in the last years of his life: ‘when we are drowned in the overwhelming seas of the love of God, we find ourselves in a new and particular relation to a few of our fellows.’ And: ‘It is wonderful. I have been literally melted down by the love of God.’

He told several of his student friends later of the specific experience that he had had on his knees in Cologne Cathedral where he seemed to feel God laying the whole congealed suffering of humanity upon his heart – a burden too terrible to be born – but yet with his help bearable. Back in the US Kelly continued close spiritual fellowships with a small number of people where he felt the need to be grounded in seeking God and the meaning of life and he experienced great changes – more inner horizons breaking. A colleague wrote of visiting Kelly in the autumn of 1940: ‘he almost startled me, and he shocked some of us who were still walking in the ways of logic and science and the flesh, by the high areas of being he had penetrated. He had returned to old symbols like the blood of Christ that were shocking to a few of his old colleagues who had not grown and lived as he had. But he brought new meaning to all symbols, and he was to me and to some others a prophet whose tongue had been touched by coals of fire.’

For Kelly the central thing was devotion to what he called dedication of the will to God. He wrote ‘where the will to will God’s will is present, there is a child of God.’ He was also busy with Quaker concerns and writing and teaching but died very suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 47.

One person moved by his devotional writing commented: ‘I notice an outward lost to us – though even directly we may gain more than we lose by their joining the more active side of the communion of saints – but I keep on feeling what it must be for a man as good as he to be able to push aside this fussy veil of the body and look unblinkingly at the Light, never again, maybe, to be distracted, unintentional, unaware, always concentrated.’

As Kelly himself wrote: ‘Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself.’

In the next post I explore the psychological cost of the spiritual wisdom that Kelly gained in his ‘adequate life’.