I have a particular appreciation for Conversations, not only because I am enriched by each issue, but also because I owe so much to one of its originators. David Benner’s precious trilogy—Surrender to Love, The Gift of Being Yourself, and Desiring God’s Will—has been a great vehicle of grace for me. The first of these three books came to me in a particularly dark period, and it effectively invited me to turn to my prodigal Father and experience his affirming love, to climb up in the lap of Jesus as a child and experience the kind of love a child knows when he is securely settled in the lap of his father. With these experiences, the darkness gave way to dawn and a new day in the journey. As I moved along, I was fed also by Benner’s second and third volumes. With the third, another significant breakthrough came as I realized how much God desires me. I sit now in that desire and seek to respond to it with the whole of my being. It’s the first great commandment, isn’t it: to love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole strength.
In the quiet times, when I sit in this amazing outpouring of Divine Love, it is heaven on earth. All is complete. This is it! As I stumble along, I have to ask myself: why don’t I stay in this (literally) heavenly space? Why do I stumble? What holds me back or brings me back to the realm of resistance with its attendant pain and lack of fulfillment?
02. Thy Will Be Done
I could certainly answer this question in many ways. A prayer that has become powerfully meaningful to me, even after I have prayed it a million times (at least), is the prayer the Lord himself taught us—a prayer that is a whole school of life: the Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father. After hallowing the Father’s most blessed Name, the only adequate prayer is “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.”
I know very little of God’s most holy will. But it is all that I want. Psalm 119 says it over and over again, using every synonym it can find: decree, precept, commandment, law, statute, word, judgments: “Guide me in the way of your commandments, for my delight is there.” Complete harmony with this most holy will establishes the Kingdom—within my heart and life, within my community of faith, within our society and world. There is no other way to peace, unity, and fulfillment for the human family.
Yet if this prayer so completely expresses my deepest desires and convictions, why do I resist? And why do I say in fact, again and again, not in direct ways, but in so many thoughts, feelings, and actions, “My will be done”?
03. The False Self
The answer, I think, is the false self—that image of myself I have misspent so many years building up and becoming. I have so identified with it that even when I have, by God’s great mercy, caught some glimpse of my true self in God, I am still in so many ways possessed by it. The hold that the false self has on me makes me captive to wanting to have things, to fearful possessiveness; to wanting to do things and have accomplishments to which I can hang on; to being possessed by concern about what others think of me, how they hold me in their minds. This all seems so obviously stupid as I expose it on paper. Yet I have to admit, it lurks within me as a baneful and captivating influence, holding me back from living a joyful, constant “Yes! Thy will be done.”
04. Painful Scars
There is yet another reality that mars my serenity and my freedom to live a complete “Yes.” Maybe this could best be described as scars. These are the memories of the wounds I suffered over the years. No matter how much I realize that these wounds are little compared to what I do deserve for my sins (look at how Christ suffered for my sins!), they are still wounds. No matter how completely I have willed to forgive and have prayed for the good of those who have wounded me, the scars are still there. They surface in memory and imagination and undermine my freedom to be the wholehearted, complete, and integral “yes” that enjoys complete peace and joy.
05. A Program for Forgiveness and Healing
In the last century, the Lord gave a wonderful gift to us all through a couple of drunks: the 12-Step Program. In the first step, we fully acknowledge the truth of the Lord’s words that “without me, you can do nothing.” We know we can’t clean up our mess ourselves. But we know there is a Higher Power, our God of infinite love, who can and will help us—step two. We turn to the Lord and surrender our wills and our lives to him—step three.
This practical program knows that words alone are not sufficient. So, the fourth step calls upon us to make a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” We take a good look at our lives. We see all the wonderful things that God has accomplished in them, in us, and through us. It has, in fact, been a wonderful life. At the same time, we look at all the things that haven’t been so wonderful: our defects, faults, and failures. We make a complete confession of these, not only to God but also to another human person—step five.
I think most of us have had some things hidden away in corners that left us with a feeling that if others knew about them, they could never accept or love us. It’s a wonderful experience when we are able to put it all out there and experience that we are still loved. We confidently turn to the Lord and ask him to heal our defects—steps six and seven. Then we go on to make amends as best we can to all those whom we have, in one way or another, hurt during the course of our lives—steps eight and nine. The tenth step makes all of this a part of everyday life. As long as we are on the journey, we need to keep taking inventory and making amends as we struggle with the challenges of each day and are confronted with our failures. The eleventh step keeps us praying and spending time establishing an ever-deeper serenity through daily meditation. I do not know of any other spiritual program that has so completely looked at the challenge of forgiveness and handles it so practically and completely.
06. Thoughts, Thoughts, and More Thoughts
We are made in the image of God, the Creator, so we find delight in creating—not just productions, great and small, in the material world: skyscrapers and battleships, a birthday cake or a landscape. We delight also in creating thoughts and images, enriched from the storehouse of our memories and with emotions of all sorts. When everything else has been set aside, it is this “Martha mind,” busy about many things, that makes it so difficult for me to be a simple “Thy will be done”—simply to do what I am supposed to do or sit quietly at the Lord’s feet. “Be still and know that I am God.”
Brother Lawrence left us a precious heritage in his Practice of the Presence of God—the call to see continually through everything and perceive God’s presence and action therein. The ancient Prayer of the Heart or monologian (one word) prayer, today called Centering Prayer, invites us to embrace the poverty of a single simple word that expresses our intention to consent to God’s presence and action in all and to let that word ever renew this intention. When I can abide in this simplicity, remaining at this level of consciousness, all self-aggrandizing activity gives way to oneness with the Divine Creativity, which is an all-embracing act of unifying Love.
But because of pride, I cling to my own creativity, to the false self I have created and to the wounds I perceive to have been afflicted upon me. Like Satan himself, I want to be my own person: Non serviam. I will not serve. I do not want to accept the vulnerability of surrendering to Love. I do not truly know that Love; therefore, I do not know that surrendering to that Love is the most ennobling thing I can do. It is precisely in this surrender that I come into full realization of who I am, for I am created for love. So, basically, it is ignorance and a lack of spiritual insight, caused by my pride and feeding my pride, that leave me constantly struggling in my effort to do what I most want to do, to be a complete “yes” to the total and complete and all-satisfying embrace of Divine Love.
08. Victory in Surrender
It was a common saying among the Fathers that our pride will die about 15 minutes after we do. But Jesus said to us: Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart (see Matthew 11:28–30). We look to Jesus not only as some great teacher or even simply as a model. We rejoice in the reality that we have been baptized into Christ, made one with him, empowered by his Spirit. It may seem at times as rough an ordeal as his bloody sweat in Gethsemane, but in him we come to live “not my will but thine be done.” The victory is ours in Christ. With him we come to know the full liberation that comes through death to self—the false self. With him we come to know a complete surrender of self-will and a joyful, wholehearted embrace of the Divine Will: Thy will be done. To abide in this harmony in the risen life is to abide in freedom, joy, and peace. Many things seek to draw us away from this bliss, but a simple movement of love, a word of love, can restore us to the transcendent and totally fulfilling harmony of the Son with the Father in the Holy Spirit of Love.
ABBOT M. BASIL PENNINGTON, O.C.S.O., entered the Cistercian Order (Trappists) in 1951 at the Abbey of Our Lady of St. Joseph, Spencer, Massachusetts, where he lived in retirement until his recent death. With Thomas Merton he started Cistercian Publications and founded the Institute of Cistercian Studies at Western Michigan University. He is best known internationally through his more than fifty books and one thousand articles and through his efforts to help the Church rediscover its contemplative dimension by means of Centering Prayer. Fr. Basil was a founding member of the Editorial Board of Conversations.