I mentioned in this weeks update that Anne and I saw the film The Theory of Everything. Many will know that it is the story of the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking. At the age of twenty-one, Hawking was diagnosed with a motor neurone disease often called Lou Gehrig's disease. This progressive degenerative disease would gradually paralyse him over following decades. He now communicates using a single cheek muscle attached to a speech-generating device. 1
The film is a love story. Hawkings wife Jane provides him in the early years with the support he needed to both live his life and continue his work. In the years that followed his diagnoses, Hawking physically deteriorated and required constant care. As is well known, his mind remained sharp and agile while his body collapsed.
We often refer to our lives as body mind and spirit. Those three elements need to be sufficiently in harmony for us to say that we have a healthy life. But if one or more of those faculties fails, everything else is put into disorder. Hawking lost his body, or at least lost the use of most of it. In this sense he lost his life, or rather the life he could have had, and he had to charter a new course for the life that remained. He let go: in his case it was not voluntary, nevertheless he let go of one form of life in order to embrace another. His success is the result of perhaps the three most important fundamentals of life; surrender, resilience and love.
Surrender is not giving up!
The notion that the spiritual life or that even life in general is based on surrender is not a popular idea in modern culture. We belong to a grasping, clutching, never-say-die society. And we can project that on to others. Often we are very sure about what someone else needs in their life, even if we have little idea of what we need in our own lives.
The author Octavia Butler wrote:
sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it's all over.
There is a hint of that in the story from Mark read earlier. Here is my paraphrase of that narrative:
Jesus said quite openly that soon the Son of Man will suffer greatly. And the religious leaders will execute him. But after three days he will rise to new life. After Jesus had said this, Simon Peter, knowing Jesus was referring to himself, took him aside and said, "That will not happen!" Jesus turned to him and looking at his disciples, rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, you tempter! Youre setting your mind on human things, devoid of the Spirit and the Divine."
Peter knows what is best for Jesus. True, it came from his love for his master, but it was also from Peters fear of an unknown future. He didnt want to hear these words of Jesus, so with the best of intentions he proposed a different course for the destiny of "the Son of Man".
Surrender is not giving up. Jesus had surrendered to the Spirit of God. Through discernment, reflection and contemplation he found the courage and resilience to enter a new way of being. The stories of his engagement with the powerful forces in the wilderness; the numerous occasions when he sought solitude and silence, had formed and reshaped his life from the inside out. While Peters words were the advice of a friend, they were out of step with the path that Jesus had discerned for his own life. He had not given up . He had entered into life in all its fullness.
This is very much in line with what the Quaker scholar Parker Palmer says when he writes:
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks - we will also find our path of authentic service in the world. 2
Losing your Life so that you can find it!
Many of the wisdom traditions begin with this strange and yet remarkable paradox of losing your life so that you can find it.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell said:
We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.
From the Chinese Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu:
When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.
And the contemporary Zen philosopher Alan Watts:
.the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.
Quoting the words from Mark:
If you want to save your life you will lose it; but if lose your life into my life (or as other translations say, for my sake) then you will save it.
I think it simply means that there is a time when you abandon - in some sense "die to" - the life that has been given to you by your parents; your education and schooling; the society and culture you are immersed in; and you embrace the bigger world that Jesus is alluding to, and that is your inner truth formed by the Spirit rather than by convention.
Just a brief aside. An American friend of mine, who works for an international company, was visiting Australia some time ago. He stayed for a few weeks in Melbourne and then spent two weeks working in Sydney. He made the observation, maybe not very scientific, that in Melbourne people tend to ask what school you went to while in Sydney they ask what University you went to. We are shaped by our culture and maybe it is good to have a reference point beyond it.
Finding the Way
But if I am going to lose my life in order to save it, then what is the life I am going to live into? Again from the Mark story:
Later Jesus called the crowd and his disciples together, and said, "If you want to become my follower, the pathway is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, then you are going to lose it; but if you lose your life into my life, by living the good news, then you will save it.
Oh my goodness, where do we begin with such a complex and yet profound insight? I want to clarify a few things. First, to deny yourself does not mean to discount, self-abase, demean, degrade, denigrate or put yourself down. In the past we have had too many preachers pushing that unhelpful idea. No, to deny in this context has more to do with true humility rather than arrogance and conceit. It incorporates a healthy sense of self-awareness and a willingness to accept the reality of life, rather than the illusions and delusions that surround us.
The second aspect is to take up ones cross. Again the word and idea of the "cross" has been overlaid with so many interpretations that it is smoothed, and almost devoid of its life-giving meaning. It must mean to enter fully into life with all its messiness, pain and suffering. And recognising that this pathway passes through dark and difficult times on the way to new experiences of life. Or possibly to the true experience of life.
As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross writes:
The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.
Finding our way means living the good news. But what in a single sentence is the good news? I think it is simply that you are loved unconditionally and that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from that love. So we reflect on it; we read about it in the words of Jesus and in other wisdom traditions; we walk with it in daily life and we practise sharing it with those around you. The strange paradox is that there is nothing more important to you and to this world than your life. So dont waste it on trivialities or fears or failures or disappointments. Embrace the way of compassion, resilience and loving kindness seen in the life and teachings of Jesus. Be strong but dont be belligerent; be robust in your life and faith, but dont be dogmatic and closed-minded, and allow a good dose of humility to infect everything you do and say.
I finish with the words of Jesus:
Do you really think that it profits anyone if you gain the whole world and yet in the process you forfeit your own life? What can anyone give in return for their own life?
2 Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J Palmer