Man cannot transform himself into a holy being. As my Irish grandmother would say, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” In other words, only Christ can transform us into His image and draw us into the heart of His Father.
As a Catholic, I am invited to answer a call to surrender all to Christ and trust in His redemptive power to transform me into His image. However, I was raised in a society that equates the mere idea of surrender with losing. Society has never liked losers. It glorifies winners who are independent, hard workers. In fact, surrendering goes against our innate competitive natures. So naturally, when we begin our own spiritual journey in earnest, we bring all our worldly notions with us, striving to succeed, depending on our own strength to snatch the ultimate crown of holiness.
Attendance at Mass, regular confession, spiritual exercises, fasting, and prayer are wonderful vehicles of grace but if we think pious activities will sanctify us, we will only appear to be holy on the outside like the Pharisees:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth. (Matthew 23:27)
Now, the Pharisees were not evil men; they were earnestly striving to be good, to follow the Law but they thought they could perfect themselves through religious practices. However, man cannot transform himself into a holy being. As my Irish grandmother would say, “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” In other words, only Christ can transform us into His image and draw us into the heart of His Father.
After a few decades of dry spiritual exercises, Catholics either become just like the Pharisees who thought they were holy or, if they are honest with themselves, they become so frustrated they lose hope, believing communion with God is only for ancient saints or a few chosen ones. Most settle for lukewarm religion when God offers all an intimate relationship and communion with Him. The truth is this sort of sanctity is simply the normal Christian life.
Stealing Christ’s Job
Although we don’t really understand what we are doing when we tackle sanctity like a chore, we are basically trying to save ourselves with our religious works.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8,9)
When religious practices are not motivated by love and humility but fueled by pride, they damage our intimacy with God. In fact, self-appointed spiritual disciplines that are not inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit are self-centered, not God-centered. To put this thought in more shocking terms, when we try to perfect ourselves we are stealing Christ’s job of redemption and sanctification. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
517 Christ’s whole life is a mystery of redemption. Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross,179 but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life:
– already in his Incarnation through which by becoming poor he enriches us with his poverty;180
– in his hidden life which by his submission atones for our disobedience;181
– in his word which purifies its hearers;182
– in his healings and exorcisms by which “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases”;183
– and in his Resurrection by which he justifies us.184
518 Christ’s whole life is a mystery of recapitulation. All Jesus did, said and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation:
When Christ became incarnate and was made man, he recapitulated in himself the long history of mankind and procured for us a “short cut” to salvation, so that what we had lost in Adam, that is, being in the image and likeness of God, we might recover in Christ Jesus.185For this reason Christ experienced all the stages of life, thereby giving communion with God to all men.186
Even though the Church teaches us exactly how to be reconciled to God through Christ, it takes a long time to really understand how to assimilate these truths into our daily lives. It took challenging comments from my spiritual director to shake me out of my delusions, ” You’re stealing Jesus’s job,” and “You’re working for satan, not God.” I realized I still had not allowed Jesus to justify me. I was still relying on good works to earn God’s approval.
What Does Surrender Really Mean?
Years ago, I was so afraid of letting go of control and just surrendering. It was like I was clinging to a cliff with my fingernails. Of course, this was an irrational fear. When I finally chose to surrender, it was a short drop into the loving arms of God. My fear of letting go was especially ridiculous in the light of God’s unconditional love, mercy, and patience. This insight was the pivotal point in my personal and spiritual growth. Of course surrendering to God by dying to self is not a one-shot deal. I have let go of control at least a thousand times already. Each time I peel back another layer of mistrust, another level of fear pops up.
Another image which came to me in prayer that describes my struggle to surrender and trust God was an inner picture of a wagon wheel suspended over a deep chasm. My large family stood on the rim of a wagon wheel while I crouched on the hub, frantically turning this way and that, grabbing all the broken spokes, desperate to hold the crumbling structured together. I realized God was asking me to let go of this futile sense of responsibility but I was afraid to stop, afraid that one moment of inattention would cause my entire family to tumble down into the abyss. I felt frozen and could not change.
My tension prevented natural growth and healing. My control acted like a wall, shutting out all Divine intervention and grace. My sincere concern and earnest self-sacrifice actually magnified everyone’s brokenness by freezing everyone and everything.
Then in my inner vision, an arrow of light came from God, piercing through my confusion. Suddenly the image of the wagon wheel was gone, like a mountain done in by a mustard seed of faith. I had been wrestling with an illusion, a phantom mountain. There was no dilemma when I gave up control; I laughed at myself. With joy, I finally surrendered to God and in my vision, the broken spokes were instantly repaired. The kids and my husband started smiling. We were free because I was no longer on the hub of the wagon wheel. Jesus was at the centre of our family.
I had finally come to a point of exhaustion and was forced to surrender any pretense of being a perfect role model. My defeat and subsequent surrender were my salvation, delivering me from an egotistical life which focused on my own strength. I finally realized the only option was either insanity or to quit functioning like I was the god of my little kingdom and to allow Christ to do His work of redemption in me.
James 4:7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Luke 1:38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
My job is to surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit and allow Christ to sanctify me. My only job is to joyfully strip off dead, dried up burdens and masks so I have the capacity to receive grace. Sound complicated?
The Simplicity of the Good News
It is rather simple, too simple. Everything about God is simple and natural. We are the ones who complicate our relationship to Him. I am a typical example. Although Jesus surprised me by suddenly appearing in my life at 16, I tried too hard for years afterward to grow in spiritual intimacy. I read all the complicated books on the inner life and then proceeded to strive and pray circles around myself. Pride enticed me to work harder, pray more, fast religiously and perform heroic acts of virtue but I could never earn His Love. This is why Christ had to die on the Cross.
God let me become exhausted and discouraged. He waited until I surrendered and then Jesus finally had an opening to shine the light of His love into my core self. God holds my true self which is hidden in Him. I am safe here, at peace and filled with joy, flowing in and through the Spirit. This is where I choose to live.
first published on Catholic Stand