prayer, spirituality, vocation

Laying it Down

Earlier this month, I had a chance to go on a young adult retreat through the Archdiocese of Milwaukee at the beautiful Schoenstatt Retreat Center in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Frankly, I was not expecting much out of the weekend. I was a small group leader, and we were told meeting after meeting to be present to the retreatants. My idea of a retreat is silent and alone, like at the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Loud and surrounded by people hardly sounded like it was going to be much of an experience.

However, I was more than pleasantly surprised that the retreat was a beautiful experience. I found pockets of alone time, being able to walk the grounds and stomp on fresh snow, or find a cozy chair to pray in the mornings during scheduled prayer time. The best part was that the talks echoed the hardest hurdle I am facing in my spiritual life: child-like dependence on God.

I’ve been fiercely independent as long as I can remember. I preferred books to the neighborhood kids. I don’t remember commanding a lot of anyone’s attention. I am extremely stubborn. Too, people disappoint you. I much prefer things that can’t disappoint me. So, the whole idea of relying on someone else, even if that someone is JESUS, is extremely difficult.

I’ve been working through the Spiritual Exercises – an Ignatian retreat to find God in one’s daily life – using Fr. Kevin O’Brien’s book The Ignatian Adventure

Much of Ignatian spirituality is about naming attachments and forming a healthy detachment to them. It’s a very Lenten attitude as well. And of course, those two things would coincide at the same time (Thanks, Jesus). For an obvious example, I have a strong desire to get married and have an attachment to this desire because of how strongly I desire it. St. Ignatius encourages being able to lay down that desire at the feet of Jesus and learn to desire what He wants, not just as I want.

If only it were that easy.

St. Ignatius knew that we experience tensions in the ideals of following Christ’s call. So, he spent a week having us meditate on the cost of discipleship.   Usually, we experience a lack of spiritual freedom in following Christ because of our various attachments. St. Ignatius wrote this meditation to give us a concrete way to examine how we have responded to Christ’s call about our attachments in the past and how we desire to respond as disciples in the future.

A meditation that really affected me during that week was the meditation on the Three Classes of Persons. The three classes (or types) of persons are each given something valuable. St. Ignatius wrote a large sum of money, but it can be anything valuable like a desired job or award that is not inherently good nor evil. I like to picture me as a child receiving a much desired stuffed animal. Each person becomes excessively attached to the gift and knows it.

The first person procrastinates. She feels a growing attachment to the gift and is worried she is becoming dependent on it. She wants to let go of the unhealthy attachment, but instead, she makes herself busy and never gets around to it. Even on her deathbed, she is thinking about laying it down and letting it go.

The second person compromises. She too worries about her growing attachment to the gift and wants to be free of the unhealthy attachment. However, because she wants to keep the gift, she offers many other good things – good deeds, sacrifices, etc. – instead of the excessive attachment to the gift. Ultimately, she wants God to conform to her will instead of her to His.

The third person is truly free or indifferent. This person wants to rid herself of the attachment, but in a way where she is indifferent to whether she keeps the thing or not. Instead, she wishes to only keep the attachment if the Lord desires it or give it away if the Lord desires it. As Fr. Kevin O’Brien wrote,

“She is not sure whether or not God is asking her to give up the possession; she simply desires to be free to do what God wants her to do. So she begins by asking God what she should do. She is open to how God directs her through her prayer, her experience, her reasoning through different options, her discernment of consolations and desolations, and the wise counsel of others.

The truly free person checks her motivations, which are often mixed. She tries to choose from a desire to better serve God and others. The third person may feel some attachment to the possession and does not mind waiting to make a decision. But she does not procrastinate.”

– Fr. Kevin O’Brien, The Ignatian Adventure

If only if were that easy.

I like decisions. They’re comfortable. As I’ve written about before, I have a high need for cognitive closure, so I love making decisions. I often fall into the bucket of the first person because I like to make my decision about something and leave no room for God. But then again, if I am open enough to realizing I’m attached to something, I like to fall into the bucket of the second person because I like to make my decision about something and try to appease God with other things.

But Jesus wants my heart more. Like a good Father, He desires for me to have good gifts, but ultimately, He cares more about my heart than my comfort. He wants me to allow Him to work, and Lord knows He doesn’t work on my timeline. If he did, I would be married by now as I imagined it when I was 8.

But thank God He works outside my timeline! If I were married right now, I probably wouldn’t be in NP school. I’d be facing my extremely hectic and busy job without an end in sight and be burned out. If I were married right now, I probably would not be as close as I am with my family because I would not have had the luxury of all the time I spent with them. If I were married right now, I never might have travel nursed, which was a time of tremendous struggle and growth for me. If I were married right now, I would probably not be as close as I am with many of my friends because I would be spending time with my husband instead of them. Instead, I’ve been able to visit and travel with many of my friends, and I would not trade those experiences for the world.

Truly, I am blessed. Truly, I have been given immense gifts. Truly, I have enough. And truly, I can depend on God to take care of me because He has done so quite well with my fighting with Him every step of the way.

Reflecting on all of this, I decided I deeply desire to fall into the bucket of the third person more often. I want to be truly free and indifferent to my attachments, but it is difficult to let go.

In the opening chapters of his brilliant but brief book With Open Hands, Henri Nouwen tells the story of an elderly woman in a psychiatric ward was such a danger to herself that everything needed to be taken from her. However, she had a small coin in her hand that she refused to give up. It took multiple people to take away this small coin from her.  As Nouwen wrote,

“It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.”

– Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands

And that’s my fear in my prayer life. If I let go of my deep desire to be married, will I have anything left? If I let go of my deep need to be seen and liked, will I have anything left? If I let go of my deep fear that I’ll never be found worthy, will I have anything let?

That emptiness is terrifying. What will be there when I let go of all that I have and have nothing but my emptiness to give? But the Lord can only fully fill an empty vessel. That is my comfort is letting all my attachment go and laying them down at His feet.

Every time we pray, we are invited to lay our attachments down. The priest who spoke on our retreat said it is necessary in order to truly pray in a dialogue with the Lord. We need to lay our attachments, our distractions, our fears, everything at the feet of the Lord. As Nouwen wrote,

“When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fist and give up that last coin.”

– Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands

But oh, how please Jesus is with that small coin!

It was so fitting that on retreat, during this week reflecting on the cost of discipleship, the story of the widow’s offering came up (Mark 12:41-44). In the story, Jesus is sitting outside the temple, watching the people give alms. Rich people are putting in large amounts, but Jesus is most impressed by a poor widow who puts in two small coins.

Jesus tells his disciples,

“Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

Mark 12:43-44

Giving up our whole livelihood is our invitation in prayer. Giving Jesus our small coin is our invitation in prayer. Laying down our deep desire is our invitation in prayer.

I think of a walk I took with my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews over the summer. I had a break from work and decided last minute to spend some time with them. As it is their tradition, we took a walk around the neighborhood after dinner. Sweat Pea was very excited to be out of the Burley jogging stroller and out in the world. He picked up a variety of things, clinging to a particular pinecone most of all.

But when he came upon something else he wanted more – a better pinecone – he needed to give up the one he had. It took him a minute, and I could relate with the struggle, but he laid the pinecone down to receive the better one.

And that’s what Jesus invites us to in prayer. He invites us to lay down our deep desires, hand over our small coins, give up our livelihoods not because He is cruel but because He has something better. Child-like dependence on Him is giving those things up and trusting He will bring something better in whatever situation we find ourselves. The gift may not come immediately, as we expected it, or may be Christ Himself, but we need open hands and empty hearts in order to receive it.

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