Around this time two years ago I was wandering the streets of Assisi and Rome while on a pilgrimage with a group of students from my school. The point of the journey was to take in the beauty around us and to apply it to the process of discernment - to see how gratitude and presence can lead us closer to the Divine. As this was the summer before my senior year, I felt a weighty ultimatum as though I would need to have my entire future mapped out before graduation. I had been praying for about a year beforehand that on this pilgrimage I wanted to receive some sign or grace that would lead me closer to my vocation; and it happened. I experienced such a grace within the first two days of this journey -- specifically in seeing a vision of myself entering a ministerial setting, working with women, and studying Theology and Women’s Studies in graduate school. I was filled with a deep sense of peace and gratitude…for about 36 hours. Then, for the next nine days of the pilgrimage, I spiraled. I dug through all of the ways it wouldn’t work, all of the reasons I shouldn’t do it. And then I spent the rest of that summer and through the fall twisting it in my hands until it hung limp and lifeless, stowed away without air or light in the obscure corners of my mind. Instead of letting it unfold, I constructed walls around it. I questioned, “Well, how would that work?” and “What would my timeline look like?” and “Oh my goodness, what would so-and-so think of that?”
We spend so much time as Christians telling ourselves (and too often others) how we surrender to the will of God, how Jesus is all we need, how we place all of our trust in Him. But when it comes down to the wire, do we? In the Gospel this week, Jesus calls the disciples to put their money where their mouths are. Various disciples approach him saying “I will follow you wherever you go, Lord.” And Jesus answers them, “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Is this a warning to us? Is He lamenting how impractical and idealistic his followers are? Is He somewhat patronizingly remarking “Aw, that’s cute.” They think it’s as easy as speaking their loyalty into existence – as though by stating “I will be faithful” implies a lifetime without questioning, doubt, or fear.
When Jesus finally invites one of the disciples explicitly, saying “Follow me” the disciple replies, “Lord, let me go first to bury my father.” Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” It sounds surprisingly harsh at first, as though Jesus is heartlessly forbidding him from grieving with his family. But rather than interpret this as some political, anti-family rhetoric, it feels like Jesus is challenging his disciples’ will and their perceptions of what it means to surrender. They’re quite literally following him around the desert, much like on a pilgrimage, believing themselves to be ready and open to the movement of the Spirit in their lives. However, the second Jesus verbalizes his desire for them to become co-ministers with Him, the disciples automatically push back and say, “ok, but first...” putting their own priorities and timelines and desires ahead of a Divine invitation.
This struggle to fully surrender to the will of God is a common theme of the readings and Gospel this week, and of my own journey as well. In the competitive, capitalist U.S. society in which I was raised, “surrender” often has a connotation of giving up, of quitting and throwing in the towel because the fight isn’t worth the energy. But in this Christian tradition, it’s quite the opposite. It means letting go and giving in because we are so fully invested in hearing what the Creator has in store for us. Instead of fighting against the tide of this Divine movement within us, we are called to follow, to answer not with “ok, but...” but rather with gratitude and restfulness.
This is something that I personally grapple with, and I think I can safely bet that most people do too. We can get so caught up in the preparation that we don’t appreciate the invitation. But the marvelous thing about God, this all-forgiving, all-patient Universal Love, is that even when we don’t answer “correctly,” she finds a way of repeating herself; and she will continue asking until we’re ready. It’s a cycle, a pattern, and a living relationship. We won’t always get it right the first time, but we will eventually discover that sweet bliss of open surrender. We simply must continue witnessing, embracing, and resting in the beauty of the invitation so that when we hear it we can answer with a grateful and resolute: “Thank you. Yes.”
Elizabeth Turnwald is a current Jesuit Volunteer in New York City. She lives in a nine-person intentional community in Harlem and is the Retreat Coordinator and Conflict Resolution Program Assistant at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she holds a B.A. in Music and in Spanish with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. Her undergraduate thesis, entitled “Thy Kingdom Come: Catholicism and the Nueva Canción, 1966-82,”explored the intersection of Latin American protest music, politics, and Catholic liturgical practice. Liz served as an Undergraduate Music Minister throughout college and most recently as the Counselor for Liturgy and Prayer Life at Tecaboca Catholic Camp and Retreats in Mountain Home, Texas. Grounded in her Marianist education, she is curious about vocation, mentorship, and the roles of women in the Church as a pathway to reform and justice. Originally from northwestern Ohio, Liz will continue to spread gregarious Midwestern hospitality with the East Coast as she pursues a Master of Divinity at the Boston College School of Theology of Ministry.
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