Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Floating in God's Tide

A post from my "Journeys Home" blog.... There are several good Bible verses about following God's will, like Philippians 2:13, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. A beloved pair of verses are Proverbs 3:5-6,

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
   and do not rely on your own insight. 
In all your ways acknowledge him,
   and he will make straight your paths.

Both of these imply a degree of trust in God. While the Proverbs passage draws its key metaphor from traveling on land, a book that I like draws the key metaphor from floating in water.

Thomas H. Green, S.J., is the author of When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998). He notes that learning to float on water is surprisingly difficult. “[M]any people never learn how to float” because they “never learn to relax, to let their head be pillowed by the water” (p. 142). He lives in the Philippines and observes that even natives of those islands have trouble floating. “Learning to float is counterintuitive; we have to do the very opposite of what our self-preserving instincts urge us to do” (pp. 142-143). Also, floating is “essentially to learn to trust,” which is also difficult (p. 143).

Floating makes for a thought provoking metaphor. We must decide to swim or float, and we would prefer to do both, writes Green, because we want to make our own way through life but to call upon God for help when we feel out of control. But God, rather, “wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the [God’s] tide” (p. 144-145). Floating is when we “are totally secure” in God’s love and can thus “float free” and allow God to guide us (p. 145).

Thinking along with Green, I wonder if we should think of floating, not as a way to go through life in a passive way or a victimized way, but as a way of thinking about Romans 8:28 as we pursue our various responsibilities and follow our dreams. That Philippians verse implies a mysterious relationship between our actions and God's grace; we make our way through life while all the time calling upon and relying upon God for guidance and providential leading.

For instance, floating reminds me of the numerous turns and paths of my vocations (to focus on just that aspect of my life). I’m very proactive in my career, seeing and creating opportunities, and staying open to professional avenues---while I’m also praying to the Spirit for guidance. Several times over the years, opportunities that I thought were wonderful were not or did not develop, while other, unexpected ones appeared and were amazing. I’m sure it’s been that way for many others, too; one's life does take unexpected twists and turns. I’ve even praised God for answered prayer for circumstances, only to find those circumstances fall apart and lead eventually to something better.

If you can be a “floater” who is anxious and fussy and uncertain while floating, that’s me! Green assures us that it's not easy to trust God. But as we grow in our trust in God, we can see many ways that we and our loved ones have been guided.

Green also evokes the example of Ignatius Loyola, who spent a good part of his career in one role (administration) when he would have preferred other kinds of work (teaching, visiting the sick, etc.). If we're in a situation in life where we'd rather be doing other things, the idea of "floating" can help us stay on track as we look to God to see how we can thrive in this situation and also to keep our dreams alive.

When I talk to people about prayer (often, these days, via Facebook conversations), I prefer to emphasize this aspect of faith and spirituality: prayer and faith puts one within God’s “tide,” and we can trust God to guide us, but we may not immediately perceive that guidance. I don’t want people to feel disappointed if their prayers don’t get answered right away, or if “the peace of Christ” they felt in their hearts doesn’t last, or if (like me) the prima facie answer to prayer doesn’t necessarily work out. To me, it’s more honest and helpful (and more biblically, really) to assure people that God guides us over the long haul, and the wonders of God’s “current” may become obvious only after a period of years.

“Floating” also gives us confidence when we’re amid people who are single-minded (and possibly simple-minded) about ways to approach life. There will always be people (Christians included) who think everything has to be forced and pushed; that nothing good happens except through hard work and use of personal power. And a lot of things do happen through hard work and effort!  But you wish such people acknowledged prayer and surrender more obviously: you can be a Christian and still be very atheistic in your everyday attitudes. The idea of “floating” reminds us that there is a far greater power at work than our small efforts.

“Floating” reminds me of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We’ve no problem embracing the part of that prayer that reads, “put me to doing.” But what if the Holy Spirit wished us to trust that the unproductive times, the times of disappointment and uncertainty, and even the dark nights of the soul, are ways by which God leads us? We might discover that our “doing” is a subtle way we try to control God's guidance. (I think churches try all the time to control God’s guidance.)


Another reason I like to think about this subject, is what I said above: like many of us, I become anxious when I’m in situations where I’ve limited or no control. A minor example is airplane travel: how long is that delay going to be? Will I miss my connection? Illness is a more serious example. All of us have different things that push our anxiety buttons more than other things. What makes you afraid and out of control?

In my ongoing efforts to be less anxious in stressful circumstances, I’ve been borrowing a little bit of Buddhist teaching (accepting situations as they are and feeling peaceful in them) with my faith in God’s providential help. As Green writes, God wants us to trust and "relax," and then God can lead us effectively.

I thought of another book I like, by Simon Tugwell, O.P., Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985). His chapter on Francis of Assisi is interesting. Tugwell notes, “The monastic tradition had assumed that the development of a proper spiritual life depended on the monks being protected against disturbances and temptations; but the Franciscans made it their boast that their enclosure was no other than the whole world. If this is God’s world, ruled by his providence, we ought not to have to protect ourselves against it. Whatever happens is God’s gift to us" (pp. 129-130).

The author concludes that the source of Francis’ love of nature--for which we think so fondly of the saint--is this belief in God’s providence. But though we think sentimentally of Francis’ love, he was no armchair lover of the outdoors. He actually wanted to be completely unprotected as he faced nature. He even tried to prevent a friend from extinguishing the fire that had caught his habit: “Dearest brother, do not harm brother fire,” he said (p. 130). “The whole point of Franciscan life is a radical conversion away from a life of self-will to a life of submission…The heart of conversion must accordingly be the disappropriation of your own will” (p. 131).

The point is not to be obedient on principle, but to follow Christ and to be like Christ. Christ himself went through life obedient and unprotected. Francis did not sentimentalize this approach to life: Christ was obedient and because of it was cruelly killed, after all. But if we follow Christ in this way, we discover “a new way of relating to other people”; vulnerability and disappropriation of one’s will (as well as voluntary poverty, another Franciscan ideal) leads to love of others (p. 133).

It also leads to personal happiness. Francis told the story of a traveler who, on a rainy and cold night, would not be accepted into a place of lodging for the night. “I tell you,” says Francis, “if I have patience and am not upset, this is where true happiness lies, and true virtue and the salvation of my soul” (p. 132).

To put it in terms of my own anxieties: if I have patience and happiness when I’m stranded in an airport, or when many things are stressful in my life, then I’ve reached a very good stage of inner peace rooted in trust in God. (You can also see how Francis’ parable traveler could be praised for his Buddhist-like sense of non-attachment.)

I’m SO not there yet! But to turn back to Fr. Green’s image, I think his notion of “floating” corresponds well with the inner freedom Tugwell finds in St. Francis: a willingness to relax as one goes about the day’s work and travels, a willingness to believe that God “current” will carry us, and an ability to relax in that “current” even when circumstances are difficult.


As I reflected on all this, I also thought of Hebrews 2:1. In that letter, the author warns people about abandoning their newly-found Christian faith, but he is also concerned with people drifting away from faith, like an unsecured boat. “Drifting” in this sense is different from the “floating” which Fr. Green intends. You drift when you’re careless about your faith and don’t maintain your side of your relationship with God. “Floating” is a serious process of surrendering to God’s help and guidance, especially in times of distress and uncertainty.

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