June 3, 2005


The spirituality of letting go

We cannot hold or grasp. Only cling to God, the eternal present, who tries in every way to enter the human heart.” (Basilian Father M. Owen Lee in A Book of Hours: Music, Literature and Life)

“Letting go” may be the most countercultural principle of Christian spirituality. Every day, our obsessive media culture tells us in thousands of words, images and music that the only things that matter in life are youth, wealth and at least 15 minutes of fame. The values of the world urge us to consume and acquire constantly in order to be young, to be rich and to be famous (at least vicariously). But the Gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to be and do something radically different.

Christ’s invitation to those who would be his disciples is: “Go, sell what you have; give it to the poor, and come, follow me.” He does not ask us to accumulate or to hang onto anything. On the contrary, the Lord challenges us to give up our dependence on people, places and things. He wants us to empty ourselves, as he did, and to cling to him alone, “the eternal present who tries in every way to enter the human heart.”

Letting go is not something we do willingly or easily. We are taught that surrender means defeat. We are afraid of what might happen to us if we let go. What will others think if we give up our social status? What if we end up needing the money that we are asked to share with the poor or with the mission of the Church? Doesn’t letting go mean losing forever? Doesn’t it force us to settle for less than we want or deserve?

We hang on—sometimes desperately—to the things that matter to us. Parents find it hard to let go of their children. (This is the season for graduations and weddings!) Our society tells us to gather more and more—houses, cars, clothing and all kinds of electronic toys! It’s hard to resist the pressure to acquire the latest “time-saving” technology, but do we ever really save any time? Good stewards don’t try to save time. They try to use it wisely and gratefully as a precious gift they know they can never hold onto!

Diets, drugs and cosmetic surgery promise to keep us young, healthy and sexually active in spite of the inevitable realities of growing old and facing death. We are told to grab all the gusto and hang on for dear life. But the truth is that we cannot hold or grasp forever. We must eventually let go of everything and place ourselves in the hands of the loving God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who clings to us even as we are grasping at everything but him.

Letting go is what Jesus did when he became man. When he was born into poverty and homelessness. When he lived quietly among the people of Nazareth and learned a trade. When he was baptized by John and began the life of an itinerant preacher and healer. When he chose 12 very ordinary men to lead his Church. When he accepted the Father’s will and agreed to suffer and die for our sins. When he “let go of death” and opened to all the gates of eternal life. When he sent the Holy Spirit to inspire us and to give us the courage to let go whenever we are stuck in our sins.

Letting go is what disciples of Jesus Christ are called to do when they are challenged to acknowledge that everything they have—and everything they are—they received as a free gift from God. We cannot hold or grasp the things that belong to God. We can only care for them as grateful and responsible stewards who share them generously with others and, ultimately, give them back again to God with increase. Christian disciples cling to God by letting go of all the stuff that separates them from God’s grace. They open their hearts to God by being good and faithful stewards of all God’s gifts.

We cannot hold or grasp, but we can make letting go a powerful, positive expression of what it means to follow in the footsteps of the Lord, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”

When we let go, as he did, we become kinder, simpler, gentler and much less self-centered. We become like Christ. This is the first principle of Christian spirituality: to imitate Christ by emptying ourselves, by living as he did and by clinging to him alone.

— Daniel Conway

(Daniel Conway is a member of the editorial committee of the board of directors of Criterion Press Inc.)

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