The word ‘surrender’ has a very negative feel to it. It speaks of defeat and subsequent punishment. It often is used in the context of a nation’s capitulation to unjust aggression; or at least in a personal sense, to an unjust submission to another’s power.
But in the history of the spiritual life, the great masters, both male and female, speak glowingly of the importance of surrender of self to the Will of God. Related to this and dependent to it is a sense of the rebellion that is in each of us. This rebellion manifests itself in a ferocious self-determination, whether or not it complies with any ‘outside’ code of law or conduct.
Take for its prime example the proto-rebellion of Adam and Eve to the Law of Eden promulgated by God, their Creator. When Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, they said a strong no to God. All of our sins derive from our collusion with that first rebellion.
Thus, the direction of our whole spiritual life is moving from the inflated, egotistical defiance in that original rebellion that still clings to us even after the removal of Original Sin that occurred at our Baptism, to a full and total acceptance of the Will of God in our lives. This means that we agree to the dominion of God in our daily lives and admit of His sovereignty over all our life decisions.
The spiritual masters in our faith have used the word ‘surrender’ when describing this primal and all-inclusive action.
This is true in other faiths as well. The entire history of the Chosen People recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures is a school for the people in submitting (another word) to the Lordship of God. It happens first for an individual: Abraham; then for a family: the 12 sons of Jacob and their families; and finally, to the entire people of Israel through the covenant of Moses.
The very word ‘Islam’, in the third of the Abrahamic faiths, means submission or surrender to God that adherents of that faith act out 5 times a day by bowing toward Mecca.
The opposite of this surrender to God is the pride of Lucifer who, in the great poem by Milton, says that it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.
Thus, this surrender that is necessary for growth in the spiritual life (which is really the totality of life and not just an isolated segment) cannot be partial and must include a surrender to not only God in a kind of abstract way, but also to what God has revealed as the way human beings should live.
This of course means a submission to Revelation as it is found in the Scriptures and on the interpretation of these Scriptures as found in the Tradition that has guided the Church, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
This submission or surrender cannot be partial. One cannot subscribe to the kind of submission that is termed ‘Cafeteria Catholicism’ in which one goes through the Magisterium of the Church and pick out what one likes and ‘wants to buy’ and just leaves the rest that one doesn’t agree with. Such an attitude makes the individual person the ultimate arbiter of Truth and involves no real submission to the Gospel, but rather a subjection of the Gospel to the individual decision voiced in the opinion of the person. This often goes by way of the word ‘conscience’. Following one’s conscience cannot be absolutizing one’s opinion of things. Conscience must be well formed and honestly espoused after submitting it in a balanced way to the Teaching of the Church.
I often use the popular example of Don Corleone of the famous Godfather saga in the movies. He lived a good family life, but when it came to ‘business’ he was a ruthless murderer. He was following his conscience, but it was a malformed conscience. It did not align with the witness of the Scripture nor with the teaching of the Church. These are the objective guard rails that help us keep on the right path. They require a deep trust on our part and a meticulous adherence to the whole of the teaching.
This flies in the face of our modern distrust of all institutions and the exaltation of personal opinion over all other guides. In this manner of proceeding, it is not possible to surrender completely to the instructions of God and the witness of the saints. The center of gravity in our choices is not in God but in us, and that is the fundamental modern problem that keeps many from the destination offered to us by God: repentance and redemption. It does not happen since we do not want it.
Sorry to say, it is as simple as that.