By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
The early Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers taught that the Way of Jesus is a path of subtraction more than addition. They strove mightily to become loving, forgiving, kind, and compassionate, but they also dropped those things that brought them down or served as a distraction from their surrender to God. They knew how to let go.
Thomas a Kempis, in the spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ, also advocated making a regular practice of letting go: “To sum up, dear friend of Mine, unclench your fists, and let everything fly out of your hands. Clean yourself up nicely and stay faithful to your Creator.”
But how does this work out practically? Usually not without a great deal of intention, effort, and patience with yourself
Letting go of fixed ideas about the way things are or how people are supposed to behave is one step, and it’s not easy. Take some cherished idea of yours and try to change it; you will see that the resistance is very strong. The mind likes the security that comes with long-held ideas. But the spiritual life requires us to constantly examine and even revise our ideas. We learn to reframe our views especially about our status and superiority over others.
Letting go of the fantasy that we can control what happens in our lives is another difficult assignment. We have been programmed by the media to believe that we can influence others and even make them love us by what we wear, how we look, and how much money we spend. But in reality, none of these things can effectively change our lives. Letting go means surrendering to the grace of God that makes things happen. In Christianity, Mary, the mother of Jesus, beautifully models this concept as a young unwed girl when she opens to grace. She doesn’t know what will happen, but she knows trying to control it is folly. In Buddhist as well, not knowing acknowledges the mystery of life and honors the inexplicable things that come our way as spiritual gifts.
Letting go of hurry and worry in this fast-moving culture is another spiritual challenge. It means relaxing our grip and all the tension that comes with it. Slowing down may be regarded as an act of subversion in the business world where we are pressed to do everything as quickly as possible. Quick thinking is rewarded, and those who can’t keep up are penalized. But letting go of speed can lead to new possibilities. “Trees do not force their sap,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “nor does the flower push its bloom.” With more time, you may hear the voice of your intuition and discern the will of God.
Perhaps the everyday act of letting go that causes the most discomfort involves our possessions. One way to prepare for winter is to clear away some of the clutter that has gathered in the basement, garage, or attic. Because it’s so natural to cling to things, every choice about what to keep or discard reflects what matters to us.
Clutter-clearers will tell you that you don’t really need anything you haven’t touched in a year. But this kind of letting go should not be done mindlessly. As you pack away items for a donation or even as you put them in the trash, you can pause for a few seconds to remember how they have served you. Remember, too, that the less you have, the more you will appreciate what you have and the more attention you can give your things. Here subtraction becomes a catalyst to gratitude.
That is one of the marvels of letting go: it always leads to a deepening and an enrichment of our lives.
Never forget that to forgive yourself is to release trapped energy that could be doing good work in the world. — D. Patrick Miller
Forgiveness is something freely granted, whether earned or deserved; something lovingly offered without thought of acknowledgment or return. It is our way of mirroring the goodness in the heart of a person rather than raising up the harshness of their actions….it allows us to live in the sunlight of the present, not the darkness of the past. Forgiveness alone, of all our human actions, opens up the world to the miracle of infinite possibility. — Kent Nerburn in Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace
The practice of forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.
— Marianne Williamson in A Return to Love
An Excerpt from Calm Surrender: Walking the Path of Forgiveness by Kent Nerburn
In this down-to-earth book on forgiveness, Kent Nerburn sees it as the spiritual practice of love put into action. In this passage, he confronts one of the major dilemmas facing those who need to forgive.
“This is the dilemma that faces us all when we decide to walk the difficult path of forgiveness. Are we complicit in wrongdoing if we do not challenge those who wrong us? Or are we contributing to the darkness in the world if we get caught up in the web of heartlessness and cruelty that gave birth to the injustice?
“I don’t know. And yet I must know. Somehow, I, you, each of us, must find a way to respond to the cruelty and injustice in the world in a way that doesn’t empower those who harm others. At the same time, we must avoid becoming ensnared by their anger and heartlessness.
“One of the great human wagers is whether we best achieve this by shining a light of pure absolution into the darkness, trusting that the light will draw others toward it, or whether we stand against the darkness with equal force, and then try to flood the world with light once the darkness is held at bay.
“In either case, though, one thing is certain: Forgiveness cannot be a disengaged, pastel emotion. It is demanded in the bloodiest of human circumstances, and it must stand against the strongest winds of human rage and hate. To be a real virtue, engaged with the world around us, it must be muscular, alive, and able to withstand the outrages and inequities of inhuman and inhumane acts. It must be able to face the dark side of the human condition.
“How we shape such forgiveness is one of the most crucial questions in our lives. And, it is not easy. Sometimes we get so frustrated that we don’t think we can take it any more.
“But we can and we must; it is our human responsibility. Even though we know that forgiveness, misused, or misunderstood, can become a tacit partner in the wrongs around us, we also know that, properly applied, it is the glue that holds the human family together. It is the way to bridge the loneliness that too often surrounds us. We must find a way to build that bridge, even if four hands are clumsy and the materials at our command are flawed.”
A Teaching Story from New Age Judaism: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern World by Melinda Ribner
Melinda Ribner seeks to present “a synthesis of Jewish and New Age thought and spiritual practice.” She is convinced that Kabbalistic teachings have great relevance to the quest of today’s seekers. Here’s one example:
“Forgiveness is so liberating and is emphasized in New Age books. Rabbi Elimelech, a great rebbe of the eighteenth century, was known to ask for forgiveness of everyone in his household before Shabbos each week. He would go to each servant, each child and to his wife, begging them to forgive him for anything he might have done unintentionally to hurt them in any way. It is a good thing to routinely ask for forgiveness from people we are close to because it is very possible that we have hurt them unintentionally. People do not always share how they have been hurt.”
To Practice: At least once a week, ask members of your household to forgive you for anything you might have done unintentionally to hurt them in any way.