The Alchemy of Effort and Grace
Originally published in All Shall Be Well: An Approach to Wellness (William Craddock Jr., editor, 2009 Morehouse Publishing)
When I was growing up in California’s Bay Area, every self-respecting teenager had to at least try to surf on occasion. What I remember most vividly about my occasional ventures into the surf is not an image of myself standing triumphantly upon the board, riding like King Kamehameha toward the shining sands.
I remember waiting peacefully, bobbing up and down in the water, watching the horizon as swells came in groups, wondering if this set was going to be The One. I remember turning towards shore, paddling hard (the boards were long and heavy in those days), only to fall back when I couldn’t catch the momentum of the wave. I remember especially the glorious sensation when my vigorous strokes were magically met by the powerful surge beneath, lifting me up and forward. It was an amazing physical sensation, when, after having waited, discerned, tried, and failed, suddenly my strength and the ocean’s strength came together in a glorious alchemy.
So it is with spiritual transformation. We put in our time in prayer, we go to therapy, read books, talk to friends, offer ourselves in worship, and practice our rule of life. We paddle along by our own strength, trying to propel ourselves forward, hoping to catch a wave of freedom, compassion, simplicity, or intimacy with the divine. This is a good and essential part of the spiritual journey. “Work out your own salvation, (Philippians 2:12) Paul advised. Jesus encourages us to “strive first for the kingdom of God,” to “strive to enter through the narrow door.” (Matthew 6:33; Luke 13:24))
But there is also the waiting on grace. Woven in and out of our striving is another reality: we float in the deep waters, waiting, praying, watching the horizon. Interspersed with our efforts to change is a contemplative dimension, a kind of surrender, a dying to self. This is what Gerald May used to call “creating a little contemplative space” around things, a little breathing room for the Spirit when things are dense. In this contemplative space, we let go of our control, trusting that God is working beneath our understanding and our striving. We float, remaining awake, receptive, watchful.
Eventually the waters beneath us will surge. We receive insight, we hear as if for the first time a familiar passage of scripture, or a part of the old self just sloughs off like dead skin. Our seemingly unfruitful efforts to understand, to change, to move forward are met with an energy beyond ourselves, and we are taken forward.
Transformation does not usually happen to us by magic or simply because we will it into being. It happens because we try, we fail, we surrender, we wait, we try again, we get help, we let go, we beat our heads against the wall, we wait some more…and all the while, we do our best to trust that the Spirit is actually working harder than we are, beneath the surface of consciousness. Occasionally we catch glimpses of this graceful work, until finally, when the timing is right, it comes out into the open, all of our efforts are matched by the more powerful surge of grace, and we are carried forward.
What was previously impossible for us becomes possible. Our fear drops away like a rusty old ball and chain. We slow down without even having to apply the brakes. Our impulse towards others becomes more consistently patient, more generous. We look in the mirror, and surprise! we see the face of Christ.
Over the years, I have learned to trust that if I do my part, the Spirit will go to work as well. I may not be able to see this work for a long time, but as I continue to strive, there is always a part of me that knows God is moving beneath the surface. This enables me to do my part without the corrosive element of fear. I can hold my need for transformation lightly, knowing that in God’s good time —in this life and the next—all shall be brought to fulfillment.