Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Willingness and wilfulness*

To enable God we must become willing: that is all we have to do. God will do the rest. In fact, it is very important that we do nothing but become willing. And this willingness is not quietism. It requires every effort; it costs not less than everything. Willingness is not passivity: it is readiness.

Willing for what? Willing to be powerless, willing to limit our seeming power so that God's real power can become active in us, most especially in relation to those things we would like to do for God. Because, as André Louf has pointed out, frequently echoing ancient desert wisdom, the works of asceticism we do by our own effort are entirely pagan: it is only when we run up against the wall of despair at the failure of our efforts, only when we are willing to acknowledge our powerlessness and thus enable God's power to be active in us that our service becomes Christian.

Powerlessness, willing or unwilling, and its associated sense of loss, has long been recognised by modern psychologists as being related to tears of every variety. Perhaps if we had not lost the insight bestowed in the Christian tradition of tears, we might not have needed to invent modern psychology to help us recover it.

Psychology helps us to distinguish between kinds of tears: holy tears are not the same as tears of bereavement, whether this bereavement is for the loss of a person or some other option or thing, although holy tears may permeate other kinds of tears. The grief of bereavement is a response to a more or less unwilling loss; whereas the grief of the way of tears, of repentance, is related to willing loss. The grief of bereavement has a beginning, a middle, and what currently is known as 'closure', a time when the active passage of bereavement ends.

The grief associated with penitence, with the metanoia of being turned inside out is continuous because, as the trust towards God continues and becomes more powerful, the process of being organically transformed, the process of divinisation, also continues. More and more illusion is lost. More and more sense of counterfeit power and control is lost, and tears are an appropriate accompaniment. These tears are the sign both of the Holy Spirit at work in a willing person, and of the willingness itself. They signify a kenotic exchange of love between God and the person. They have nothing to do with melancholy or masochism.

Maggie Ross, Tears and Fire: Recovering a Neglected Tradition VIII 

*see Gerald May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, (San Francisco 1982)


  1. This post will live in my heart for a long time.

    The words "Lord, I am willing" do not come easily to me.

    Oh sure- they can be said or written with ease, but my heart! Like bread left unwrapped, it hardens quickly.

    It reminds me of the prayer, "I believe Lord. Help my unbelief."

    I say "I am willing Lord. Help my hardened will."

    Our culture is infused with instructions and rewards for willfulness and not so much the other way around. This strikes me as much more grave after reading your post today.

    Peace and prayers to you always Mike. You are a light always.

  2. Thank you, Fran - but don't thank me, thank Maggie, who is one of my very favourite spiritual bloggers of all time!