By Mike Nelson
As nearly any of their Christmas shopping lists would suggest, parents know all about surrendering wants and desires — primarily, their wants and desires — for the sake of their children. Going “without,” or with less, is part and parcel of “surrender.”
In the context of faith, we — as Catholic disciples — believe that we are called to surrender to God’s will, to sacrifice “for our good, and the good of all his holy church,” as we declare in the prayer over the gifts at Mass.
Nothing encapsulates this more than the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the prototypical story of surrender: Mary’s willing acceptance of her role as mother of the Son of God.
Certainly, as Luke relates, the teenage Mary felt bewildered and, no doubt, alarmed by the situation presented to her by the angel Gabriel, as would any “virgin with child.”
But in the end, Mary said yes to God. She surrendered, in other words, to God’s will: “May it be done to me” (Lk 1:38).
Three decades later, her son Jesus, faced with an even more challenging situation — his own death by crucifixion — gave the same response, the same surrender, to God the Father: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).
But another form of “surrender” warrants our attention and reflection during this Advent season (and beyond, for that matter). It is suggested in a sign on the door of Pope Francis’ residence at Domus Sanctae Marthae in Vatican City, a sign that reads: “Vietato Lamentarsi,” Italian for “Complaining Not Allowed.”
As reported by Crux, the sign elaborates on this message, calling it “the first law in the protection of one’s health and well-being.” Those who violate its message, the sign warns, are subject to developing a “victim complex” with the subsequent “diminution of their sense of humor and ability to solve problems.”
And “complaining in the presence of children,” the sign warns, would lead to a “double sanction.”
“To become the best of yourself,” the sign advises, “you have to concentrate on your own potential and not on your limits, therefore: Stop complaining, and act to make your life better.”
Posted earlier this year, the sign — a gift to the pope from Italian psychologist and psychotherapist Salvo Noe — embraces a core principle of Pope Francis’ outlook on life: Be positive.
That outlook is particularly meaningful in that it comes from a man who worked and served in Argentine slums, among people who had more right than most of us to bemoan their state in life. It is an outlook that reflects the theme of “Suscipe,” a prayer attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the pope’s own religious order, the Jesuits:
“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me. Amen.”
“Suscipe” — also the core of one of the loveliest liturgical songs of recent years, “These Alone Are Enough,” by Dan Schutte, one of the original St. Louis Jesuit composers — is Latin for “receive,” and suggests (as does our pope) that we become much happier when we focus on the blessings we receive from God (blessings more abundant than we often realize).
Sometimes, being positive means surrendering our wants, needs and desires to react in a certain (often negative) way when confronted with something we don’t care for. And it doesn’t necessarily have to involve our taxes, our legislature, our traffic or even our news media.
Last February, several months before receiving the “no complaints” sign for his apartment, Pope Francis addressed the topic of surrender in a daily Mass homily that referred to the disciple Peter’s lament, “We have given up everything” to follow Jesus.
The pope repeated Jesus’ response: “There is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more” (Mk 10:29-30).
To surrender, then, is to receive. Surrender the desire for self-pity and receive the gift of awareness of (and assisting) those in need. Surrender the desire for complacency and receive the gift of challenging yourself to grow. Surrender the desire to criticize what is wrong and receive the gift of appreciating what is right.
Complaining — some would call it “venting” — is what many of us do, sometimes with alarming regularity over the course of a day. Pope Francis invites us to take a different approach to the pitfalls (real and perceived) in our lives, an approach for which we Catholics have a phrase: “Offer it up.”
We don’t need beautiful carols or exquisite artwork to tell us that, as Mary surrendered to God’s will, she welcomed God’s beloved Son with joy. We are called to do the same.
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.