May Surrender Willingness Spiritual Narcissism

Gerald May 7 willingness, control and surrender

“The gentlest form of spiritual narcissism is the idea that one can accomplish one’s own spiritual growth. This is the belief that ‘I can do it’ ..Assuming Paul was correct that God created human beings to ‘seek God’, the search is not ultimately ours. It was not our idea…We do not wake up one morning and spontaneously decide, ‘Hmm, I think I’ll go out and look for God for the rest of my life.’ The striving, even if we try to own it, was planted in us. It comes from somewhere very deep, from a depth at which one can no longer say, ‘This is me and only me.’”

Gerald May, Will and Spirit, p. 115.

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 In Will and Spirit, Gerald May writes about struggles in our world today as well as our many struggles within ourselves with will, willingness, control and surrender in our spiritual lives. Whenever we start our spiritual journey with willingness, as soon as we become aware of some spiritual growth, we become vulnerable to spiritual narcissism, the unconscious use of spiritual practice to increase rather than to decrease our self-importance, trying to become holy, the idea that we can accomplish our own spiritual growth. This becomes willfulness masquerading as willingness.

An awareness of the degree of self-interest involved in charitable acts also can make a big difference in how these actions and gifts are given and received. Sin occurs when self-image and personal willfulness become so important that one forgets, represses, or denies one’s true nature, one’s absolute connectedness and grounding in the divine power that creates and sustains the cosmos.

May encourages us to allow attachments to come or go rather than constantly clinging to them. We must be aware of our need for self-importance as he cautions us about immediately leaping to shore ourselves up. He places less emphasis on coping and mastery, and more on waking up to whatever is happening in the present moment.

As we surrender some of our self-importance, we begin to make friends with mystery. Even though we may not necessarily always find God when we sacrifice our self-importance, May believes that as we lose our need for self-importance, we will realize that God has already found us. We will experience more spontaneity and awareness when we do not need to perform, when we do not need to be defined through self-judgment or evaluation of our actions, where we can let things flow.

 May reminds us that spirituality cannot be a means to end our discomfort. Spiritual growth has to be a way into the world, not out of it, in the world not of the world, and unfortunately often may be uncomfortable.

This statue of the return of the prodigal son in the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral can be an icon for surrender and willingness.