“The gentlest form of spiritual narcissism is the idea that one can accomplish one’s own spiritual growth. ‘I can do it’.’”
—Gerald G. May in Will and Spirit (HarperOne, 1982), p. 115.
In Will and Spirit, Gerald May writes about struggles in our world today as well as our many battles within ourselves. We are likely to have issues 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 practices to increase our self-importance. We find ourselves trying to become holy, under the assumption that we can accomplish our own spiritual growth. This becomes willfulness masquerading as willingness.
When we acquire an awareness of our own self-interest as to why we are participating in charitable works, these actions and gifts will be better given and received. Sin occurs when self-image and personal willfulness become so important that one forgets, represses, or denies one’s absolute connectedness and grounding in the God within us, the power who creates and sustains the cosmos and who placed in us that yearning.
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; and thus 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 are not driven to perform and can let things flow: when we no longer need to be defined through self-judgment or evaluation of our own actions.
May reminds us that spirituality cannot be a means to end our discomfort.
Spiritual growth has to be a way into life, not an escape from it. We are called to be in the world, not of the world—and unfortunately this of the world side 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.