The Strength of Surrender
I grew up an athlete in Chicago, and to say that I am competitive? That would be an understatement.
My six siblings and I are naturally competitive. I was particularly driven to succeed in every aspect of life, whether it was school, work, sports, family, or friendships. It didn’t just reside in my immediate family either. The term “God helps those who help themselves” was a frequent saying among our Irish relatives. The thing is, I grew up in a very dysfunctional household. My father struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, and it was exceptionally hard on me.
I have a distinct memory from my senior year in high school. I was playing in a big home basketball game, and while positioning myself to rebound a free throw, I saw my father stumble along the side of the court, clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The embarrassment and sadness cut right to my core, but I handled it in the way I handled everything: I put my head in the game and scored more points than I had all season. With such a crippling disease in the family, I leaned into my competitiveness to succeed and survive.
If I could succeed enough to get out on my own, I could break free from the pain. To me, surrendering seemed like weakness; and weakness was not an option.
I loved my father very much, and he is still one of my biggest heroes. But, the pain of his struggles was all too real, especially when I was young and impressionable.
Before I move on to the matter at hand, I would like to thank my mother. If it wasn’t for her immense strength, her unwavering faith, and her total and utter surrender to God, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today. I recall peeking in on her every time I would arrive home from a night out. If she wasn’t awake waiting for me, she was asleep in her bed or on the couch with the light on and either a rosary in hand, or a spiritual book open on her chest. The peace and calm of this woman amazes me and continues to play an important role in my own strength and spirituality.
With such a dysfunctional upbringing, it comes as no surprise that a selfish and stubborn pride was born within me; one that was so self-focused that half the time I failed to see the heartbreaking struggles of the people I loved. I thought I had life figured out. I could maneuver around, being a free and happy-go-lucky traveling nurse, without a care in the world (or at least that is what my Instagram portrayed). I would go out of my way to make sure things went smoothly and easily – even if it meant ignoring my increasingly accruing debt, or pushing thoughts of my deceased father to the wayside.
I probably would have continued doing this, but God had other plans. It seemed He had finally had enough of me trying to steer the ship and that it would take drastic measures for me to loosen my grip at the helm. When I moved to Austin at the beginning of this year, my new friend and I had dubbed 2020 the “year of Fiat.” She had begun a “year of no” and I was in a “year of yes.” If we were going to be close friends, we had to meet somewhere in the middle. So we decided on a “year of yes to God” (shortened to Fiat) which meant we would have to say yes and no with intentionality to help us grow in maturity and faithfulness. If that wasn’t a foreshadowing of the surrender we would need to endure this year, nothing was.
And then, COVID hit. Like many others, I experienced devastating trials. Some of the trials included losing my job, feeling lonely in a new city, being physically distant from my close family, contracting COVID-19 and the loss of energy that came with it, and struggling with dating and friendships. It was a period of utter desolation and depression. As soon as I thought it couldn’t get worse, another hail storm came to rain on my parade. It was a downheartedness that many of you might be feeling as of late with the changes of 2020.
The sad thing is that even in the midst of this, I continued to try to take control and fix it all myself. Eventually, there came a point where I physically and mentally did not have the strength to keep fighting.
In her book “Total Surrender,” St. Teresa of Calcutta explains the pain and years of desolation that she endured to comprehend total surrender to God. She called these years “the dark night of the soul.” She was a fighter, but she had to learn to surrender the fight as well. In her words:
“We must know exactly when we say yes to God what is in that yes. Yes means ‘I surrender,’ totally, fully, without any counting the cost.”
She was a beautiful example of how difficult it is to totally surrender.
I love Mother Teresa’s story, but if there is one saint who showed surrender above all others, it was our Blessed Mother. Her “Fiat” was the strongest form of surrender. With that single word, she gave up her entire being to be the mother of our Savior. Simeon foretold of the sorrows that would pierce Mary’s heart, and with full knowledge she still gave her whole heart to follow the will of God. If Mary, Mother Teresa, and so many other saints could do this, who was I to refuse the small sufferings I have and will have to endure?
Thinking on this, true humility settled over my soul. I wish I could say it was a perfect humility, but I still have so much to learn. However, it was a major step on my path of surrender. Looking at all the beautiful stories of the saints and their surrender to God’s will, one thing is clear: humility is needed.
Humility was a tough lesson for me. To embrace humility went against my competitive and stubborn nature. I wanted to ignore the advice of my loved ones during my time of trial, and resolve things myself. In the midst of this struggle God gave me another grace. One day a dear friend called me and what she said struck a chord. I was struggling with a friendship at that time and she told me that “only God will ever be able to fully satisfy us and we cannot find that happiness in anyone else. Lay your friend at Jesus’ feet, surrendering to whatever He wants to come of your relationship!”
After she convinced me that this wouldn’t be giving up, I really let that sink in. I always thought being a good friend meant fighting to remain close. But, maybe she was right: maybe, letting go was more loving. I decided to humbly let go, and very gradually my friendship was restored in the form God wanted. An idea came to me late one evening:
If accepting humility allowed me to surrender this portion of my life, what could it do to the rest of my struggles?
By this point I needed a job, still hadn’t regained my energy, was struggling on my climbing team, and hadn’t found a good community in Austin, so I decided to surrender these as well. Nothing happened as I had planned, but God had much bigger plans for me. I was brought on as Dell Medical’s newest burn nurse and I have been given the opportunity to play an active role in building the overall burn program. It is the hardest job I have ever worked, but it is my dream job and I am loving all the challenges it brings. I have found my passion for climbing again. The community I have found here at St. Mary’s Cathedral is vibrant and lifts my soul.
With all of these graces of surrender, I can’t help but think tenderly of my earthly father, whose fight and struggle on earth, which led to many of my own fights and struggles, and through these sufferings guided me to “rely even more on Jesus for every happiness and consolation!”
In the words of St. Josemaria Escriva “Happiness is a consequence of self-surrender. It is reaffirmed every time you turn the water-wheel.” It will take practice and diligence, because surrendering is not a one time deal. We are always going to have moments that knock us down. But knowing that God is there to accept our struggles when we lay them at His feet can bring so much peace. Therefore, Sisters: Let us embrace humility and surrender our worries to the Lord. Let Him take the heavy burden from our shoulders, so He can steer our vessel through the rough winds of this life.
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Madeleine Stoll grew up in a big Irish family in Chicago. She spent the last three years traveling the west coast as a pediatric nurse and have now found her new home as the burn nurse at Austin’s Dell Seton Medical Center. Mad loves rock climbing, hiking, paddle boarding, gardening, brewing kombucha, enjoying a good IPA, building community, attending daily mass, and taking on the challenge of not hiding her faith at work.