passivity & preparation

I have a confession to make. There are certain words that provoke me, words that carry with them a whole world of meaning that comes at me in a flood the moment I hear them. Maybe you have a few trigger words yourself? One word - like ‘headship’ for example - that may mean nothing much to others, for me infers not only a particular theology but also brings with it a lifetime of memories and related family dynamics that can bring me out in hives.

So when my spiritual director suggested that I practice ‘passivity’ I instantly felt myself reacting. To me, being passive doesn’t sound like a good thing! In a culture that prides action and initiative, passivity sounds almost sinful. And the idea of choosing to be passive - not simply accidentally having a passive moment - seems downright nonsensical. Why would any self-respecting action hero choose to be passive?!

My long-suffering spiritual director gave me such a look of compassion that I instantly guessed she’d heard my argument before. She went on to describe a way of posturing ourselves before God that acknowledges and submits to his activity in our lives. A way that releases me from being responsible to be the chief agent in my life, and gives space for his agency.

Set your sails

As a way to help me to understand, my director offered a picture of two contrasting boats crossing a lake. On the one hand, we might consider a sailboat. To sail the boat, we use our energy to set the sails, hoisting them so that they are ready to catch the wind, paying attention to the direction the wind is blowing in order to set the sails for maximum effect. Yes, there is work in preparing the vessel for movement, but the one sailing the boat cannot through her effort alone make that boat move. She is dependent on the wind - in this case, the ‘chief agent’ - to blow when and how it will.

Contrast this, on the other hand, with a rowing boat. In order to cross the lake, I take hold of the oars and row with all the energy and determination I can muster, knowing that it is my directed energy that will get that craft from one shore to the other. The one rowing is the ‘chief agent’ in the movement of the boat.

Passivity, then, is the posture of waiting for the wind to blow. It is not inactivity - there is action required in order to be prepared for the movement of the wind - but the heart attitude is one of waiting, knowing that the movement is not ours to make but rather to receive. This frees me from an unbalanced sense of responsibility to make things happen, and allows me to trust God from a state of resting readiness.

In this season of my life, as my husband and I consider what the future holds and a possible shift of focus with not inconsiderable implications, this picture of the two boats is a helpful one. I am encouraged to do what I can in order to be ready for the movement of God in our lives, without feeling an inordinate sense of responsibility to make things happen for ourselves. Rather, we are released to wait in peace, trusting the chief agent of goodness in our lives to move in his own time and his own way.

Advent is a time when we practice waiting. We press more deeply into what it means to wait and to trust that God is bringing about something good that we cannot make happen for ourselves. We posture ourselves to receive his goodness, without striving as though we were ultimately responsible to bring it about. In other words, we practice passivity, yet not as though we were completely inactive. Rather, we actively wait, preparing ourselves so that in the fullness of time we are ready for the movement of the Spirit, whenever and however it comes.

What about you? In what areas are you striving as though the weight of responsibility for your life were yours alone? How do you want to respond to the invitation to set aside your oars? Instead, what might it mean for you to set your sails and then adopt a posture of trusting attention, as you wait for God's movement in your life?