Being Awake for the Sunrise


“The Sufi tell of the disciple who asked the elder, “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”

“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

“Then, of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”


This story shared by Joan Chittister in New Designs speaks to the classic debate about spiritual growth: who/what makes spiritual transformation possible? Is it God’s grace or my effort?  Richard Rohr describes this “the chicken or the egg: which comes first?” question using an old aphorism:”

“No one catches the wild ass by running after him, yet only those who run after the wild ass ever catch him” (p. 53 in Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps).

So, what is the process of becoming more spirituality mature?  The answer is important because this growth doesn’t happen by osmosis.  Sitting in a pew every Sunday does not guarantee that we act more and more like Jesus. Intellectual assent to a set of theological propositions is not enough to give us the mind of Christ.

The question is another of the wildly interesting paradoxes of the Christian faith:  is it “grace” or is it “works”?  The answer is “yes.”  Scripture challenges us to hold two equal propositions in tension at the same time – something our Western minds find difficult to do.

Our role in the process is to be open and ready to let go of the controls.  We have to be awake when the sun rises; we have to run after God.  As Rohr says, we have to be ready to “undergo God” – a process of surrender. As we let go, the Holy Spirit comes in. And change happens. This surrendering is first a surrender of will. And then it becomes a daily surrender to “seek first the Kingdom of God” as God showers us with all we need.

So many of the traditional spiritual disciplines (or soul-training exercises) are about giving up one kind of control to gain another. Time spent in silence and/or solitude or prayer or fasting is time that the Holy Spirit can speak peace into our confusion, our fear, and our disquiet.  Practicing gratitude gives the Holy Spirit a sliver of space to deal with our avarice and vainglory (greed and pride).  Immersing ourselves in Scripture centers our thoughts so that the Holy Spirit can teach us and guide us.  Practicing living in the moment instead of the past or the future ushers us into God’s presence. Valuing simplicity of life and thought results in time and resources, as well as clarity.  Carving out margin in our jam packed lives gives us  opportunity to reflect, enjoy, and appreciate.

As we allow God to flow into our lives, we learn to collaborate with God’s vision – for us as God’s child and for our life in God’s Kingdom. We can clearly see the sun rise. And even catch whatever seems impossible to be caught.

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