“She cannot be still, that is her essence,” our new priest, Jane, said of the Holy Spirit this morning. She gave her sermon under waves of red, orange, and yellow fabric strung on the rafters. We listened underneath this sea of fire.
Today is Pentecost, a day for all things not-very-Episcopalian, like passion and chaos and more than one person speaking at a time. Pentecost is like Mother’s Day for the Holy Spirit: The day where the One who is constantly acting, moving, shaping, and teaching is acknowledged—at worst, through empty lip service, and at best, with stunned gratitude.
When Jane said, “She cannot keep still,” it reminded me not of the Holy Spirit, but of one particular toddler at our church, an 18-month-old fireball with a tiny blond ponytail on top of her head, like the little girl from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I often sit near her. Her name is Madeline, and like the Holy Spirit, she cannot keep still. She spends about half the service upside-down, hanging underneath a chair, or on her Dad’s lap with her feet over his shoulders. Sometimes she’s on the floor, slithering between the chair legs. Often she’s in the toy area in the back, stomping or jumping or running circles. I try to catch her eye and mimic her movements, bobbing my head side to side or twitching my torso back and forth. It usually makes her smile and makes me realize how exhausted her parents must be all the time. She reminds me of my niece, now 12, who didn’t sit still for the first four years of her life.
Madeline must know how the Holy Spirit feels. Madeline and the Holy Spirit must be really tired of people wishing they would stop moving. I smiled at the thought that the Holy Ghost can find genuine empathy in certain small children. The rest of us just shake our heads and hope nap time is coming soon.
There’s another little girl at church, about the same age as Madeline, that equally intrigues me— not because she’s wiggly like Madeline, but because I can’t make her laugh. I’ve tried all my faces on her— my fishy face, my surprised face, my smiley face, my “something smells funny” face, and my peekaboo faces (multiple). She watches, intrigued and observant, but unsmiling.
I like Cora’s suspicion because I envy it. I never felt allowed to not smile at things I didn’t find funny. Most girls are taught, explicitly or implicitly, that making other people feel okay is more important than our own experience. Not hurting another’s feelings matters more than whether you give a fuck about that fishy face. Girls should be nice to others, the unspoken rule goes, even at the cost of betraying self.
Likewise, girls are not traditionally expected to be loud, wiggly, active, like Madeline. The clothes that are made for boys promote this idea of wildness, uncontrollable-ness, ‘trouble,” whereas girls’ clothes still extoll sweetness, cuddlyness, docile-ness. (I have folded a LOT of baby and toddler laundry at my nanny job). I made a passing comment to Madeline’s dad along these lines, that people don’t expect this kind of energy from girls. He answered with a blunt “No. No, they don’t.”
After Jane said that the Holy Spirit cannot be still, she spoke about surrender, which has got to be my least favorite sermon topic. Whenever it comes up I go back to Elizabeth Johnson’s words on how surrender is a useless concept to a population (girls and women) that hasn’t been allowed any other option. Surrender is not news, let alone good news, to us. We’re tired of surrendering our selves, of saying yes when we mean no, of smiling when it’s not funny, of being still when being still is not our fucking essence.
Until recently I decided to throw the concept of surrender out as useless and harmful. But I’m beginning to think it’s more nuanced. Like most things, surrender is a paradox. To surrender is to first stand your ground, to know your essence as intimately as a child knows theirs— not by articulating it, but by being it without apology.
Surrender plunges us deeper into our essence, rather than taking us away from it. Surrender to God turns the volume of your essence, your self, UP, not down. When Madeline surrenders, she moves, when Cora surrenders, she is even more honest and authentic in her response to others. My own tentative steps towards “surrender” have led to me speaking up more often, louder, and more honestly.
It’s not enough to say “surrender is hard,” because fragmenting and losing your self is “hard,” just as living into your essence and trusting God to grow you is “hard.” As I listened closer to the end of Jane’s sermon, I noticed she was speaking of true surrender— as a risk that leads to more aliveness.
But I’m not convinced that we can capture surrender through sermons or blog posts— we need kids who can model it for us. Little kids wake up in a state of surrender, and live it out all day. I think surrender is what I’m seeing in Cora’s furrowed brow and Madeline’s upside-down delight.
Or we can just watch for the Spirit. We can try to keep up with She Who Cannot Be Still. She does not overpower or demand, she stirs and invites and calls forth. And if you’re not sure you want to surrender to her, don’t. Just stop hiding your essence (your self, your truth) from her. See what happens.