Road tripped: Finding grace in life's unexpected bumps, twists, and turns

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Article Spirituality
Life’s unexpected twists and turns need time to reveal the lessons they offer.

Mowing the grass doesn’t rank high on the list of major life events, but when the left leg and arm of the person working next to you suddenly stop functioning properly, you realize pretty quickly that some major life events—maybe the most significant ones—are not calendared in advance but burst upon you like an unwelcome surprise.

After three days in an intensive care unit, during which brilliant medical professionals using powerful and expensive diagnostic tools confirm that something is indeed wrong, but that they don’t know exactly what, much less if or how it might be remedied, you start to wonder if you’ll ever mow the grass again for fear something worse will happen.

Spiritual writers often speak of surprises as moments of revelation when we may be particularly open to God’s grace.

“Openness to surprise is not only an openness to reality but also to the source of all reality, the divine,” writes Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast. “Surprise may be the only appropriate name for God.”

That’s wonderful when your surprise is a winning lottery ticket, but Steindl-Rast says it holds just as true for the nasty kind—the unexpected bad news, a failure at work or in family life, or the damage wrought by a blood clot: “When a situation appears hopeless,” he writes, “there is always room for surprise.”

I’ve often watched others grapple with their own nasty surprises, and deep down I’ve wondered when it was going to be my turn. I like to have life well planned, with every eventuality covered and insurance premium paid, and the knowledge that an ill wind could blow me off my carefully plotted course is not easy for me to consider. A surprise that tells me to my face that I’m not as in control of life as I think I am is an unwelcome one indeed.

Common wisdom often describes these moments as a kind of divine instruction. “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” the saying goes. I have trouble with a God who dishes out such “instruction,” but there’s no getting around what Franciscan priest Richard Rohr calls the “necessary suffering” of life: “We must stumble and fall, I am sorry to say. And that does not mean reading about falling,” he writes in Falling Upward (Jossey-Bass). “We must actually be out of the driver’s seat for a while, or we will never learn how to give up control to the Real Guide.”

Unfortunately, in the middle of “necessary suffering,” it can be a little hard to figure out what exactly is good about not being behind the wheel, much less where or how the presence of God might be hidden. It could be just as easy to miss God’s grace altogether, or even to fear that God isn’t actually there at all. Those moments can be pretty raw, and perspective is hard to come by.

It is tempting in such times lived in the shadow of the cross to play the resurrection card, to fall back on hope and trust that everything will be all right. I’m confident that it will be, but I have a feeling that these times when you are stripped even of the fantasy of being in control are every bit as important, if infinitely more unpleasant, as the happy ending the gospel promises. That said, I’m still a long way from discovering whatever grace lies in such moments.

Scripture seems comfortable with this kind of uncertainty: “For everything there is a season,” the writer of Ecclesiastes wisely instructs. Job, the classic story of a seemingly happy life turned horribly upside down, concludes after 42 chapters that the designs of God are simply beyond human understanding. The psalms—with their varying poetic paraphrases of “This stinks!”—are no strangers to lament and complaint, yet they never seem to lose their confidence that the God of Israel will come through in the end.

For my part I can only say that these rough patches are simply part of the journey, terrain that I hope will make at least some sense once they are farther in the distance.

In the meantime I have my own bit of scripture that keeps me going: the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. I look forward to the time when the hidden Jesus, who I trust accompanies us through both good and bad, might surprise me with his presence.

This article appeared in the October 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 10, page 8).

Image: Tom Wright