Recently, I was led to think about the significance of surprises or, if you will, the grace of things unplanned and unforeseen. Having persevered this far in monastic life, I can, I think, begin to identify some of the pitfalls inherent to it. One of these is the compulsion to want to control every detail, to leave nothing unplanned, and to strive to tidy up what is a messy business, that is, life with others here below.
The desire for the tranquility of order is virtuous and praiseworthy. But, like all virtuous and praiseworthy things, it becomes unbalanced and vicious when carried to an extreme. The conventual routine of monastic observance is made for monks, not monks for the conventual routine of monastic observance.
Surprises as Intrusions
With the passing years, one becomes more aware of one’s weakness, one begins to feel in one’s bones the increased fatigue that is the price of fidelity. Patience and good humour seem to be in shorter supply than when one was young and adventurous. One begins to view surprises as intrusions. One begins to resent the unexpected, and to fear the unknown. One’s capacity for delight in things spontaneous and unplanned gives way to a dour refusal to adapt, to change, and to bend.
A certain stiffness sets in, not only in one’s joints and bones, but also in one’s thinking and in a kind of desperate clinging to the pathetic security of little rules and customs. The very things that were designed to serve as a light trellis to support the wild vine of life and keep its fruits from rotting on the ground become more important than the vine and its fruit.
It is helpful, I think, to consider that God allows surprises, that He sends us things unplanned and unforeseen as graces to keep us flexible and supple in His hands. Father de Caussade’s abandonment to Divine Providence extends to all of those things that catch us by surprise, that oblige us to revise our plans, and release our grip on the rails we have created for our own security.
And All Shall Be Well
There is a fine line between the preservation of order and peace and the petrification of routine and the paralysis of fear. Without falling into an unreasonable cult of spontaneity and the culture of indiscipline and disorder in the name of openness and creativity, one must be humble enough to allow God to be God, always and everywhere. Surprises are salutary. Things unforeseen put us in our rightful place. And, in the end, as Dame Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well.”