A friend of mine sent me an email the other day that contained someone else’s questions to him. Their questions were about how open and flexible they should remain in seeking God’s will, in order to allow God to do “big things” in their life. The questioner feared seeking too much security in discerning his vocation by privileging prudential judgments over a more spontaneous openness to “the God of surprises.” He worried he might needlessly limit God from doing big things with his life.
I sent my friend a quick email reply. I wasn’t able at the time to offer any serious response, but in the brief moment between reading the email and thinking of what I might say in return, I had a flash insight. Though it was only tangentially related to the question, my friend said he found it very helpful. I thought I would share it with you. For what it’s worth . . .
Maybe your friend should trade the word “security” for “stability,” and not look for God to do “big things” as much as allowing God to make him magnanimous, “big souled,” in a life of stable commitments that make the ordinary radical. That, in the final analysis, is the real test of radicality.
I stand by the retreat director’s diagnosis of this generation that flees commitment, responsibility, and stability. The God of surprises lived in a tiny and backwater region of the Roman empire, spending the vast majority of his time within a one-hundred-mile radius—up to the age of thirty in a town of about five hundred people doing obscure manual labor, and then three years traveling along a narrow strip of land preaching and teaching. And then from a few hours dying transfixed to a tree, he recreated the cosmos by means of quiet fidelity. From there he did the biggest thing ever done, by God or man.
God’s biggest surprises are in the ordinary, and the extraordinary surprises lead us back the ordinary ones we missed.
First, it made me think of St. John Paul II’s words about St. Thérèse of Lisieux when he named her Doctor of the Church in 1997: “In the hiddenness of her Carmel she lived the great adventure of Christian experience to the point of knowing the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love.” Wow! Hemmed in by the walls of her cloister, she had uninhibited access to Christ’s infinite expansiveness! Though we have larger-than-life saints whose call is to magnify God in public view, greatness in the divine economy is overwhelmingly an unsung and local phenomenon in the universal Church. In order to sink down roots and transform the deep structures of culture, grace needs stable saints who remain quietly faithful in their little corner of creation, willing to face the limitless irritations of remaining in one place long so grace can thoroughly soak its surroundings. In an age of cultural ADD, we need saints who attend long with love unto tedium, knowing that beneath the tedium lies the Tremendum.
I knew a priest in New Jersey who was very gifted and highly respected. He seemed to have all the makings of an ecclesiastical climber. One spring his bishop transferred him from the chancery to a small rural parish that needed a lot of help. He told me that after the announcement was made, one of his brother priests called him and said, “Wonder what you did wrong?” This priest said to me, “I know he was joking. But the truth is my first thought was, ‘I wonder what I did right.’ It’s why became a priest, to have my bones buried in a parish cemetery, not in a chancery.”
Cemeteries full of saints become reliquaries, sanctifying the nearby earth unnoticed. A pious Russian proverb says, “The Church exists to make relics.”
Second, there’s this amazing nine-minute movie that my wife’s best friend from college shared with us a few months ago. It’s the story of a couple facing the hardship of tragedy intruding into their marriage. That tragedy placed severe limits on their external freedoms and threatened the stability of their relationship. But because of the ordinary beauty of faithful love, there opened up between them a nearly infinite space of newfound freedom, an epiphany of God’s greatest surprise of all: selfless love. After I finished watching it, I thought: this is exactly what St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13 tells us: agapē-love is the “biggest thing” God does. All of the mirabilia Dei, the “wonders of God” lead us back to “the still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) that God is (1 John 4:8).