Tag Archives: serendipity

All Shall be Well (Serendipiday)

Dixie and I have a long-running joke about what our epitaphs will say, based on our personalities and approach to life. Mine will say, “All in good time.” The punchline is that hers will say, “That was a bit excessive.” It’s hilarious. Or it would be if you knew us and I was telling you about it face-to-face.

Another option for my epitaph is “All shall be well.” I’ve never read anything by the fifteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich, except for this one line:

All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

This line has had a profound effect on my faith. I deeply, passionately believe her words to be true. They are hope-filled words that I carry with me wherever I go. That’s why I think my epitaph could also say (and perhaps should say), “All shall be well.”

The last few days I’ve been at a retreat centre in Chicago, taking the last class in the ordination process for my denomination. Yesterday I told one of my class-mates about our epitaphs and about “All shall be well” and how profound those words have been for me. He laughed about the epitaphs and understood my deep appreciation for Julian’s words.

The class called “Vocational Excellence” and it works through some of the competencies and requirements of pastoral work, with a particular emphasis on self-care. They provide an optional session with a spiritual director. I’ve been hearing for years now from books, colleagues, and teachers that spiritual direction is an essential resource for pastoral ministry, but due to location and fear (of the unknown) I have not actually pursued finding a spiritual director. So I gladly took up the opportunity this weekend.

There were four options for spiritual directors and I didn’t know any of them. It was a bit of a crap-shoot and it made me slightly nervous because I have heard that a person won’t connect with every spiritual director. For some reason this session felt kind of like a one-shot deal, so the choice had to be right (if you know me at all, or if you’ve eaten at a restaurant with me, this will make a lot of sense). For reasons I won’t get into here—reasons I don’t fully understand, to be honest—I chose the only man on the list as my spiritual director.

My session of spiritual direction was first thing this morning. After a brief explanation of how this session would go, my director suggested a couple of questions I could use as a jumping-off point for our time together. One of them was “What’s your experience of God now?” and I went with that one. I talked in a meandering way about fatigue and stress and the relation between faith and doubt. We talked about that for a bit. I mentioned Frederick Buechner on faith and doubt and muddled my way through a pseudo-paraphrase of this Buechner gem:

I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be.  Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt?  If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 47)

My spiritual director said, “Funny you should mention Buechner. I have a quote of his in my pocket.” He had meant to use it earlier when they were introduced to the class, having anticipated the need to define spiritual direction.

We talked about doubt and how perhaps doubt is a positive thing in that it could signal spiritual growth, that it suggests that a person is actually listening, to God, to life; that it’s in certainty that a person no longer listens, no longer pays attention. Somehow this led us to the topic of coincidence: he suggested that coincidence may actually be God speaking to us, so apparent “coincidences” are moments when we should really pay attention. He didn’t use the word, but I think he was talking about something like serendipity. God-ordained serendipity. And it was already happening in this session.

This is what spiritual directors do: they listen. They listen and they help the directee see God at work in his or her life. So it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that my spiritual director could anticipate where I was heading.

I began talking about the sense I have had recently that what I need to do right now is slow down, breathe, and listen, but then I lost my train of thought. It had something to do with prayer, but I couldn’t remember what it was. So I sat silently, reflecting.

After a few moments, my spiritual director spoke up. He said that Mother Theresa was once asked about prayer.

“What is prayer?” she was asked.

“Listening to God,” she replied.

“What does he say?” she was asked.

She replied, “Nothing.”

This was exactly where I was going before I lost my train of thought. Prayer. Listening. I told him about how helpful it was to me when I read in one of Eugene Peterson’s books (or possibly several of them) that prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just me talking to God. It’s also me listening to God. I get that; it makes sense. But with that came this frustration: when I listen, I don’t hear God say anything. What am I supposed to hear? What does it mean that I don’t hear anything when I listen?

The point of what Mother Theresa said is that it’s okay that God says nothing when she listens. She is still listening. She is still praying. That’s the point: they are together, listening, and hearing. My spiritual director connected the dots a little more for me: it may be that God’s not audibly speaking to me, but God is nevertheless speaking to me. We talked briefly about the ways this is true.

The whole session was wonderful and deeply helpful and affirming to me. Silence on many different levels is okay. It’s not that I’m missing something. It’s about being together with God in the moment.

Slow down. Breathe. Listen.

We talked about what’s next. He said that while most people prefer to have in-person spiritual direction, he does sometimes do direction via Skype. I thanked him and told him that I plan to pursue spiritual direction, but that I’d prefer in-person direction. “I’ll do some searching in my area,” I said, “but if nothing works out I’ll get in touch with you.”

He gave me his business card just in case and I headed back to class, which had been in session during my time with the spiritual director. I sat down. I had met this spiritual director a few years earlier in a different context, but couldn’t remember his last name, so I scanned the information on his card.

I turned the business card over. On the back of the card were these printed words:

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

Desultory reading

I finished reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude yesterday. It came highly recommended–more than 10 years ago, mind you–from a friend who also recommended a number of other books I have loved. Were it not for him, I would not have read Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany or Buechner’s Godric, for instance. It is a book chosen by Oprah for her book club (one wonders if she or any of her viewers actually read it). One friend told me–and this was confirmed in the publishing story in the back of the book–that it was said that this book, along with the book of Genesis, is required reading for the entire human race.

Solitude has been sitting on my shelf for at least 10 years. I made an attempt at reading it shortly after buying it, but didn’t make it much past 50 pages. It was too surreal and I kept losing track of all the names (there are many Aurelianos and Arcadios and Joses) and the plot. I picked it up again about a month ago and started reading from the beginning. This time the story captured me more than the first time, and I kept track of the names using the family tree printed in the front pages of the book.

Midway through I began to realize that the story wasn’t going anywhere. At least, not in any sort of linear sense. Nobody claimed that it would, but still, it really was just events in the lives of one family. I began to hope that there would be a payoff or resolution at the end, as a reward for the work of reading through the middle hump. There was a resolution and a payoff of sorts, but it was underwhelming. I certainly don’t see how it should be required reading.

What am I missing with some of these greats of Western literature? What do I need to “get” in order to understand the acclaim?

Here’s what I need to do: I need to stop reading books out of obligation. Obligation to the canon or to acclaim. If we’re talking about pleasure reading, obligation is opposite of the direction I want to go in.

A couple of weeks ago, Scot McKnight published a post about reading habits. He said this:

I don’t know about you, but I can create a stack of books to read and then a new book arrives in the mailbox and I decide to read the new book. On the day before we left for Israel Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, arrived, and I said to myself, “That’s a book to read on the flight.” And I did. Which decision illustrates the whole point of Jacobs’ new book: read at whim.

Why “whim”? Lower case “whim” in Jacobs’ dictionary means “thoughtless, directionless” but upper case Whim means this: “Read what gives you delight — at least most of the time — and do so without shame” (23). One of my favorite writers, who often writes about reading, calls this “desultory” reading — a kind of wandering and meandering from one book to another. More or less, that’s how I have been reading for years. What strikes me today as a “must-read” becomes sometimes a “read later” and sometimes to a “I’m not even interested now.” Whim is a good word for it, and it’s a good habit to establish.

Desultory reading is what I have done in the past, and I have read some wonderful books as a result. I once bought a book based solely on its cover art and the blurb on the back (but mostly the cover art). I liked that book enough to buy another by the same author, which became one of my favourites. Without reading at whim, without the serendipitous choice, I may never have read The Shipping News or Dracula.

Desultory reading choices are made by feeling. If I own the book, the choice is usually made at those times when I spend a few moments browsing my bookshelves and reading the first couple of paragraphs of the book. I’m not sure how it works in bookstores. I just know it’s feeling–guts. It’s serendipitous.

I sometimes muse about what I will read next. For a time, I thought the next work of fiction I would read is Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. But that was again an obligation–it is acclaimed, it comes highly recommended by friends. But I didn’t feel the choice.

I didn’t know it was the wrong choice until a week or so ago, when I was again perusing my books. I opened The Kite Runner and read the short first chapter. I was hooked. The opening words spoke nostalgia and regret, for which I am a sucker.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought. There is a way to be good again. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Yes, this book was recommended to me. But I’m going to read it because it feels right. I might be disappointed. I might think it’s the best thing I’ve read in a while.

The key is serendipity.