The Practice of Surprise

Fr. Mac Stewart Part 4 of 13


Table of contents


God Wants to Surprise Us

Christians this year celebrate the highest of our holy days in the midst of an indefinite season of penitence. This season of lament has come upon us suddenly. It is a season of challenge, of death, and of unwelcome surprise.

And yet, a suspension of the old world—a breaking of its normal logic—is precisely what we celebrate at Easter. This year, more than most, we must enter into a practice of surprise—to see that the breaking of the world can bring not only desolation, but also consolation.

Easter is different, sorrowful this year. We may tune into a live-streamed service in our living rooms, but we won’t be able to smell the lilies in the chapel, or feel the vibrations of the trumpets, or share the kiss of peace with friend or stranger. There will be no Easter-egg hunts, no large brunches, no blaring bells from the steeples of our churches. All of the yearly rituals and quirky customs are stripped away this year. Whatever makeshift shape our celebrations may take, they will be irregular, hollow, and strange. They will be shrouded by the death, fear, and uncertainty that now presses on us from every corner – like someone forgot to remove the black veils after Good Friday.

All of this would be a crushing problem if Easter, for Christians, were a pagan fertility holiday. If it were based on the inevitable cycle of birth that follows death, on fresh beginnings that reliably succeed other endings, on things happening the same way year-in and year-out, then its logic would be undone by a season of death that continues beyond spring. In that case, we would have nothing but what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls the “Heraclitean Fire” of nature. Her “bonfire burns on,” he says, and man, her “dearest spark,” is gone, even as “time beats level.” Hopkins sees that the world, taken on its own, is nothing but an endless erosion of once-promising growth by decay.

But as Hopkins also knew, this is not the Easter of Christians.

“Enough! the Resurrection,” he continues. “A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, / joyless days, dejection. / Across my foundering deck shone / A beacon, an eternal beam.”

Good Friday broke the world apart. But Easter brought a new breaking that was a total surprise. The coronavirus has interrupted our rhythms with a desolation we never expected. But the risen Christ also shattered all the expectations of the disciples with an infinite well of unlooked for consolation – “A heart’s-clarion!”

God has something for us in this unusual Easter season, something new and surprising and unlooked for. In a time when all the world is suffering a pervasive desolation, God wants us to taste the resurrection of his Son in a unique way. He wants to teach us just how unimaginably new the new heavens and the new earth will be, how different, how beautifully and wonderfully surprising.

You will find the power of Easter this year not in the normal festivities of church and chimes, but in the simpler and more direct encounter of personal and domestic prayer. The risen Christ is an eternal beam whose soul-searing light does not shine across your deck only through the visible rays of festive celebration. He shines even more brightly with an invisible light accessible here below only to the eyes of faith. His tender caress can touch you just as delightfully in the silent solitude of your prayer corner as it can in the buoyant jubilation of the paschal bells. That is a surprise for a culture addicted to luminescent screens and blaring noise, to the consolations of satisfactions from without.

God wants to surprise us with the truth that ancient Christians knew so well, that the journey back to him doesn’t require us to go anywhere, but to return to ourselves. God wants to show us that as the world is shrouded in the deepest darkness it has known in a long time, it is still true and will forever be true that the Dayspring from on high has visited us, and that, if we but let him, the Morning Star will arise in our own hearts. This is why we pray, whether in private or in public – to stoke the flame that Christ himself has unexpectedly ignited in our souls.

How, then, can we make “surprise” an Easter practice? Surprise, by definition, seems to be something we can’t arrange by conscious intention. We do, though, have a choice about whether we leave ourselves open to it.

How to Practice Surprise

  • Sit in silence. We are perennially searching for techniques to bring our lives under our own control. We might be tempted to do this with God, too. Sitting in silence reminds us that God doesn’t follow our carefully crafted manuals for getting him to do what we want, bringing him under the harness of our words. He comes to us on his own timetable, for his own purposes. Indeed, he is always already there before us, more present to us than we are to ourselves.
  • Listen more carefully. This season is probably making you think a lot about the people you love. It may be a chance to find out things about them that you never knew. It is certainly a chance for them to surprise you again with the gift that they are to you, in all their oddities and idiosyncrasies. Engage them in conversation, and listen to what they say, without thinking about what you’re going to say next.
  • Surprise someone else. Even if we can’t manufacture surprises for ourselves, we can bring that gift to others. Surprise someone nearby with a simple joy – an impromptu cake when their birthday is months away – or someone far afield with a thoughtful sign of your affection – a book in the mail that might bring them some much-needed encouragement. To generate surprising joys, and to have the freedom to receive them ourselves, is to be caught up in the gospel of the resurrection.

Burn a candle. It is essential that we feast this year. Roast the lamb, uncork your best wine, and pass around the chocolate eggs. But when you’re sitting around your table on Sunday evening, leave an open seat with a candle burning at its place. It will be a reminder of the empty tomb, with the light of the angels standing by to announce the good news that Christ “is not here” because he is alive and on the move. Death could not hold him, and he is even now – in the midst of all the crosses and coronaviruses of the world – leading the world back to himself.

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.
Listen to all parts in this 12 Spiritual Practices for the Pandemic series