The National Catholic Review
'We can let faith open us up to God's inexhaustible surprises.'
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There has been a great deal of commotion outside my window these past few weeks. The builders have finally got round to laying the road surface in this new development, so we no longer have to negotiate the “raised ironworks,” as the warning notices euphemistically describe these tire-killers. Today we got the finishing touches: white lines and new street name signs. Now if I forget where I am (which happens not infrequently in my nomadic existence) I can see my street name from my study window.

But what does a street sign really tell us about the personalities and life stories of the people who live here? About as much as a travel ticket reveals about the journey it makes possible. A few months ago I sat here at the computer, booking the arrangements for journeys that were easily described in terms of dates and destinations. In just an hour or two, and with a few clicks of the mouse, I organized flights, accommodation and rail trips. My printer disgorged invoices and itineraries and, eventually, even boarding passes. I thought I had got it all together. No more surprises. But the reality of living my plans has been a different matter entirely.

One click brings me to Canada. Seven minutes on the computer, seven hours in the sky, and I am immersed in another world: a Toronto street party, a barbecue in Kingston with friends I haven’t seen in years, a delighted discovery of the Thousand Islands (plus a few) that nature has sprinkled in the St. Lawrence Seaway. But that same “click for Canada” also opens up into the unwelcome discovery that I am not unbreakable, as I fall headlong and fracture my elbow and enter unceremoniously into the inside workings of North American hospitals, where a Canadian orthopedist puts me in plaster and his counterpart in Washington, D.C., relieves me of it two weeks later, leaving me to reflect on how it might feel to be more completely, and more permanently dependent on the personal care of others and how grateful I am to those who were there for me when I needed them.

Another click and life zooms in on the Chicago skyline, and more of the kindness of strangers. People I hardly know open their homes to me. Within hours, strangers become friends, and conversations happen that change perspectives and challenge preconceptions. When I was 11, my geography teacher once asked me where Chicago was located. I answered confidently: “At the bottom of Lake Michigan,” to which she caustically replied: “A very damp location.” Now I know a bit more about Chicago, because I have wandered her streets, and tasted her taste. I have dodged her downpours and been bitten by her mosquitoes. I have breakfasted in her coffee bars, lunched on her lakeside, and dined in her pubs, always in the stimulating company of some of her sons and daughters. What would I say now if I were asked to describe Chicago? It would take a lifetime to describe what takes a lifetime to experience.

The click that books the campsite likewise does not give any indication of what awaits us in Shenandoah National Park. It does not prepare us for the misty vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains or warn us about the thunderstorms that arrive punctually every evening just as we have got the fire going to cook our supper. It does not tell us about the black bear who emerges without warning from the roadside or helps himself to breakfast sausages straight from a fellow camper’s frying pan. It does not mention that the five miles we hike to the waterfall, which nearly kill us and lead us into a swarm of angry bees, are only a quarter of 1 percent of the Appalachian Trail. But neither will it betray this unimportant detail to our friends back home when we boast about “walking the Trail.” Nor does it hint at the gales of mirth from our neighbor on the next site who catches me in celebratory mood trying to negotiate a graceful entry into the tent with, as he so engagingly expresses it, “your busted arm, and your glass of wine and your British accent.”

No, when you scan the travel itinerary, thinking you know what you are getting into, you can only wonder at your own innocence. For every click sets free a thousand stories. But the best story of them all unfolds from the final click that books my return flight and brings me winging home with days to spare before my daughter goes into premature labor and delivers a tiny but perfect and beautiful first granddaughter.

Our life with God is like that. We can confine it to a once-a-week click on the mouse that pays lip service to our faith, or we can let that faith take us over and open us up to God’s inexhaustible surprises along our everyday paths. Those surprises will take us where we never intended to go and down paths we cannot control. They will bring us face to face with our profound limitations, fears and self-deceptions. But if we are willing to risk this unpredictable journey that we like to think we have so well arranged, God will also bring us to moments of breathless wonder at this amazing world we live in, and its amazing people, who are so very much more than they seem when we simply file them neatly under “name and address.”

It is the difference between the idea and the experience of God, between thinking about our faith from a safe vantage point and living it in a risky, chaotic and wonderful world. When you click on God.com, expect the unexpected. And you may even get to hear peals of heavenly laughter along the way, because, as you know, nothing makes God laugh so much as people who make plans.

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and The Gift of Prayer.

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