Seasons of the Soul
The Call to Holy Surprise: Reflections on Pentecost
What is serious to men is often very trivial in the sight of God. What in God might appear to us as "play" is perhaps what He Himself takes most seriously. At any rate the Lord plays and diverts Himself in the garden of His creation, and if we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. ~ Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
We live in the midst of chaotic times as we witness the meltdown of financial markets and the escalating effects of global warming. As crises continue to build, we may find ourselves confused or fearful. We may want to gather in the upper room of our lives with our closest friends and close the door on a troubled world. Yet chaos always calls for creative response, it always beckons us to open to holy surprise.
This coming Sunday is the feast of Pentecost, that glorious final day of the season of resurrection. The apostles were together experiencing bewilderment over how to move forward when the Holy Spirit flows among them and breathes courage into their hearts.
It says that those who witnessed this event were "amazed and perplexed." Some were confused, others cynical. Peter reminds the crowds of the words the prophet Joel declared, that all will be called to dreams and visions, all will need to be attentive to signs and wonders.
The story of Pentecost asks us a question: How do I let my expectations and cynicism close my heart to the new voice rising like a fierce wind?
The start of Lent probably feels like long ago. We began that journey marked with ashes, reminded of our earthiness and our limitations. Hopefully we laid aside some of what weighs us down so that as we moved from the cross into resurrection, we could be more spacious and open to possibility. Pentecost immerses us in the brilliance of fire and the power of wind, calling us to trust in something bigger than we are, to remember that our imagining is always smaller than the divine reality.
In Benedictine tradition, conversion is a central spiritual practice. Conversion for me essentially means making a commitment to always be surprised by God. Conversion is the recognition that we are all on a journey and always changing. God is always offering us something new within us. Conversion is a commitment to total inner transformation and a free response to the ways God is calling us and to new images of God. Eugene Peterson describes it this way: "What we must never be encouraged to do, although all of us are guilty of it over and over, is to force Scripture to fit our experience. Our experience is too small; it's like trying to put the ocean into a thimble. What we want is to fit into the world revealed by Scripture, to swim in its vast ocean."
Several years ago I was going through an intense period of discernment. I had finished graduate school and found that my desires were no longer in alignment with the path I had initially imagined for myself. I spent long periods of time in silence and solitude, engaging all of the essential techniques for discernment I had learned in my studies and previous practice. I was taking this very seriously because this was my life path I was pondering. Then one night I had a dream about koala bears trying to get a map out of my hands so they could play with me. In my reflection time that followed I discovered a playful God who was calling me to take myself and my discernment far less seriously than I had been. I love to laugh but in my longing to discover the next path, I had forgotten what Merton reminds us in the opening quote: how playfulness is woven into the heart of the universe, how sometimes what God takes most seriously is what we easily dismiss.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes and resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of seven books on monastic spirituality and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press), Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (SkyLight Paths), and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (forthcoming 2013 from Ave Maria Press). Christine earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and her work focuses on the intersection of the arts, contemplative spirituality and practice, and the wisdom of the seasons. Visit her website Abbey of the Arts.