by Chris Canniff
It was an evening in early September, and it was my first time writing a newspaper article. I was a freshman who had only been at BC for about two weeks. The event I was covering was on a Friday night – of course they gave the Friday night assignment to a freshman. Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, the author of the acclaimed book Dead Man Walking which was later made into an Academy Award-winning film of the same title, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, was coming to speak about her crusade to end the death penalty.
She reflected on her early years as a Sister of Saint Joseph and the work she did in the area of Catholic education. By happenstance, she fell into prison ministry, and this changed her life forever. But, what many do not realize is that around 1980 when she first visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Prejean did not think that she, a Catholic nun, had any business doing social work; she thought she belonged in a classroom. Clearly, God had other plans for her.
One phrase that garnered a great deal of laughter from the large audience seated in Conte Forum and that she repeated over and over again throughout her talk was “God is sneaky.” She wanted to make known that when one least expects it and through unimaginable means, God surprises people. Sometimes God uses the shock of stark and arresting instances of loss to manifest great gain, while other times using the simplicity of ordinary moments and ordinary people to reveal and accomplish extraordinary things. This short, three-word phrase from my first news assignment has stuck with me because it affirmed something that I had, at that point, already begun to notice in my own life and that I came to notice more often and more clearly in the following years.
Looking first to literature, the “sneakiness” of God and His unexpected (because it is undeserved) grace seems almost always to be central in the works of Catholic writers. For example, anyone who has read the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, a novelist and Catholic from the south – much like Prejean who hails from Baton Rouge, can affirm that one’s first reaction after reading her work is one of confusion; readers are left scratching their heads.
A dysfunctional family of six is murdered by an escaped convict on the side of the road; a small, unloved child drowns in a river that had been his only solace and hope; a dishonest sexual deviant escapes with his victim’s prosthetic leg while the duped paralytic lies helpless in a hayloft; an innocent and sincere foreigner is crushed by machinery, leaving behind his suspicious and befuddled employer who goes senile. The tragic, the shocking, the bizarre, and the pathetic are all on full display.
So, where is God, and where is His grace? Well, I think that He and it are both there, but in a very “sneaky” way. I don’t have the space to talk through it all here, so I would encourage you to read O’Connor yourself and draw forth your own interpretations. As you do, just keep in mind the paradox that the greatest act of God’s love was effected by a horrific and gruesome execution perpetrated one Friday afternoon two thousand years ago.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose precise religious beliefs have been questioned by literary historians, was, in my opinion, a very profound Christian based on his writing. The most famous scene from what is perhaps his most famous novel is entitled The Grand Inquisitor in his lengthy work The Brothers Karamazov. Here, one sees “sneakiness” of a different kind; in this instance, it is not the absurd, but rather the simple, that exudes the grace of God.
Ivan Karamazov, who is an atheist, tells a parable to his younger brother Alyosha, who is a novice in a Russian Orthodox monastery. Ivan means to convince his brother of the corruption of the world and the ridiculousness of belief in the Christian God. In his parable, Ivan tells of a ruthlessly rationalistic Cardinal from 16th century Spain who persecutes a re-incarnated Jesus with fierce contempt for being so foolish as to allow human freedom, which in the Cardinal’s estimation has brought about much of the earth’s destructive problems. Jesus sits there with placid serenity until the Cardinal concludes his extended and vitriolic diatribe. After a moment of silence, Jesus kisses the Cardinal. The dumbfounded Inquisitor releases Jesus but banishes him. Ivan triumphantly concludes his tale, and his patiently attentive younger brother Alyosha kisses him just as Jesus did to the Cardinal, convinced that Jesus is actually the victor of this parable contrary to his brother’s intentions.
Like the stories of O’Connor, Dostoyevsky’s tale opens up many questions. Again, I encourage you to read it and see for yourself whether you discern in the simple kiss an explosive power, a feeble naïveté, or a Gordian knot. As you do, just keep in mind the paradox that true freedom consists in binding oneself unequivocally to the law of love; the good fruits of that may not be evident now, but they will be in the age to come.
Looking now at our own lives, we can start to see examples of God catching us off guard and doing things that we never expected. Sometimes, it is tragic, but more often, I believe it comes to us in our everyday experiences. He is with us always, just as He promised; however, we tend not to notice, for He speaks to us each day in subtle ways. Our biblical heritage also affirms that this is how God often chooses to act. In I Kings 19, after Elijah has fled from Jezebel, he awaits the coming of the Lord at Horeb. God comes not in the blustering whirlwind, nor in the splitting earthquake, nor in the blazing fire; rather, God comes in the ensuing stillness and silence.
We presume that, if God were to arrive in our lives, He would do so as He did to the prophet Isaiah with his resounding choirs of the heavenly host or as He will come at the eschaton with stars and lampstands, with trumpet blasts and flaming infernos. But it is not so, for God is more sneaky than that. He arrives in our prayer, in our service work, in our friendships, in our families. Where there is love, so also is He.
We may not notice it, but he is blessing us when we approach him with humility at the altar. He is blessing us when we take off our own gloves and hand them to the smelly homeless man who is sleeping in the cold and whom others avoid. He is blessing us when we witness the delight a friend finds in a moment with us where they feel they can simply be themselves. He is blessing us when we observe with sincerity of heart the duty owed to family.
Look around and try to see it in ordinary happenings. When you notice a fellow student hold open a door for another student whose hands are full, God is there. When you notice a fellow student helping a friend on crutches to navigate the steps on campus, God is there. When you notice a friend delighting in telling you about his schoolwork about which he is passionate, God is there. When you notice a friend enjoying something as simple as jumping up and down trying to touch the top of her head to the lowest branch of an overhanging tree, God is there.
Try to notice such things because in them God is trying to reveal to you the power of goodness and the joy that can abide in each individual and unique human heart. Take note of these moments, and they will enliven you with zeal for God’s vision of communion. Such moments as these have enlivened me, for they are filled with His message and His grace.
The beauty of it all lies in the fact that the power of grace is always dramatic – even in life’s simple moments. The drama of grace comes not from its force, but from its source, who is the God of Jesus Christ. When such drama breaks through amidst such simplicity, one cannot help but appreciate and be amazed at the beauty of that moment, those who are in it, and the God who loves us so much as to have bestowed it.