Surprise Me!

Surprise Me!
By Larry d. Wright

Recently I reflected upon the many books that I have read in my life and asked myself, “What books made such a contribution that they had a lasting impact?” The list quickly narrowed but one book could not be forgotten. Several years ago I attended a conference in Washington, D.C. in which one of the speakers mentioned a novel by Ron Hanson entitled Mariette in Ecstasy. I ordered the book from and was totally taken by surprise as I devoured it. The context of the story was so different from my Baptist world that at times I struggled to understand the terminology and cherished traditions. It was also an effort to acclimate myself to the foreign world of convent life and even a greater struggle to identify with Mariette’s pursuit and ultimate ecstasy. Eventually, I got it and the message impacted me in a profound way. In fact, it is one of those books that I reread often. I recently pulled it from the shelf to take to the beach in a few weeks. That is why I am telling you the story of Mariette.

Hanson introduces a young woman as she is applying to a convent to become a nun. Entering this convent was a goal of Mariette’s life from the time she was a young girl. She always wanted to do the right thing with her life and she was convinced that the right thing meant settling into the devout regimented life of the convent. But after her arrival, she is surprised by what happens. She falls deeply and deliriously in love with Jesus Christ! She finds joy in what others see as hardship. Even the laborious duty of washing clothes or tedious kitchen duties is an expression of love to Jesus. Obviously, the other nuns begin to treat her with suspicion, even contempt. She also prayed differently from all the others, focusing not on the ritual of prayer but upon the One to whom she is praying. Her relationship to God, intimacy with Jesus Christ, becomes so powerful that it strains the boundaries of traditional wineskins and can no longer be contained by the monotonous routines of monastic life.

Then, as if the inevitable act of an unfolding drama, she bears the wounds (stigma) of the crucified Lord in her body. I did mention that it is a novel, remember? This is too much for the others to understand or receive. She is examined, challenged and castigated by her superiors. Eventually she is kicked out of the convent because of her excesses in piety. Imagine that! She entered the convent to pursue holiness and become like Jesus Christ and when this happens she is expelled. The expulsion is devastating to her. She feels disgraced, exiled into a parched wilderness.

But she never stops loving Jesus! As the book ends, thirty years have passed and she writes to Mother Philomene, the new prioress at the convent and one of the few people who was kind and understanding to her. Mariette congratulates her special friend on her richly deserved promotion. In the closing lines of the letter she observes:

“…and the Devil tells me the years since age seventeen have been a great abeyance and I have been like a troubled bride pining each night for a husband who is lost without a trace.

Children stare in the grocery as if they know ghostly stories about me, and I hear the hushed talk when I hobble by or loose the hold in my hands, but Christ reminds me, as He did in my great distress, that He loves me more, now that I am despised, than when I was so richly admired in the past.

And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me and I hear him whisper, “Surprise me.”