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The Grace to be Surprised

For ten years I’ve treasured a postcard of Rembrandt’s Supper at Emmaus. I acquired it on a family field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts to see the visiting Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus exhibition. Handwritten on the back are the name and date of the exhibit with an endearing misspelling of Emmaus, my penciled notes cut off from an attempt to square the image’s frame. Years later I recorded words of wisdom from my Theology teacher on the front. Little did I know back then that during my senior year of college, God would invite me to step into the literal and spiritual backdrop of this painting and spend three months in Emmaus this fall. It seems to be no mistake that I’ve loved Supper at Emmaus all these years.

With such a beautiful opportunity before me, I’ve been eager to prepare. Living at the Community of the Beatitudes house in Denver during May gave me plenty of chances to ask how to approach the upcoming Israel Immersion. “Go with no expectations,” many former pilgrims told me. The brevity of their advice at first surprised me. I thought they would share something more definitive or rigorous like “Make sure you study the work of these Theologians!” or “Develop this prayer practice before you go!” Their simple encouragement, however, holds more value than any practical information or detailed spiritual explanation.

Testimonies of interior conversion, redemption of weakness, and the transformative experience of living in community often followed their initial remarks. Each recounted their pilgrimage with sincere gratitude for how God shaped their hearts through both the joys and challenges. Only after hearing these stories did I understand the meaning of their advice: I should go to Israel with no expectations not because God will not fulfill them, but because they are likely too limited and shortsighted. These witnesses taught me to expect God to surprise me with his goodness and abundant love and to pray for a posture to receive it. In essence, hope greatly.

In I Believe in Love, a compilation of writings on the spirituality of St. Therese, Fr. Jean C. J. D’Elbee writes “And I am very sure – oh, yes indeed! – that He will never say to me, ‘You hoped too much of me.’” How often we hope too little in our God! Limiting hope in God is rooted in fear that He is not truly who He says He is, that his promises might just be empty words. Such fear gripped the disciples on the road to Emmaus. “But we were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel” the two said to Jesus as they teetered on the edge of despair (Lk 24:21). Even as Jesus walked with them their hearts ached with bitter disappointment that the one in whom they hoped was unworthy of their hope after all. It wasn’t until Jesus opened the Scriptures to them that their hearts began to burn with the truth that their hope was not in vain.

As I await my time in Israel, the Lord has already strengthened my hope in his generosity by expanding my capacity to receive and be formed. He showed his graciousness to me as I entered into the rhythm of community life in Denver and prepared for mission with our intern team. Every day there was an unexpected moment of grace or an opportunity to step outside myself, whether I was praying Divine Liturgy for the first time, forming new friendships, starting to learn Hebrew, or navigating snowy mountain terrain. “Surprise me today, Lord,” I found myself praying as a small way to rely on his providence and be “buoyed up by hope” (CCC 1818). If I am to hope in his plans for me in Israel, I must also hope in Him today, attentive to and expectant of the ways He reveals his love and voice. With my eyes and heart set on Emmaus, I pray that in the Scriptures, the Breaking of the Bread, and the daily walk with Him, hope may sustain me and increase my expectation of Him. Come, Holy Spirit, pour out a living hope upon us to protect us from being “slow of heart to believe” (Lk 24:25). Embolden us to expect nothing short of the Resurrection.

Now to him who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask for or imagine, by the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. -Eph 3:20-21

The mountains – where you leave your expectations at the trailhead. The intern team traverses snowy trails at the foot of Grays and Torreys.
Surprised by beauty in the Denver house. An icon of the Virgin Mary above the sink calls me to moments of reflection amid life’s little tasks.

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