I was in the middle of a profound thought that I wanted to include in my upcoming lecture for class when a student knocked on my office door. I was a bit irked by this intrusion since my door clearly marked when I had office hours and when I did not. This was not office-hour time.
What made the intrusion even more irksome was that the student seemingly only wanted me to sign a form but insisted on staying. Couldn’t she see my frown?
In the literature on spirituality, I have read the story several times of someone who views such interruptions as opportunities for ministry. Sometimes it was a priest who said it, sometimes it was a nun. The thought must be pretty prevalent, because a quick Google search reveals hundreds of blog posts related to the idea. Well, I was not feeling very pastoral at the time of the knock.
So I was intrigued when I read the following quote from Henri Nouwen: “Yet without this one hour a day for God [in contemplative prayer], my life loses its coherence, and I start experiencing my days as a series of random incidents and accidents rather than divine appointments and encounters” (Nouwen, 2013).
The way he viewed his day changed by taking an hour of prayer and solitude with God. That hour changed his perspective. What he normally considered interruptions (incidents and accidents) became divine appointments and encounters.
Gaining perspective is a spiritual discipline. Sometimes it involves taking a longer view. The story of Joseph in the Hebrew Scriptures shows how being sold into slavery, which looked like a terrible injustice at the time, turned into a salvation story for the children of Israel (unless you agree with the “scarcity” interpretation of Walter Brueggemann). Sometimes it involves viewing everyday events as God’s little surprises (see my blog post, “Surprise, Surprise, Surprise”). In Henri’s case, it was to sense the presence of God in every encounter.
Gaining perspective is a choice. Whether through a long view, a surprise or a divine encounter, we can choose to see the hand of God working or we can choose to call the events of our day an injustice, a coincidence, or an interruption. Seeing God at work in everything is the God perspective; the perspective of the saints.
There are two important disciplines to help us gain a divine perspective in our lives. Like Nouwen, spending time alone in contemplative prayer is a wonderful way to start the day. This first discipline helps to surround ourselves with a sense of God’s presence as we begin our day, and tends to say with us throughout, viewing each event as a divine encounter. The second is the “consciousness examen” at the end of the day. Before I fall asleep each night I ask myself something like, where have I seen God today? By renaming interruptions and accidents as divine encounters or as God’s surprises, I transform my perspective.
The student who interrupted my office hours really had more on her mind than signing a form. She was dealing with a heavy burden and needed to talk with someone about it. She had sensed a dramatic shift in her vocational call while on her study-abroad program. No one, especially her family, understood what had gotten into her. Together we discerned that she was finally listening to God’s call on her life rather than her culture’s call. She sensed peace and joy knowing that her “deepest desire aligned with God’s desire” (Nouwen, 2013).
After she left, my perspective on my interrupted office hours changed. I could see it as a divine encounter instead of a random incident.