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Serendipity and Surprises

Robert Frost worked long and hard on a poem he intended to be a major work. Then, one morning something new found its way to his pen: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . . . ” He wrote “The Road Not Taken” in a single sitting, and it has become one of the most well-known poems of all time.

There is a moment when something awakens within us – an image, an insight, a surprise, or a serendipity – that lets us catch a glimpse of what was hidden. We suddenly capture meaning and discover mystery. One Saturday morning between writing projects, the outline of my next project came to me fully formed. Although I had been mulling over potential projects, I had not been actively thinking about any specific one. The next one simply found me – emerging from some mysterious place within, welcome but unbidden.

There is some strange power of awakening that emerges spontaneously from our unconscious. It is an uncanny ability to discover, solve, compose, invent and create. This uniquely human capability could go by many names: inspiration, creativity, mystery, magic, grace, God.

I remember struggling with a college math problem late one night – unable to solve it. When I awoke the next morning, the answer was obvious. How do things like that happen? In some amazing alchemy, my unconscious worked on the problem while I slept. My experience is hardly unique. Carl Jung discovered his understanding of the human personality as the result of a dream that revealed the shadow. The Greek mathematician Archimedes was stepping into his bath when he suddenly grasped the dynamics of water displacement – his eureka moment.

Someone once asked the writer Anna Quindlen how she got her ideas. Her answer probably baffled the questioner: “The same way you do.” Perhaps we all get our ideas in the same way, but some of us are more open and receptive to the surprises and serendipities of awakening than others. Few of us capture images like Robert Frost, depict flowers like Georgia O’Keefe, or create inventions like Thomas Edison.

Mary Oliver reveals a way of cultivating the openness that encourages awakening:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

Into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

How to be idle and blessed . . . 1

Paying attention helps create the readiness to recognize the gift of awakening whenever and however it occurs. In her poem The Summer Day, Oliver describes a grasshopper in exquisite detail – a description that flows from paying attention, kneeling down, being idle, and receiving blessing. It is that openness – that emptiness – that creates the readiness for awakening.

An old western saying provides a stark contrast: “I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention.” Being self-absorbed, anxious, frustrated, and pre-occupied by what we don’t have tends to close us off – leaving little room for surprises and serendipity, blocking the flow of awakening energy.

Every day I open my journal to a blank page with the patient expectation that something new will emerge. I never know what that something will be or whether it will come to visit. The key is being empty-handed, open to surprise, and ready to go wherever an insight leads. Occasionally, some idea springs forth complete. More often, the kernel of an insight emerges – a raw diamond that requires careful cutting and disciplined polishing.

There are also days when I need to trust the silence and wait for something that is not yet ready to be born. Awakening is beyond our control, and waiting is part of the process. Dough must rise, seeds must sprout, and fruit must ripen.

God’s presence is revealed in all of life’s awakenings – in the serendipities and surprises that lead us deeper into meaning and mystery. That presence often defies the narrow and restrictive notions of God that we cling to and cherish. The presence of the living God often lies beyond the names and images we invoke out of habit. It breaks into our awareness when we least expect it – as a joyful moment, a hearty laugh, or a sustaining presence in the midst of failure and tragedy.

This awakening energy is the wind of God’s Spirit that swept over creation (Genesis 1: 2), and the breath of God that gives us life (Genesis 2: 7). When our naïve and immature views try to push God into a box, the divine presence becomes wind once again. It sweeps over us as the ultimate creative force – breathing meaning and mystery into our serendipities and surprises. Ready or not, it comes to find us. The breath of God awakens us to new possibilities, urges us to pay attention, encourages us to kneel down, and invites us to surrender in prayer.

Questions to Ponder

  • What experiences of awakening have taken you by surprise?
  • How have such experiences opened you to meaning, mystery, and God?
  • What could you do – today and everyday –to pay attention, to be idle and blessed, to be open to the wind of God’s Spirit?


1Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems (Boston, Beacon Press, 1992), 94.