This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
The setting was simple enough. For three years now, I’ve been part of a Christian Life Community small group. Once a week, we gather in a sweltering room in the campus ministry building filled, improbably, with Native American imagery. There are drums, relics, and artwork, all of it blending Native American style and symbols with the Christian iconographic tradition. In this room we talk about our lives: friends and family, boyfriends and girlfriends (ok, not me on this one), school, vocation, sports, gossip, movies, music, life and death. We also pray. By turns, each one of us prepares a scripture passage, a poem, a piece of music, or a guided meditation, and uses that to help us all pray together before sharing how God is moving our hearts.
This past week it was my week to lead, and I knew, just knew, it was going to be awesome. I’d carefully selected a Bible passage that nobody (sarcasm alert) had ever thought to use before – you know, the one in which the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. And I had a fool-proof plan for what would happen when I shared it with my CLC group: it was going to be a miracle. As we heard about how the disciples failed to recognize the Jesus right there in front of them, our eyes would get big and fill with salty tears, angelic choruses would sing inside our hearts, and heretofore unrecognized cataracts would fall from our eyes (literally or figuratively; I wasn’t picky on that point).
As the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, at least half the group (but probably all of us) would instantly resolve to attend daily Mass for the rest of our lives, and as the disciples felt their hearts burning within them, my plan called for at least one of us to be carried away in mystical rapture that would put St. Theresa to shame. (No doubt this person would also require my urgent spiritual guidance. I would instantly and universally be acclaimed as a spiritual guru.)
It was going to be profound. Dammit.
We started to pray, and everyone closed his or her eyes. Donning my best mystical whisper, we started with a centering exercise and moved into the passage. Using our best Ignatian techniques, we imagined the scene and placed ourselves there as I read the passage aloud. As we approached the climax of the reading I could just feel the profundity building. The Spirit was flowing, and someone was probably about to start speaking in tongues. I stayed focused, kept reading: “…were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the way….?” And that’s when I heard it.
Snigger. Giggle. Snort.
That was okay, I guess. I mean, life-altering spiritual movements do funny things to behavior, and I soldiered on with only the slightest waver interrupting the silk of my most sagacious tones. We concluded, and sat together in silence for a moment or two, and then I asked the group to share what had gone on during the prayer. And the dam burst:
“Hearts burning… ARSON JESUS!”
The room disintegrated as every single one of us howled, laughing as the absurdity of thinking about Jesus as a pyromaniac arsonist triggered an unstoppable avalanche of silly. That, as far as I can tell, is the most memorable line of that, or any, meeting we’ve had: Arson Jesus.
Days later, I was sitting in my own room, remembering. As the prayer and the laughter came back I felt that odd combination of joy and exasperation that all organizers must sometimes feel at failed-successes. Then I laughed.
On another day, of course, it’s entirely possible that our prayer could have been about exactly the sorts of things I was anticipating. It could have led us to talk about people and symbols in our life that help us recognize Jesus, or patterns that tend to keep us from seeing Jesus clearly. On another day, “hearts on fire” could have stirred up our deep passions, the holy desires that God places in our hearts and help shape the way that we go out into the world. But that’s not what happened.
As with the best prayers – the most authentic prayers – this prayer was about what God wanted to give my wonderful group, not what I in all my plans thought God ought give the group. And what God gave the group that day was laughter, companionship, and joy.
All in all, not a bad deal.