Why surprises are important
From finding an old book to finding God, and everything in between
One of the significant challenges during the rebuilding of the Dominican priory of Leuven is sorting out the library. It is an extensive library but very dated. It contains many books that have not been read for a long time. Now that, in itself, is not a problem. Here, an insight from the great Italian philosopher and writer Umberto Eco can help us. He once said that unread books are the most valuable things in a library. Initially, that may sound strange, but when you think about it a little longer, then it makes sense.
For example, the other day, I discovered a little treasure in the library: an old, illustrated book on the history of the Dominicans in the low countries. It also contained maps of the various priories in the 17thcentury. It made me think about how little I knew about Dominican history before the 19th century. But it also stimulated me to make a different walk that evening, to look at the medieval Dominican church of Our Blessed Lady in the city centre that still exists. The building is owned by the city and not open very often, so I walked around it, comparing it to the drawings and imagining what it must have been like for my predecessors to be prior to that massive convent. And that led me to new ideas for our community and its mission in Leuven.
My experience, in a nutshell, demonstrates some of the power of surprise of an unread book. First, an unread book reminds us that we do not know everything yet. In other words, it makes us humble when we make claims about this or that because the unread book reminds us there may be more to the topic than we know. Secondly, an unread book has the potential to surprise us. Good academic work and great works of art depend on the element of surprise because what surprises us can open our minds and unleash our creativity to solve a problem or create something new.
The bigger picture
In my preaching and academic work, I have started to use a method of notetaking that allows for this element of surprise, using the Zettelkasten method, developed by the sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Another sociologist, Sonke Ahrens, has recently popularised the technique for students. You can set up the whole process digitally or go back to pen and paper, which is my own preferred notetaking style. I found an old slip box on the internet when I started this method two years ago, and I am surprised how quickly it fills up. And working with it, the box is getting better and better at surprising me. Niklas Luhmann sometimes called his Zettelkasten the primary author of his books, but I prefer to see it more as a conversation partner.
The element of surprise is everywhere. From the little things, we do to the big questions that life asks us. We pretend to be in control. But very often, we find out that we are not. That does not have to be a problem if and when we allow ourselves to be open to that simple fact. We can not control the unexpected, but we can try to control how we respond. We can attempt to stop it or leave the beaten tracks of our lives and start something new. Choosing the latter and allowing the unexpected to change us may lead us to wisdom, happiness, and even God. As the Scottish Jesuit priest and spiritual writer Gerry Hughes SJ (1924-2014) once wrote: God is the God of surprises. He turns up when we least expect Him.