It seems some people follow a straight, well-planned path in life: they set goals and expectations day after day, year after year — and achieve them. But for most of us, events can disrupt our plans. It could be something affecting only me, or something like COVID that impacts everyone. We can be left with feelings of loss, discouragement and confusion. What can I expect in life? Isn’t there some divine plan that is designed to make me happy? Or was the plan to make me suffer? Or is there no plan at all?
Over the centuries, these are questions that have been pondered and debated by countless people in many spiritual traditions. Today I’m offering my personal perspective by focusing on a fascinating story from the Jesus tradition as exists in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5.
As we pick up the story, Jesus has become increasingly popular due, in large part, to his healing power. The day begins when a local leader, Jairus, comes to him and begs him to come to his house and heal his daughter, who is close to dying. Jesus agrees.
On the way, a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years comes up behind him. Her condition makes her “unclean” in the culture of that time, so she can’t seek him out publicly like Jairus. But, she hopes, if she can just sneak up behind him and touch his cloak, she might be healed. She carefully approaches, touches the cloak and immediately senses in her body that she is healed.
At that moment, Jesus also has a visceral, somatic experience – “power had gone forth from him.” Taken by surprise, he turns and asks who touched him. The disciples reply: with so many people close by, how can they know? The woman reluctantly steps forth “in fear and trembling” and confesses. He does not condemn her. Instead, he says “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace…” He then resumes his walk to Jairus’ house, where he takes the little girl by the hand and brings her out of her coma.
The story is rich in implications. As the philosopher Paul Ricœur put it, great spiritual texts (like lasting works of art) have a “surplus of meaning” – more than just one point. For today’s question, I will focus on consciousness and decision making.
Imagine if we can “get inside” Jesus’ consciousness as he started that day. What did he know, and when did he know it? When he woke up, did he know Jairus would come to him? Did he anticipate the act of the woman?
Jesus has been described as a “Spirit Man,” one of those people who has a much deeper level of awareness than most. People in the Gospels find it uncanny the way he can “read them” and know what they are thinking. I’ve known a few people in my life who have had that ability, so I believe it exists. And I’m guessing he had it in spades.
However, I think if we take the story at face value, his encounter with the bleeding woman is written in a way to suggest Jesus did not anticipate it — he’s surprised and taken off guard. If he had a “plan” for his day, this encounter was not part of it. Or, to put it another way, if he started out with a plan for the day, he had to adapt the plan to fit real events. Some years ago, it struck me: he had to change his plans, but he did not have to change his purpose. His purpose was to exhibit divine justice, grace and compassion. The woman unexpectedly touching his cloak became not a cause of frustration, but a new opportunity to express his purpose. He could fulfill his purpose regardless of unanticipated events that came his way, presented to him by the choices other people make.
This has been a liberating insight. My day may go “all according to plan.” Or it may be interrupted by all kinds of events — some positive, some not. Living a spiritual life does not mean we have to assume we are to follow a preordained script. Rather, it means we try to keep clarity about what is most important to us and others in moments of unexpected events and decisions; we assume we need to be creative in adapting to the ups and downs that come our way.
The divine presence never leaves us and is always ready to help us improvise in a way that stays true to those deeper purposes. Remember that when events – big or small – interrupt our plans.
Hi Steve, Thank you so much for sending these posts along to me. Yes, indeed! What is the saying, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Something like that. And aren’t we all experiencing that now. Not the life I planned for, or want right now, but here it is. Somedays I feel like I can live it as it’s presented, other days I feel as if I’m just existing in it. L’Chaim! With Love. Patty
Great to be in contact, dear friend. I’m grateful the posts are meaningful.
Beautiful Steve. and very helpful.