A downloadable book made available by Sister Lina Gaudette, SP (1921-2011)
To request a bound copy, please contact the Sisters of Charity of Providence of Western Canada
Chapter 1: Providence and Shipbuilding
In the cultural and economic climate of some four centuries B.C.E., shipbuilding played a very significant role in commercial competitions. Seafarers were involved in trading with peoples of various nations. Ship captains would vie with one another as to who had access to the choicest wood and constructed the best trading vessel. Each ship was placed under the protection of a particular god. This took the form of an ornate, carved statuette that served as a guarantee of good luck in business deals. As seafarers set out on trading vessel voyages over wild and threatening waves, sea captains were wont to offer a prayer to one of these carved images, set on the prow of their ship. It was this over-emphasis on human means which prompted the sacred writer to expose the foolishness of idolatry:
They give the name of god to what is made by human art; gold and silver which human workmanship has turned into the likeness of living things, blocks of senseless stone that human hands have carved long ago.
Book of Wisdom, 13:10
Long before the Book of Wisdom was ever written, however, the psalmist had already expressed concern over an exaggerated trust in artifacts:
They have mouths but they cannot speak
They have eyes but they cannot see
They have ears but they cannot hear
There is never a breath on their lips
Their makers will come to be like them
And so will all who trust in them.
Although the reality of Providence permeates the Bible, the word as such occurs only once, explicitly. It too is found in the Book of Wisdom:
Your Providence, O God, is what steers the ship
Your Providence, O God, is what steers the ship
You have opened a pathway even through the sea
A safe path over the waves, showing that you can save
Whatever happens so that even without skill
A person may sail abroad.
Book of Wisdom 14:3-4
Michael O’Brien illustrates this message in his icon entitled: “The Angel of Providence”.
Early in the history of the Church, one of the Fathers, Theodoret of Cyrus, writing on Divine Providence, returns to the shipbuilding metaphor:
For the Creator directs creation and has not left the ship of His making without a pilot, but is Himself both the shipright and the one who planted the raw material, both causing it to grow and building the vessel, and He continues to hold the rudder. The proof of this is in the circle of so many years and the vast span of time which, far from destroying the ship, has preserved it safe and reveals it not only to primitive peoples but to recent generations.
Although the Hebrews had a highly developed appreciation of a directing providence, the specific name is due to the influence of the Greeks, who did not attribute it to a personal God. They used the term to denote a rational order of things, where a divine reason permeates everything, sees ahead, (pro-videre), provides for what is coming, watches over someone’s needs. The Bible’s Book of Wisdom is closer to the Hebrew source of the word and draws upon a long tradition of salvation history. Written just a few years before the birth of Jesus, it was the last of the Old Testament books to be incorporated into the canon of the Bible and as such it serves as a link between the Old and the New Testaments. The author could look back on all of the Old Testament and readily assent to the truth that the divine reason that permeates everything is indeed a divine providence, a power rightly attributed to God.
The Greek view of Providence was really a dogma of stoicism: events and things are predetermined and humans can only comply. For the sacred writer, on the other hand, Providence means Emmanuel, i.e. God with us. When the Hebrews adopted the word providence, they took it to mean not just an idea or concept but a reference to God acting in history, God allied with the people, in keeping with the idea that already prevailed in their sacred books. Faith in a Provident God prevails as a recurring theme in the New Testament, culminating in Jesus as the supreme manifestation of God’s loving care for us. A non-negotiable element in the Christian view of our relationship with a Provident God is the virtue of humility. We acknowledge that our very lives are gifts received from the Giver of Life and we build our ships with our God given talents.
To believe in Providence means to transform one’s whole conception of the world. It ceases to be the world of natural science. It means that everything in the world retains its own nature and reality, but serves a supreme purpose which transcends the world: the loving purpose of God.
In order to come to terms with the true meaning of Providence we need to be sensitive to levels of discourse. One level speaks to our tangible, measurable human experience. Another level transcends the commonplace, challenges us towards richer meanings. For example, the solicitude of the shepherd is synonymous in Sacred Scripture with the Providence of God. At one level the word shepherd means a person guarding the sheep; and to some ears it has a male connotation. Yet it transcends gender so connotes concern and thus becomes a particular expression of the Providence of God. At this level Providence means that there is a seeing mind behind everything that happens and that I am the object of that seeing.
Chapter 2: A Particular Providence
“The Living One who sees me.”
“The universe sings of the Providence of God”. The saying is familiar to devotees of Providence. Indeed, for the first millennium and a half of the Christian era, emphasis was largely on God as the primary cause of all creation. In this basically religious understanding of the whole world as sacral, Providence was all embracing to the point where individual freedom could, for some people, seem stifled. A positive effect of 18th century enlightenment was an emphasis on the autonomy of the human person within the larger universe, without necessarily negating our dependence on the Creator.
The global view of Providence does not mean that we see the human person as a faceless creature in an overwhelmingly large and complex world. We have it from the New Testament that God knows each one of us by name, that every hair on our heads is counted, that the Father in heaven knows our needs, that we are more than the birds of the air whose needs are obviously met. (Luke 21:28 and Matthew 10:29-30) John Henry Cardinal Newman in one of his Sunday sermons reiterates this truth under the title “A Particular Providence”. Belief in our uniqueness forms the basis not only of our personality but even more so of our special mission in life.
Such a view is not commonly reflected in the Old Testament, when only a few were favored with personal attention from God. For instance, in the Book of Exodus, chapter 33, though Moses is singled out as he receives his mission, he is seen as leader for the chosen people in general. However, in a story related in the Book of Genesis, a woman by the name of Hagar sees herself as the object of special attention from God. According to Mesopotamian law a barren wife could present one of her female slaves to her husband, and then acknowledge the issue as her own. In this instance, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, presents the slave girl Hagar to her husband and Ishmael is the offspring. Eventually the two women run into interpersonal problems and Hagar decides to run away. An angel persuades her to return. She attributes this advice to a direct divine intervention from God, who is for her “the living One who sees me”. It is her way of situating within general divine governance a specific involvement in individual human lives. Still, in many of the psalms, people saw God’s Providence mainly in the course of human affairs in general.
This deficiency is remedied in the gospels. Jesus makes it clear that the same general Providence which lets the sun shine on the good and the wicked alike is the particular Providence which surrounds each one of us with benevolence while not interfering with our gift of freedom.
We may wonder why it is difficult for us to be comfortable with the idea that we are meant to have an easy, trusting relationship with God. It seems that we do not pay enough attention to the God-given energies within us. We allow ourselves to follow blindly many current fads and this because we have not grasped the meaning and existence of a particular Providence. We think that God operates only on a larger plan in which our contribution is non-existent or at least minimal. And yet we are very much aware that God creates each one of us as a particular person and does not repeat; no two of us have the same fingerprints and dental structure that identify us as unique individuals. Why are we afraid to acknowledge our close Creator/creature relationship with God? Are we influenced by the idea that one does not have the right to let another, even God, take charge of us? Or perhaps our recourse to other “providences”, e.g. welfare states, puts us on the road to passivity. There are those who would interpret de Caussade’s views on “abandonment to Divine Providence” as favoring such passivity, but Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes and John Paul II’s treatise on Providence see our relationship to God as respectful of our human liberty in a communion of love.
Our belief that God is everywhere implies a divine presence here and now both around us and within us. Luke refers to the external when, in the Acts of the Apostles, he speaks of the Spirit creating community among the early Christians.
John in his gospel refers to the internal when he reminds us to let the words of Jesus inhabit us through the indwelling presence of the Spirit within us. A presence as silent as the one in the growing plant on our windowsill but just as real. Many of us know of persons, in past or current history, whose lives manifest an awareness of God’s presence around and within them. Even as they pay attention to the sights, sounds, persons around them, they have a vivid perception of the invisible world, some even convinced of having been given a glimpse of heaven. It is an otherworldliness which can integrate spiritual realities with an intense interest in the affairs of this world. All of us, as we journey together, involved with yet detached from one another, are conscious, sporadically perhaps, of a transcendent reality which is there yet escapes us.
Our interest in human incidents, our sharing in the joys and burdens of others, can take us along the pathway to spiritual growth, from external factors towards increasing internalization. The divine indwelling within us, is the centre and heart of what is meant by a particular Providence. This often comes home to us when we experience the limitations, the vanity and suffering encountered in our lives and that of others. All of this can lead to a reassessment of our values and make us turn to God’s action within us, and know true spiritual joy and beatitude. We can now liken our dark hours to the seed that is in the earth, breaking apart and showing little sign of what is to come.
At such times we are not only sought out and pursued by God but we freely and deliberately and perhaps desperately seek God. To use the terminology of spiritual ascent, we have lived through the stages of doubt and wonderment, have sought happiness in various avenues, and have come to acknowledge the action of the living God within us.
A particular Providence is evident when Jesus reaches out to individuals, to strangers. He does not wait to be introduced but makes the first move toward the rich young man, the woman at the well, the good thief on the cross. These are very different personalities, and Jesus relates to each. He discriminates as to time, place, situation. He even suspends the laws of nature, as on his ascension into heaven.
For all these reasons it behooves us to recognize the ways of a particular Providence in the lives of others as well as own, and to respect this individuality without imposing our own. The only thing we have in common is our creaturehood, which invites us to discover what is our mission, our response, whether it be personal or communal. Beyond this point, say the philosophers, it is not possible for us to know each other except as we manifest ourselves in distorted shadows to the eyes of others. We do not even know ourselves, how can we really claim to know a neighbor? Who knows, besides God, what pain is behind virtue and what fear behind vice? Only God knows what makes a person, the personal thoughts, joys, bitterness, agony and injustice committed by others and by the self. All of these are but a prelude to love beyond the grave, where all is understood and almost all forgotten.
Providence has been spoken of in terms of a God who does everything. “Quand Dieu fait tout”, says Tavard. But he does not see Providence as a cold system which would ascribe to God the exclusive role of governing the universe by laws and final causes, noting that the least of our God-given gifts is that of freedom. Are not our talents gifts from God, and what we do with them is our gift to God? Is it not because we have received that we have something to give? In recent years many a workshop has helped us identify our personal resources, and shown us how to keep in mind the parable of the talents as we take inventory of who we are and what we can achieve. No one can do this for us, for no one else has been provided with exactly the same gift.
Richard Rohr issues a warning which others have echoed: respect for our individuality should not be allowed to disintegrate into selfishness and individualism. Each of us is called upon to share our gifts, to integrate them into a community of love and life. Emphasis on uniqueness was at first received with enthusiasm, probably because for too long most of us had known much anonymity. It seems that, having discovered individuality, society has been slow to move into the next level of human development, namely the gift of our particular self to others, in mutual support and cooperation. A recurring comment today is that a growing spiritual problem in the West is the lie of individualism. Taken too far it can lock us into a false notion of privacy. It can make community almost impossible. It can make church almost impossible. It makes compassion almost impossible. We are unique but within a society. The Bible itself is a social history. It situates each of us as part of a larger mystery, living in a river that is bigger than the self. It is a river of love. Life is not about me; it is about love; and God, our source, is Love. What is love if not a unifying force, an emphasis on relatedness, not on isolationism. Our individual sense of mission is fulfilled within societal situations as we minister to one another, our contributions filling the gaps in our relatedness.
As we look on our past, we find critical moments and acts which at the time seemed most indifferent, such as the school we were sent to, the persons we have met, the seeming accidents which determined our calling. We have to admit that much of who and what we are today has to be credited to individuals other than ourselves. No doubt we have played the same role with regard to others, and may never know how and when we have influenced their lives. Such experiences many have been of the kind we would never have chosen, but may have contributed to much happiness and growth. God’s hand is ever on ours and that of others, linking us to one another within a divine embrace.
A persistent stumbling block in any discussion on a loving Providence, is the problem of evil. There is the evil of hatred among persons and among nations, an evil which makes forgiveness difficult, and almost an anomaly. There is the evil of unsolicited suffering, both in terms of sin and of any form of moral and physical unease. Cardinal Newman reminds us that our difficulty with reconciling a loving Providence, whether particular or general, with the mystery of all forms of suffering, is due to the fact that we have not accustomed our minds to feel that God loves us with a love of mercy, a love “in spite of”. We have allowed our minds to wander from one opinion to the other, where our hearts did not follow. The same general Providence which lets the sun shine on all of us in times of fidelity and of infidelity, on the good and the wicked alike, is also the particular which surrounds Judas with benevolence without interfering with his gift of freedom.
There is a mysterious link between social interaction and what we interpret as evil. We know that even in the sharing of our individual gifts, we risk allowing ourselves to be hurt as well as praised. Reaching out need not be always in terms of success and personal enrichment. Where would our capacity for compassion take us, and to whom, if not toward those who experience suffering in any shape or form? We are surrounded by victims of evil, whether it be within themselves or at the hands of others or at the mercy of some kind of environmental disaster. The problem of evil challenges us to think deeply about our mission to try to surmount it and be the human face of Providence.
Edouard Seguin, a physician, said something significant when he laid the cornerstone on one of the first schools for the handicapped in Syracuse, N.Y. “God has scattered about us, rare as the possessors of genius, the retarded, the blind, the deaf, in order to bind the rich and the poor, the talented to the incapable, all welded together by a tie of indissoluble solidarity”.
Chapter 3: The Human Face of Providence
Are we icons?
We have it from the Book of Genesis that we are created to the image of God. We are not carved images; we are alive with the creative breath of God. Image is “icon” in Greek. In the original sense used by the early Fathers of the Church, an icon is a special image, one that draws the beholder beyond the visible representation toward the spiritual message. Many of us think of icons strictly in terms of religious images adorning churches of the eastern rite. However, Catherine de Hueck, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa and Emilie Gamelin, to name a few, have been called icons. The burden of this chapter is to explore how the concepts of “icon” and “image of God” come together to shed light on what it means to be “the human face of Providence”.
A person who no longer experiences any meaning to life is desperately looking for a point of contact with a person who does believe and trust in the goodness and presence of God. When people encounter such a person an invitation is issued to them. God is working through a person, extending an offer to another person to hope and believe. Our challenge is to offer such a visible witness and become vessels for God’s goodness and love. God’s trusts us as instruments of Providence. This is why we can say that our human actions can become symbolic, even sacramental and that our body language can have significant spiritual and moral overtones.
True representation is a matter not only of words but also of images. That which the word cannot communicate by sound, the image, (be it painting, icon, person) shows by representation. Created by God, human beings are the Creator’s work of art, and every work of art reflects some facet of the artist. Psalm 8 celebrates the masterpiece that is the human person in whom the divinity takes on a human face so that through us, something of God can be made visible. That the Hebrew Scriptures should express this is especially significant when we consider how deep-rooted was the rejection by Judaism of any kind of representation, in fear of relapsing into idolatry.
When the God of the Old Testament, so invisible yet so revered, who had spoken through the prophets, took on a human body, Christ became one whose actions spoke as eloquently as his words. He made it possible for his contemporaries to see, hear and touch his Provident God in a manner never accessible before nor since. Try as they might, Jesus’ fellow Israelites could not find any contradiction between what he said and what he did. On the contrary, for many, an immediate experience of his humanness served as a means of opening their minds and hearts to his message. He was the icon par excellence, the human face of Providence. “He who sees me sees the Father” (John 14:9) “He is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) George Maloney, S.J. ponders these texts and sees in our own humanness a capacity to respond to God’s invitation to share in God’s own life, as noted in 2 Peter 1:14. Accordingly, he too speaks of the human person as an icon.
The icon aims at a reality beyond anything physical, and seeks to engender a much higher level of reflection, sensitivity and awareness. It makes the non-representable become representable. Persons who are called icons in the religious sense, (the word is sometimes secularized) are those who by their very presence in our midst, even in silence and hiddenness, manifest the kingdom of God. They are gifted with charisms which arouse in others a transcendent or a least latent faith, as icons are wont to do.
Lucien Coutu, csc, in Pèlerinages aux pays d’Orient, tells of his encounters with many iconographers who explained to him how a human being, made to the image of God, has much in common with icons as venerated in the Eastern Church. Because we are accustomed to look for realism in paintings, we find their lines and contours rigid with an austerity that can blind us to what they can teach us. They deliberately cut across a certain naturalness to emphasize the spiritual. Their golden background is a symbol of the divinity. To pray in front of an icon is to let the painting speak to us of God thereby helping us commune with the divine. A careful distinction is necessary between an icon and a portrait: the latter representing an ordinary human being and the former a person united to God. A merely material image either confuses or separates the two natures in Christ, because it lacks the golden glow seen on every icon, announcing the light of God. Iconographers are people of prayer; they produce more than a painting; they draw their inspiration from their union with God.
If we are looking for the most convincing human experience of what is meant by the human face of Providence, we can recall again and again the biblical account given us by those who witnessed the Transfiguration.
The apostles knew that “no one has ever seen God” (John 1:18) except the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father. In the Transfiguration, the idea of body is perfected. It is now seen as an outward manifestation of a capacity for transcendence. When I offer to God, the darkness, the limitations of my own body, the Creator can transform them, for God lives in me and can become manifest in me. If our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, and if Christ, being God, did not hesitate to take on our flesh, then we owe reverent attention to the impact of our own physical presence as we go about our various ministries. It is the imprint of our Creator in us that is our truest self-image, and makes us the human face of Providence.
Our way of being icons will always be imperfect, because our immediate, visible egos get in the way. But with our gaze focused on Christ, and nurtured by the Word, we can manifest in an authentic manner. Sacraments do not exclude the role of the human body, and our humanly symbolic actions can have a sacramental dimension when they reveal something of the reality of God, becoming a mediation of divine action.
Sometimes when we minister to others in their time of need we are seen as being providence, albeit with a small “p”. St. Thomas Aquinas offers this further insight: Providence in God is really prudence in us. It is a strength, a habit, a virtue which we cultivate through frequent practice. Each morning as we plan our day, we need to know what we might do for God and for God’s people, and how much love should go into it. This is but a pale reflection of an all-knowing and all-loving Providence but nonetheless we are gifted with this way of imaging the action of the Divine. The virtue of prudence, understood in this way, has also been called the virtue of governance, which calls for knowledge and love in persons called to the service of others.
Christ came in order to be seen, touched, heard. He wants us to be physically seen, touched, heard, as the human face of Providence. We cannot do this unaided, nor by our talents and personalities alone. We know that we must let the light of God shine through, the kind of light that casts a glow that reveals to others that it is indeed the love of Christ that impels us.
Chapter 4: Our Lady of Providence
“My soul magnifies the Lord.”
As early as 1734, the Barnabite Fathers had placed in their church, dedicated to Saint Charles in Rome, a picture of the Virgin bearing the Latin inscription: Mater Divinae Providentiae. This picture drew the attention and veneration of the people, and they placed many ex-votos and burning candles in front of it. Eventually, a confraternity was formed under the title “Confraternity of Our Lady of Providence”. It spread throughout many cities where the Barnabites had convents.
This Marian devotion was introduced in Canada by Bishop Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, on June 1, 1863, when he opened a series of retreat exercises at the Asile of Providence:
The first day of June shall be consecrated most especially to honor Our Lady of Grace, who will be known here under the title of Our Lady of Providence. This feast is established to implore the help of Divine Providence through the intermediary of the Holy Virgin, because she has been filled with graces to be poured out everywhere…
The personal Providence which in Mary’s life eventually led to Jesus and the Church, is the same Providence which guides us. Our response to God’s ways with us can therefore be modeled upon that of Mary.
Only by sturdy faith can we reach and remain true to the marvelous ways of Providence. These ways converge in Mary, the woman of faith in the gospels, the paradoxical virgin who gives birth to the Savior, the silent person of prayer at the foot of the cross and in the upper room who becomes the mother of the church. In Mary we have a way of reuniting all the crisscrossings of life.
Mary’s way of responding to God is not out of our reach, because it is the most perfect example of humble and absolute self-abandonment to the will of God. The simple words, May it be done to me according to your Word, with which she was content to respond to the words of the angel, form the basis of all Mary’s spirituality. Then, as now, this noble disposition can form the basis for the abandonment of our own souls to the will of God however it manifests itself.
The Magnificat which Mary sings is intensely personal even though it is filled with scriptural allusions and references to Israel’s biblical history. Scripture scholars wonder whether it was a hymn already well known among her people, and spontaneously came to her lips when the angel announced to her that she was the chosen one. The fact that she sang it can only mean that Mary must have meditated these texts often and they had become part of her intimate prayer life. Her Magnificat is an outburst of gratitude which could only have grown within her soul over the years as she prayerfully pondered the goodness of God. Long before the Annunciation, during her years lived in the temple she must have seen herself as the handmaid of the Lord, in an attitude of openness to the divine will, even if unaware of the Lord’s designs on her. We sense in her the blessedness of one who has heard the word of God and kept it lovingly in her heart.
St. Thomas holds that even as Mary made the vow of virginity, it was conditional; Mary vowed virginity provided it was God’s will for her. After her betrothal, her vow was made absolute. When Mary lies open to whatever God wants of her, she is aware that her being identified so intimately with Jesus will also mean that she will share his mission and will be rebuffed and frustrated while always retaining her hopes and her faith.
In the liturgy of the feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, there is a line from the Book of Revelation which can easily pass unnoticed: “… and the woman fled into the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God”…. We can identify “the special place” as that point in our own soul, or that time in our path of life when we, like Mary, are persons of strong faith, where we acknowledge that we are gifted by God with unique insights and graces, where we struggle for goodness and virtue. This “special place” is both our source of glory and of our trials, our hope and our triumph. It is here that many of our hopes and frustrations remain in the silence of our intuitions as to what is God’s will for us. We believe that He alone has placed them there and that this “special place” can be the site of spiritual joy as well as of great trials, where in hope and faith we remain docile to God’s will. Such times bring us closer to Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our mother.
It is often said that we would want to know much more about Mary than what the Scriptures tell us. On the other hand, Mary’s interior reaction to the call of God so completely manifests her spiritual depth, that one needs to contemplate her vertically rather than horizontally. It is a depth to which we can only aspire, as we probe its full dimension. In fact it is possible that Mary herself did not always grasp the mystery of her call. When called to be the Mother of the Messiah, her initial response is one of troubled wonderment: “How can this be?” Many of us have offered a similar spontaneous response in the face of what God seemed to want of us. We need to ponder her final attitude: “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done as you say”.
During his public ministry, Jesus extolled Mary’s obedience to the divine will more than any other quality about her. When we rebel at what seems to be God’s unreasonable demands upon us, it is perhaps because we are not in touch with who we are at the very base and root of ourselves. It is here that we acknowledge we are indeed images of God but not gods, and that our freedom is not independent from God’s freedom.
Chapter 5: Providence and Prayer
To pray is to live in league with God.
It is never easy to find words to speak of God and of our relationship to God. Most of us are aware, albeit often vaguely, of the existence of a supreme being, a primary cause which, or rather who, determines our state of being. It comes to us at “is that all there is” times, when the ordinary is too bland, but we soon return to the comfort of what we can see, feel, touch. When we take time to dwell in awe on how much eludes our grasp, we remain speechless.
Persons who are favored with the gift of faith, and a gift it is, know that the relationship which God initiates in creating us, calls for a response which we offer when we pray. This response can take many forms: praise, petition, soul baring, or simply the willingness to just be, in quiet contemplation, letting the presence of the other invade our consciousness. Because we are wholistic beings, we can pray only in forms that befit our humanness, such as words, gestures, centeredness. A response necessarily follows from having listened, and is conditioned by what we have heard, in this case God’s self-revelation. It was Jeremiah who said, “When I discovered the word of God, I devoured it”.
Prayer implies a relationship. Relationship means we know one another’s name. When Moses realized he was being singled out, he simply asked God what his name was, to which God readily answered: My name is LIFE, “I am who am” Whence comes our use of the name Providence for God? Certainly from the Book of Wisdom but also from many allusions made by the prophets.
The prophet Ezechiel refers to God as shepherd, and in the New Testament Christ ascribes that name to himself. The very ordinariness of the name shepherd(ess) does for us what it did for the Old Testament people. It separates God from material, carved images such as idols and helps us relate to God as one who provides, protects, guides and hears our prayer.
In the metaphor of the shepherd there are two meanings: one is earthy, and refers simply to an occupation which still prevails in countries like Israel. The spiritual meaning is one of concern and becomes a fitting expression of the Providence of God. When raised to the level of a metaphor in this way it becomes a two-edged sword, uniting the material with the non-material. It has carried into our current vocabulary. We use it to speak of the pastor, of pastoral care, words which evoke a nurturing quality in the person with whom one feels secure. “Shepherd” becomes spiritualized, while remaining rooted in our daily experience.
Jesus in his parables always drew from what was familiar, for it is here that we find the seeds for understanding a spiritual message. When the disciples wanted to learn how to pray, the Master chose the family term “father”. He refers to the family again when he explains that prayer is a turning to God, to ask for help “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give good things to those who ask?” Prayer is an asking. Why should we have to ask? Because one of the many gifts of Providence is our freedom to choose, otherwise we would be coerced, wouldn’t we? And we only ask of those who can provide, hence, moved by the Spirit, we pray to a Provident God. In the liturgy for the feast of Saint Martin de Porres on November 3, we speak from the bosom of the universe as we ask in prayer: “Father, guide us, as you guide your creation according to your law of love”.
We pray because so much is unknown to us. Even the present moment is full of mystery. We believe that even our doubts, the dark side of existence, are part of the divine plan, as is faith.
We pray because we have hope. Pope John the XXIII’s firm trust in Providence was the basis for his strong dislike for the prophets of doom, whom he sees as not acknowledging who they are in relation to God. Hope is related to a sense of quickening in the soul; it is a response in eager expectation to the challenge of life as a new thing is revealed, when the gestation of God’s Providence is brought to the light of day in a fresh creation, soft and beautiful, invigorating and restoring.
We pray together because we are all recipients of God’s loving care. We believe that Providence does not discriminate as to who is deserving and who is not. The beauties of nature are for all God’s children to enjoy and it is fitting that we come together to praise and thank Providence.
Over and above material goods we share the grace of faith and we come together as church, in liturgical gatherings. We pray the psalms that Jesus prayed, and celebrate faith-filled feasts and seasons. Liturgical prayer, with the Eucharist as its center, expands our horizons beyond our immediate private concerns. Our common prayer gives a voice to the voiceless, to those who do not know to pray, to those whose hearts are hardened against prayer. By the cycle of liturgical readings, recounting all mysteries in relation to one another, we as church are enabled to see over and over again the wonder of divine Providence. We celebrate that wonder in the sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
When we speak to the Lord on behalf of others, we share their burden and help create a society of communion. No political system has ever provided this; it begins within each person to build that society, that mystical body. Martin Israel likens the absence of community to an experience of hell: “an atmosphere of isolation of the individual from all contact with living forms as well as from a knowledge of God’s all-encompassing Providence”.
Whether we pray alone or with others, it is the Spirit of God that activates our motivations and moves us Godward, so that we are never “out of touch” with our Provident God. In order to cultivate this intimacy, we need interiority, we need contemplation. Such a practice helps us live in a climate of trust, as pure as that of a child in its mother’s arms, says St. Vincent de Paul. “If one is constantly aware of God’s Providence”, says Martin Israel, “so that one is dedicating all of one’s thoughts, words and actions to Him, one is in effect contemplating Him”.
Prayer is a human/divine encounter which often relies on words. When Jesus refers to himself as the Word, he links the human and the divine. Using words to speak to God in prayer can be like trying to paint a bird in flight. God is too marvelous a being to be captured and pinned down. No word, not even Providence, can contain the reality we worship. Our encounter with God in prayer, therefore, takes place in a symbolic space, a space that is neither totally human nor totally divine. It is a faith-filled awareness that becomes a dialogue. One can think of an encounter between two human beings: without either denying the self, a meeting occurs when each goes beyond the self to take note of the other. The word is an instrument of communication and can be called the formator of community, among us and between us and God.
When heroic faith is in doubt as to whether we are indeed doing God’s will, common sense will often prevail. This human reaction also comes under God’s Providence, another one of those many ways by which we are led by reason, not against reason, to supernatural faith. And yet God’s Providence cannot be assessed simply through human reason. In fact reason can argue forcefully against reason at times and even make it look idiotic. Just as a child needs the wisdom of parents, we need the loving wisdom of a Provident God to guide us on our way.
No doubt many of us have often wished that God’s will might be more evident and explicit; God does not put anything in writing! But when we pray with the sincere desire to fulfill God’s will, is it not a guarantee that God is pleased with us?
Chapter 6: Providence and Culture
Originally, most cultures were penetrated by the sacred to the point that everything had a religious meaning. It was felt that the law of the human was also the law of divine Providence. Biblical tradition could bind culture to religion very closely by confessing the lordship of God over the cosmos and over people, placing everything under direct relatedness to God. Throughout Sacred Scripture the relationship between Creator and every creature is made clear: God initiates the relationship but often invites our active collaboration, e.g. plants grow at the command of God but require human work to provide sustenance. Exactly how God acts with us and through us is embedded in the mystery of Providence, and can only be perceived through a glass darkly.
Some influential authors have identified certain cultures as naturally fatalistic. Here people see themselves so dependent on an all-powerful God that they feel their status in life is predetermined and they need not take any responsibility for their society, and in some cases, for their personal lives. Consequently they cannot be expected to take an active role in the processes of change. At the other end of the spectrum are cultures whose initiatives have brought them so much success that they feel justified in claiming full credit for their achievements. Serious reflection should help us clarify whether it is God’s will that people should involve themselves in national and international issues and whether God has given to each country and person a role in shaping its life and influencing that of others.
Jesus manifests a great sensitivity to the social conditions of the Palestine of his time. Yet his teachings know no cultural boundaries. He even chides those who by refusing to relate to other nationalities, e.g. the Samaritans, delay their own enrichment in their would-be concern to guard the Torah against all intrusions. When discussing Providence with Hellenistic Judaism, Matthew uses a vocabulary suited to that nation’s manner of expressing its relationship to the divine.
Whether the first non-Jewish converts could retain their Greek culture was a matter left for Peter and Paul to discuss. In Paul’s eyes every human being has a spiritual existence as a result of our common dependence on a Provident God. To summarize Paul’s often-stated position: Sound spirituality requires that we experience all living beings as receiving life from God. Each is a part answering to the same Source, and as a part, remaining dependent not only on this Source but on the other parts as well. It dies if it tries to become too independent, like a finger severed from the hand in the hope of becoming a whole in itself. People’s effort to express this dependence on Providence in the manner of their respective cultures can only enhance all of humanity’s inherited dynamism of spirit. Life and spirituality are integrated and all cultures share this communality.
Social rearrangements have influenced the genuine notion of collaborating with Providence. We know from history that many cultural fields such as art and music, which were closely related to Christianity at the outset, have in some cases, freed themselves from it. The global village in which we now live continues to raise our awareness that there flows from each culture a unique way of acknowledging a divine presence in its midst. There are not different divine presences; it is just that we all speak under the limitations of our situations. The Spirit brings no new revelation but rather takes the message of the Word made flesh and declares it anew, in a manner meaningful to each milieu.
Missionaries tell us that for the First Nations people of North America, to know is to have experienced. What counts for them is not so much doctrine or content as the process toward concrete appropriation of the gospel message. They know intimately the Great Mystery we call Providence through personal or collective experience, and they visualize the mystery as the very core of their own being and of the entire universe. They are convinced that no human person can achieve anything without the assistance of the Great Mystery and its surrounding powers. They want to be attentive to its presence, when and where it manifests itself. They want to connect with the Great Mystery in order to receive the vision, which determines one’s unique place in a universe where all things are interrelated. They focus on history mainly as transmitted by their elders who exhibit a mystical capacity and a love for cosmic sacramentality. These deep cultural differences affect religions and religious language.
We are experiencing an attempt to recover aboriginal symbols in the liturgy, e.g. the Great Spirit, which may or may not reflect the words of Jesus in the Gospel but contain fundamental truths which extol the beauties of nature and give credit to what we mean by the Providence of God. The language of faith is already there and demands our attention. Words which speak of Providence are carriers, like other words, of experience, emotions, feelings and outlooks, all of which reflect a given culture but enable us to come together to pray, as in the liturgy of the hours: “Direct our thoughts, feelings and actions this day. Help us to follow your providential guidance”.
With the continuing influx of immigrants into our continent, we North Americans will continue to experience various ways of manifesting Providence both privately and publicly. The inculturation process that we see is not entirely new. It has been carried out through the centuries by people of mixed races, namely the metizos, and it has offered a contribution to social and spiritual transformation. We have come to realize and reflect on the deep human desire to be persons of faith within authentic yet different cultural paths and in common praise for the gift of life.
In South America many forms of Christianity are manifested in religious practices and spirituality. Here the cycle of life is very meaningful for the individual and for the family. Faith in the Providence of God is not expressed in dogmatic terms or in the language of systematic theology but in vernacular words and gestures. Small communities gather to discuss prayerfully not esoteric theological issues but what constitutes the ebb and flow of their daily faith life. Their “popular religion” with its colorful displays and pageantry is an authentic manifestation of the life and wisdom of the people. Others learn from it by entering into the perspectives of the people to see and feel as they do the sources of their identity and strength. Andean people have a concrete and mystical bond with “Mother Earth” and they adhere to Catholic ritual.
In many cultures the physical and social sciences have adopted a reductionist language which seems to dissolve reality into elements which they are capable of handling. This often excludes faith language and therefore language about the Providence of God. And yet, so deep and real is the historical and social location of faith that every culture seeks and can find a way of expressing it in keeping with its mode of action, its way of living, its way of manifesting.
The close link between language and culture and its effect on religious expression is being felt increasingly in the church. In order to reach different cultures recourse must be had to translations. But as one moves from one language to another one soon becomes aware that something cultural is lost in every translation. Words clothe values and outlooks peculiar to each region. For years the Catholic Church has clung to Latin at mass in order to protect the authentic meaning of biblical passages in use in the liturgy. With the introduction of the vernacular Rome is preoccupied as to whether translations faithfully transmit the content of the Latin prayers of the Roman Rite, because those prayers are her own heritage, and her gift to each new generation of the faithful. We are warned against the myth of creative spontaneity, which could alter the meaning of words like “Providence”.
Today’s culture is secular, and our view of the self and of the universe is often secular. Researchers like Austin and Gilkey see four reasons why our modernity does not always see Providence as “the rule of God over the events that make up the course of both nature and history”: (1) a vivid and massive awareness of evil; (2) a rejection of natural theology; (3) an insistence on human freedom; (4) a belief in an autonomous and deterministic natural order.
It can be more challenging to manifest Providence in a capitalist and materialistic culture than in one that is deeply spiritual, one that honors humility, simplicity and charity. If we live within a culture where truth is being replaced by value, and no truth is acknowledged apart from science, such a transcendent and symbolic word as “Providence” has an unfamiliar ring. Humility is ever the foundation upon which faith can build and acknowledge that what we have is a gift of the Providence of God. If we see this in ourselves before we see it around us, we will trust in Providence for what lies ahead.
Chapter 7: Providence Spirituality
We have spoken traditionally of a variety of spiritualities, e.g Benedictine, Franciscan, Carmelite, to name a few. What they have in common is a deep faith in the mystery of the Trinity. What differentiates them is the special charism that distinguishes each from the other. Such charism is a gift, a given, usually attributed to the action of the Spirit. It enables a person or group to be influential for the benefit of others. Underlying a religious charism is a basic Christian faith with its particular vision of God, of the world, and of humanity.
A charism gives rise to a way of life commonly referred to as a spirituality, i.e. a personalized way of living our faith, of activating our God-given gifts. Providence spirituality resonates to that particular perfection in God which the gospels emphasize as a special concern for persons whose basic needs are not met. Persons endowed with the Providence charism seek out those who are marginalized for reasons of material or spiritual poverty. Their mission is to live by the Word and respond to the light of the Spirit as they reach out to others. Providence Spirituality is authentically Trinitarian.
“The Spirit blows where it wills” is more than a cliché. Those who are drawn to a spirituality fed by the Providence charism, experience a particular exercise of discipleship, where God is seen as the creative artist who holds the universe in his hands. The ultimate response is one of praise, resembling but far surpassing the praise we offer our human artists.
One example of the gospel view of Providence is found in the parable of the talents, where we are challenged to make productive the gifts entrusted to us. It is said that Mozart offered praise to God through his piano orchestrations blended with pure sounds of nature. Flowing brooks, songbird voices, and other natural sounds from the forest enhance his compositions. His symphony number 40 is a burst of praise for the Providence of God. Beethoven’s “Pastorale”, the symphony number 6 in F, “smells of April and May” says a critic! It is Providence spirituality set to music to proclaim the work of the divine artist reflected in the beauties of nature.
Inspired by Sacred Scripture, Providence spirituality places special emphasis on sharing with others, especially the less fortunate members of the human race, dispensing freely what gifts we ourselves have received from God. We are challenged to reach out, as Jesus did, to neighbors and to foreigners, be they rich or poor, healthy or ill, young or old, man or woman. We aim to see the image of God in them, blurred though it may be, knowing we are all on common ground as issuing from the one Creator. We need to search no further than the gospels for models of moral behavior, of social justice, of outreach to the needy. These are the sources from which we draw creatively to discover or invent ways of being the human face of Providence in our respective milieus.
Providence spirituality makes us into ecologists, lovers and protectors of God’s creation. We become actively concerned with promoting due respect for what the Creator has so artfully placed on our planet. Jesus’ pedagogy is replete with examples taken from nature: “the kingdom of God is like the mustard seed … like a pearl of great price…look at the birds of the air … the flowers … Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of these”.
The mission of the Spirit is to kindle in us a love that overcomes egotism and makes us into co-workers with God as we carry out our various ministries. Providence spirituality makes us aware that no event, place or person lies outside the “field of vision” of our Provident God. We may in moments of spiritual blindness attribute certain happenings to fate, luck, or chance, but the faith-name is Providence. This realization has at times invaded the minds and hearts of some persons to such a degree that they could only fall on their knees in humble adoration. We can only pray for the grace to remain open to God’s ways with us in whatever paths this might take us.
Perhaps there was a time when spirituality was thought to be the domain of cloistered religious, removed from the activity and distractions of society, and distinct from the vocation of the laity. Vatican II has broadened the meaning of spirituality as a reality that is open to all and attuned to the needs of our day. For all of us who have inherited the rich tradition of Christian spirituality; this is a precious legacy. We need to name our experience of God, receive it as pure gift, one that has to be treasured, but not kept hidden or undeveloped. Just as we cultivate the soil in our vegetable and flower gardens we can help others cultivate their faith-life, come to terms with who they are in God’s eyes and accompany them on their faith journey. We may not always see the immediate or long-range effects of our efforts but we trust that Divine Providence will continue to inspire others who will bring to fruition what has been sown.
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