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Posts Tagged ‘providence’

When I was on retreat in September I took De Caussade’s Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence with me for spiritual reading, in the translation by Kitty Muggeridge entitled ‘The Sacrament of the Present Moment‘. I read it years ago, but it’s good to come back to it again.

There are many other translations available – see these here on Amazon. Another one I have is a reprint of a Burns and Oates edition that has a fantastic selection of letters by De Caussade (Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Father J. P. de Caussade, translated by Father P. H. Ramiere SJ, edited by Father John Joyce SJ, with an introduction by Dom David Knowles. Tan Books, Charlotte, North Carolina, 1987).

This excerpt from a letter to a religious sister contains the kernel of his spiritual doctrine. It’s very simple, and very powerful.

I do not understand your anxieties, my dear Sister; why do you take pleasure in tormenting yourself, as you do, over the future, when your faith teaches you that the future is in the hands of a Father who is infinitely good, who loves you more than you love yourself and who understands your interests far better than you?

Have you forgotten that everything that happens is directed by the orders of divine Providence? But if we know this how can we hesitate to remain in a state of humble submission, in the most trifling as in the greatest events, to all that God wishes or permits? How blind we are when we desire anything other than what God wishes. He alone knows the dangers which threaten us in the future and the help which we shall need.

I am firmly convinced that we should all be lost if God gave us all our desires, and that is why, as St Augustine says, God, in His mercy and compassion for our blindness, does not always grant our prayers, and sometimes gives us the contrary of what we ask as being in reality better for us. In truth, I often think that nearly all of us are in this world in the position of poor sick people who in their frenzy or delirium ask for the very thing that would cause their death and who have to be refused out of pure charity in an enlightened pity.

My God, if this truth were once for all well-known, with what blind self-abandonment should we not submit ourselves to Thy divine Providence. What peace and tranquillity of heart we should enjoy in every circumstance, not only regarding external events, but also with reference to our interior states of soul.

It shows the importance of good theology for any worthwhile spirituality. If you know that God is infinitely loving, and infinitely powerful; that he is guiding all that happens to you, and everything throughout the whole world; and that he only wants what is best for you and for all –  it changes the way you pray.

You still pray and intercede, but it’s no longer out of fear (trying to change God’s mind because he doesn’t really know what he’s doing or doesn’t really care as much as you do). There is a fundamental trust within every prayer, and a reassurance that what is truly best really is unfolding – even if we can’t yet understand how.

It doesn’t lead to passivity or quietism, or to the misguided view that everything that happens is therefore good in itself (because it’s obvious that bad things and sometimes terrible things happen). It just means that there is an underlying trust in the Providence of God: that he only allows this because he desires to bring something greater out of it; that in his mercy he longs to redeem this situation – even in the face of apparent failure and meaninglessness; and that his deepest desire in everything is to lead us to what is for our true happiness and salvation.

Above all, it is a theology of hope.

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I wrote about providence recently, and the question of whether God has a plan for our lives or not.

St Margaret Clitherow & Cardinal Newman

Here is the marvellous meditation on providence and trust by Cardinal Newman, in case anyone hasn’t come across it before.

God knows me and calls me by my name.…

God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for His purposes… I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.

Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; In perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us.

He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me— still He knows what He is about.…

Let me be Thy blind instrument. I ask not to see— I ask not to know—I ask simply to be used.  

The passage is from his Meditations and Devotions, “Meditations on Christian Doctrine: Hope in God—Creator”, March 7th, 1848.

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes – which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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Many discussions about freedom try to push you to an extreme position: you are either completely determined and in denial about this, or radically free to determine what you will do and who you will become. [WARNING: minor plot-spoilers coming up]

The film The Adjustment Bureau, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, has a nice take on this. The visible, historical world – our ordinary reality – is watched over by members of the Adjustment Bureau. Their job is to make sure that the Plan unfolds as it should – a Plan for human civilisation as a whole, and for each individual. But instead of pulling every string, like Ed Harris sitting in his control room in The Truman Show, they let things take their own course, and step in every now and then to make minor ‘adjustments’, carefully planned interventions that nudge our lives in one direction or another, without causing too many ‘ripples’ that might cause us to think we are in hands of a higher power. We experience these adjustments as accidents or chance events, but they are the workings of an invisible fate giving shape to our lives. The plot turns on a wonderful scene when one member of the Bureau misses his cue, and someone doesn’t spill a cup of coffee as they are meant to, so that the Plan unravels.

The film illustrates a simple truth: that the whole course of our lives depends on chance events and unplanned encounters. It takes up these themes from those wonderful films Wings of Desire and Run Lola Run. We think we are, to a certain extent, in control of our lives; yet we are not in control of the insignificant happenings that have most significance for our lives. Is it Fate? Providence? Chance?

It’s a light-hearted thriller-cum-comedy-romance, beautifully executed, with one or two weighty ideas from Dick. It has the feel of a Magritte painting come to life. If you like sci-fi, Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, or casual musings about human freedom, you’ll enjoy it. And if you like all four, as I do, you’ll have a ball.

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