The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 55, No 2, March-April 2002

Theology for the Laity

PLACING OUR HOPE IN THE CROSS
Part II: PROVIDENCE AND OUR RESPONSE TO SUFFERING

By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

As we continue to look at the cross and the divine artistry at work in manipulating the tragedy of life to prosper good, we come to the difficult issue of the human response to suffering. It is one thing to speak of the spiritual benefits of trials in the abstract, and quite another to deal with suffering when it draws near. Then all reasoning loses its appeal as pain saps away all peace and consolation. Our reflections here will undoubtedly offer small consolation for those in the midst of grave suffering. But that the rest of us might have strength when suffering comes our way, these reflections are presented as a training for the mind and heart. It is upon the goodness of God in lovingly guiding us through suffering that we must learn to fix our attention. The reality of Godís goodness needs to be firmly grasped in preparation for that day when all the inclinations arising from weak human nature will be to deny that goodness. Then only faith will triumph. So it is to strengthen faith through reason that we now turn. Below we will explore the great kindness of God revealed in His providential care for all creation, especially man created in His image and likeness.

DIVINE LOVE AND WISDOM

We know that what has been constant in Godís dealings with creation has been love and wisdom. His love is the motivation for bringing every creature into existence, and His wisdom is behind the making and maintenance, with utmost care, of all that He has created. In fact, the word "universe" we use for the visible creation, implies something carefully done, with the greatest wisdom. It derives from the Latin for"one" (unus) and "together" (versus). At its most basic level it means "combined into a whole," and "many things brought together into one." It points to the astounding unity and harmony that has been established in a visible creation of incomprehensible complexity.

Incompatible with love and wisdom would be haphazard acts of creation, a rough bringing things into existence and then forcing them into an unhappy union. Only a loving and wise Creator would produce the vast array of creatures that we find in the world, united in such a sublime degree of harmony and coordination. Examples abound. The tremendous explosion of life on our planet has been made possible by a very precise position of earth with respect to the sun, including its rotation and the variation in the exposure it gets to the sun during the course of the year. One of the most basic life-requirements of plants and animals is air, for which each supports the other, plants breathing in carbon-dioxide and exhaling oxygen, animals breathing out carbon-dioxide and taking in oxygen.

GOD IN THE DETAILS

What this speaks of is the presence of the Creatorís wisdom in even the most minute details of creation. Chance, St. Thomas tells us, is present in creation. But nothing is left to chance. Order prevails over all (Compendium of Theology, 137). The vast spectrum of secondary causes we spoke of in the previous issue are capable of producing some effect only through the Creatorís involvement. When we think of man as a secondary cause, able to form through his innate powers a magnificent space station, we still have a work with which the Creator is thoroughly involved. "All intermediate causes operate in virtue of the first cause, so that in a certain way He Himself appears to act in them all" (ibid.). What could man do without the very existence and innate abilities given him by God? What could man do without God each moment sustaining his existence? "Thus all the achievements of secondary causes can be attributed to Him, as the effect produced by a tool is ascribed to the artisan: when we say that a smith makes a knife, we are more correct than when we say that a hammer did it" (ibid.). Though the hammer was there forming the blade, no blade would have resulted without the action of the smith. So it is for all in the world. No light would come from the stars, no trees would produce fruit, no man would propel himself beyond earthís surface were it not for the action of God. He is the supreme cause for all that takes place that is good.

What then of evil? Here we enter the realm of the accidental, which is not intended by God. As was mentioned in the last issue, created things are not completely stable in perfection, as is God. "God Himself is the only being in whom no defect can arise" (ibid.). By their very nature, things from time to time fall away from their intended perfection. Forests are devastated by fire, living things die and decay, and colorful works of art fade with time. None of this can be attributed to God's doing. Nor can manís wickedness be traced to Him. Evil on the part of man can only be traced back to its origins - the will of man. We can through free will set ourselves on a course of action that is not willed by God. "Accordingly, although God is the universal cause of all things, He is not the cause of evil as evil" (ibid.).

NOTHING OUTSIDE OF PROVIDENCE

We have then the question of whether events can take place in our world not guided by Godís hand. And the answer to this is negative. An imperfect example that comes to mind is that of a toddler being carefully watched by his mother. All created things can, so to speak, bolt off in some direction that God did not desire them to go, doing so under the innate powers God gave them. But the divine control over creation never fails. Creation never gets away from God, acting in a way that He cannot direct it where He wants it to go. And what makes this all the more possible for God is His knowledge that comprehends all things. Not only does He have the power to draw back a creature heading in a direction He does not intend, even before the creature begins its departure, He has complete knowledge of what will take place. In fact, since His knowledge is eternal, already He sees all the tragic events that will conspire in the world. They are now present before Him. And already He has planned His corrective measures. Such is His wisdom and love that He would never be slow to steer some evil in the direction of the good result He desires. He does not let evil spiral out of control. Evil is always a controlled occurrence. When something has gone awry we can be sure that God is there, redirecting it to good.

Men do this on their own level. The medical profession routinely manages the harmful effects of treatment, directing a deliberate wounding of the body through surgery, to produce healing. The auto manufacturer provides protection in case of accident with seat belts and air bags. All the more then does Divine Wisdom do the same on His universal level ( ibid.). We acknowledge the wisdom of men in foreseeing evil and steering it in a way that is beneficial, or, at least less harmful. Why should we not acknowledge the wisdom of the Creator, whose power is limitless, and who can direct even the worst tragedies with the greatest of ease? And should we not remember here especially the worldís most astounding and monstrous of tragedies, the brutal execution of the very Son of God made man, who came in love to save mankind? Has there been any act in the course of time that has been more disastrous? Has there been any act in the course of time that has been turned to such good?!

THE GOAL OF PROVIDENCE

All that has been said so far indicates how important it is for us to trust in Godís providential guidance. His control of even the most insignificant of events is not something than can be denied. We have the need of seeing all that takes place in our lives as permitted ultimately from His hand.

Even the worst of trials, those that come to us through evil-intentioned men, cannot be rejected as beyond the reach of Providence. This reflects the very words of our Blessed Lord in the Gospels: "You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my nameís sake. But not a hair of your head will perish" (Lk. 21:16-18). Our Lord is here revealing His divine knowledge of all that will take place in the course of history. All of the attacks on Christians stretching up to our own day were clearly known by Him. It is all present to Him through direct vision, and there is nothing lacking in what He sees in each instance of persecution and trial. Jesus saw directly what would one day happen to Maximillian Kolbe and to the Missionaries of Charity recently slain in Sierra Lione. The sufferings that each of us will have to endure, whether through persecution for the faith or the more typical crosses that come our way, were seen by Him with utmost clarity. Were He to see fit, He could describe to us in detail what we will one day face. Thankfully, He keeps it to Himself! Better not to have that concern on our minds until the moment comes!

What is more, He is fully capable of intervening in each of these tragic situations on behalf of His faithful. And this He in fact does. His promise is to protect them from harm. His statement, however, that "not a hair of your head will perish," mentioned with respect to violent persecution, clearly demonstrates that preserving our lives in this world is NOT the goal of His Providence. What is being preserved without harm is the life of the individual for eternity. Our Lordís words to St. Catherine of Siena carry a similar theme:

Divine Providence that comes in the form of trial will thus make no sense to us at all if there is no acceptance of the goal to which God is working. Clinging to life in this world will always make providence problematic. Wanting little more than a happy life in our present state will cause a soul to ultimately consider Godís providence a failure. The goal of eternal life is the key to all that happens in life.

DANGER OF REJECTING PROVIDENCE

The events of our lives become filled with meaning, often difficult to discern but always providing food for thought, when we accept our heavenly calling. But all eventually becomes dark and absurd when that calling is either rejected or placed far back in the deep recesses of the mind. Our Lord speaks to St. Catherine about souls that fall into this latter category by saying:

Here all complaining and impatience in our lives can be viewed in its proper light. But we must make a distinction. Evaluating a painful trial is only natural. We can make assessments of what is taking place. In this there can be no harm. Creatures are fallible. They can be acknowledged as such. A nasty driver on the freeway can be identified for what he is. This is not the complaining and impatience St. Catherine speaks of. That we are unhappy about being subjected to the nasty driver - this is the issue. That we are angry and resentful about having to face a trying situation is where the problem lies. A complaining spirit arises in us when have left the act of assessing of an imperfect creature or some difficult trial, and gone into what is essentially a rebellion against the good providence of God.

Such rebellion would not be the case, of course, if there were somehow events that escape the control of God. But this is impossible. As has been pointed out, nothing is outside of His Providence. This illness that we have come down with has not somehow slipped through the cracks in the divine plan without His notice. This difficult family situation we are in has not somehow happened without His assent. Whenever we complain about the way our lives are progressing, about the trying situations we find ourselves in, we should not imagine that this is directed to any other source. There is no other ultimate explanation for why we find ourselves in some trial than Divine Wisdom. And this includes our own imperfections. All that we are and all that we will face has been worked out with the greatest care. All is guided by the hand of God for that one, crucial goal, that one all-encompassing objective of eternal life.

SURRENDER TO PROVIDENCE

What is at stake for surrender to the Providence of God then is accepting eternal life as the only goal there ultimately is for us, seeking it at all cost, and being willing to pay any price for it. This is the message of Jesusí parables about eternal life in the Gospels. The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure that a man found hidden in a field. He sold all that he had to purchase that field. The kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of immense beauty and value discovered by a merchant. He went and exchanged all that he had to buy it (Mt. 13:44-45). No price is too high to pay for this treasure. No trial is too great to go through. No frustrations are too much to endure.

What of our weak natures that can only take so much? What of our weak wills that draw back from pain? If we were giving ourselves over to random experiences of suffering to gain heaven, then we would have something to worry about. But our grasp of the truth about Providence dispels such fears. We, in fact, do not subject ourselves to random occurrences of trial. We will never have to face them. God, through His grace, is reinforcing in us what is weak. And, in His absolute mastery over all creation, He is filtering out all that we cannot bear, and all that would be detrimental to our heavenly goal. We are left with a completely unique blend of grace, trial, and consolation that He prepares for us individually with the most meticulous and loving care. To this we are surrendering ourselves. And so we find Our Lord pleading to St. Catherine:


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