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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Providence of God (Part 2)
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We saw something of the meaning of divine providence. In the teaching of Sacred Scripture and especially of Christ, throughout the Bible the one sustained theme is to trust in God: Be not anxious; do not worry; be not despondent; be not desolate; trust; have confidence, and Christ's crowning exhortation, "Do not be afraid, I have overcome the world."
However, there are two sides to divine providence. The one we have seen. Providence is the foundation of our virtue of hope. We are confident that because God loves us he will provide whatever we need to do his will, provided we honestly want to do it. Providence on that first level is trustful confidence on our part that the Lord will provide all the means we need on earth to reach heaven in the life to come. However providence is not only the foundation of our hope. It is also the foundation of our faith, our faith as lived out in this world. That is the scope of our meditation now.
In order to grasp something of the profound revealed meaning of divine providence as the bedrock of our faith to be lived out, I would like to cover the following points.
First then, no one is saved without divine grace. One of my favorite definitions of grace: grace is that which we need beyond what we have to reach the eternal destiny for which we were made. That which we have we call nature, that which we need we call grace. Nature is all that we have when we come into the world: ourselves, the world around us, all of that is nature. But none of that is sufficient to get us into heaven. To believe that is to be a Catholic. Not to know that is to be an unenlightened Catholic. We need grace for the nourishment of our supernatural life; in fact that is what the adjective supernatural means. What is supernatural? That which is super + natural. Everything above, beyond, more than we ourselves or the whole wide world can of itself provide us is natural and that will not get us into heaven.
Why do we use the adjective 'ordinary' providence? Because God can if he wants to work miracles. But by definition, miracles are rare. In the ordinary way that he deals with souls, God who knows that we need his grace to be saved, gives us creatures. Every person, every place, everything in God's ordinary providence is meant to be a channel of grace. I have taught the theology of grace many times; I tell my students if they can really understand, really understand what the Church means by what she casually calls externally graces, they are set for time and eternity; because then everything has meaning. Why? Because everything, if I believe it and realize it, is meant by God to be a source of grace for me: the air I breathe, the heat or the cold outside; the nice people I meet, the not so nice people. This is the key to sanctity. And the verb is 'to see' God's providence in everything.
There is no such thing as coincidence in our lives, there is only providence. And what we need is first to believe this and then believing it, to act on what we believe. God never wastes a single creature however trifling or apparently unimportant in our lives. He is constantly teaching us what he wants us to do and provided we see his will in everything in our lives, he will provide the grace that we need.
If that's the ordinary providence, that means that everything in our lives is meant to be a grace for us. We who are part of other peoples' lives, we are to be channels of grace to everyone whose life we touch. To see that is to see an ocean of reality; not to see that is to be living in a dream. Because among the creatures that God wants to be instruments of grace to us none is more important or most effective or more indispensable than other human beings. None of us would be in chapel today unless someone who had the faith passed it on to US. I wouldn't be a priest unless I hadn't been inspired by the priest who taught me at the university I attended. Everything we have in the supernatural order, all the graces we have received, and by now their number is myriad, God mainly used other human beings as the instrument of the graces for us. Sheer base gratitude to God should wake us up out of our lethargy. What am I doing for other people? Am I a source of grace to them? Am I as much a source of grace as God wants me to be?
If in God's ordinary providence he communicates the graces we need to be saved and sanctified through the creatures that he puts into our lives for that specific purpose, but there are creatures and creatures and creatures! We smile when we say that word; we shudder when we say that word. This is what providence in the final analysis is all about: all are meant by God in their own, needless to say, different way of being channels, sources, means, instruments of grace. We need discrimination or prudence. God's providence must be met by our prudence in order that we might gain eternal life. There are in general four categories of creatures. Let's look at them more closely in the light of the providence that we are reflecting on.
There are creatures that God puts into our lives that he wants us to enjoy and while enjoying, they are graces. Those are the graces we really appreciate - the pleasant ones, the enjoyable ones, the comfortable ones, the cozy ones, the sweet ones. Does God want us to enjoy creatures? Sure. But we better be prudent, as Christ said: "Prudent as serpents," otherwise known as cunning, lest we be deceived.
There are graces in our lives that are painful. There are creatures that God sends us. Notice the verb. In the first case there are creatures that God gives for us, in the second case there are creatures that God sends to do things to us, creatures that if we had our choice, we would never choose. Yet once we realize that no matter how painful or how unpleasant a creature can be - and physical suffering is not the worse pain. The most searing pain that a human being can experience is from another human being. We are touching on the very substance of our faith when we tell ourselves that God in his providence places creatures into our lives which he wants us to endure, put up with. And by our patient endurance we obtain grace from God and not infrequently the grace that we obtain is patient suffering or endurance and especially at the hands, the eyes and the lips of other people. How we need to believe that God sends people into our lives in order that by our patient endurance of them God might give us grace that otherwise we would never obtain. We need people in our lives who will try us in order that by our patience with them we might obtain grace from him.
The sinful creatures in our lives, our own past bad habits can they, should they be a source of grace? Yes. Was Peter's triple denial of the Master a source of grace? Most emphatically. Then, of course, we need to ask God what are we to learn from what we have done which has been wrong and needed correction. How am I to become more holy in the future because I have been so sinful in the past?
Finally - we are still on the subject of discernment - we are to prudently distinguish among the creatures in our lives. Our last category are those which we do not have to remove from our lives because they are sinful but which once we realize that God wants more of us than just keeping out of sin, what can we do more than we have been doing to please God and love him more than we have in the past. This fourth level is the life of the evangelical counsels and the pursuit of sanctity. That's what it means. We not only ask ourselves what must I do, what must I correct from my past life if I want to keep out of hell. God puts so many wonderful persons, places and things into our lives in order that we can show more than the absolutely necessary love for God, and grow in holiness by giving up things we like.
There are creatures I must throw out, get rid of, evict, remove, and there are creatures I don't have to remove under pain of sin, but if I want to really love God I will surrender, and do so willingly, otherwise known as sacrifice. Willing surrender is the best definition of sacrifice that the infallible Church has been able to come up with after two thousand years of history.
You know and I know this is the struggle all of us have all our lives. And consequently our last category is detachment. We are not naturally detached from pleasant creatures, and we are not naturally attached or attracted to unpleasant creatures. Nobody naturally likes a bore or a boor. Nobody naturally likes selfish people. Nobody naturally likes to give up food or sleep. Nobody naturally likes to be ignored. We naturally like people to pay attention to us, like us, speak kindly about us, and above all we want to make sure that people not only speak kindly about us but think kindly of us. What we most want is to be loved.
Yet, if we are going to live this divine providence and not merely talk about it, or read about it, it means we will need all the help we can get from God first to sift and keep sifting finer and finer and still more finer among the creatures that are in our lives. Which ones does God want me to keep? And among those he wants me to keep, which ones does he want me to enjoy? And among those he wants me to keep, which ones does he want me to suffer? Which creatures does God want me to get rid of? We need light to recognize so that we don't throw out of our lives what we should keep or keep in our lives what we should get rid of. Do I see God's almighty hand from all eternity putting this situation, that circumstance, this person, that person into my life? To see God behind a rough voice, to see God in someone consciously insulting you, that's what divine providence is all about. Believe me it is not abstraction; it is real life really lived by realizing that God is beneath, before, behind, within everyone and everything that even for a split second touches my life and that instantaneously I react not as to a creature but as to the Creator.
"I beg of you, my Lord, to remove anything which separates me from you and you from me. Remove anything that makes me unworthy of your saints, your control, your reprehension, of your speech in conversation, of your benevolence in love. Cast from me every evil that stands in the way of my seeing you; hearing, tasting, savoring and touching you; fearing and being mindful of you; knowing, trusting, loving and possessing you; being conscious of your presence and as far as may be, enjoying you. This is what I as for myself and earnestly desire from you. Amen." (Blessed Peter Claver)
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
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