One of the great mysteries of the Christian faith and of life is Providence. Because it's a mystery, people over the centuries have debated the relationship between God's will and what happens in the world, between God's will and human freedom. Mysteries aren't problems to be solved and so we must humbly say that there are no definititive answers to the questions that arise when we consider God's Providence. In the end, though, and at every moment, we are faced with the questions: "Where is God in this?" and "What is God asking of me in this?"
I thought of this recently because of correspondance I've had with a friend named Tom who recently underwent open heart surgery. Before Christmas, as he was preparing for surgery, I wrote him the following:
"I often think of things like what you're facing as ways that God calls us to grow in particular virtues. Courage is one I see here and also surrender in trust. We always pray, in the Our Father, "Thy will be done," but we often say that out of habit and not really meaning it, not really thinking that God's way is the best way. Easy for me to say from this distance and not being in your shoes, but if all this (our lives, our faith) makes sense, then it has to be true."
I also recommended that he read about a man who tried to find God's will in something he never expected--being a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. The man was Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., and the book he wrote about his experience was "He Leadeth Me." After Christmas and before surgery Tom wrote me the following:
"I just finished reading He Leadeth Me........I am writing to express my thanks to you for recommending it. My daughter bought it for me as a Christmas present and I read it right away. What an amazing story it is! The faith he describes in the book is beyond my ability to describe but I am sure you have read it and know what I mean, I have asked Fr Ciszek to pray for me that I have a fraction of his courage & faith and if it is God's will, healing...."
Then, after his surgery and in the midst of recovery, Tom wrote me the following:
"It has been 10 days since the open heart surgery , which is hard to believe. I have been home since Sunday convalescing....The most difficult part is the pain management, at times I feel very good and cut back on the meds ,oxycodone, each time that has been mistake.....pain management & healing go hand in hand and when the pain returns it is very challenging....the surgery & subsequent wound healing has proceeded pretty well....I get vey tired and ,as I said occasionally have some very intense pain in my upper torso....Fr Jim of all the memories I will have about this whole experience and there have been many, the book He Leadeth Me is one I will never forget.....being aware of the Providence of God and its unbending goodness is such a comforting thought that i will continue to exclaim it the rest of my life."
Here are the significant passages from Fr. Ciszek's "He Leadeth Me." Though we may never understand the ways of Providence while we're on this side of eternity, that lack of understanding doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. Somehow I think it was Providence and not coincidence that Tom and I met at a retreat house in Minnesota ten years ago.
“What I have tried to show in the pages of this book is how faith has affected my life and sustained me in all I experienced. That faith is the answer to the question most often asked of me (‘How did you manage to survive?’) and I can only repeat it, simply and unashamedly. To me, that truth says that God has a special purpose, a special love, a special providence for all those he has created. God cares for each of us individually, watches over us, provides for us. The circumstances of each day of our lives, of every moment of every day, are provided for us by him. Let the theologians argue about how this is so, let the philosophers and sophisticates of this world question and doubt whether it can be so; the revealed truth we have received on God’s own word says simply that it is so. But maybe we are all just a little afraid to accept it in all its shattering simplicity, for its consequences in our lives are both terrible and wonderful.
“It means, for example, that every moment of our life has a purpose, that every action of ours, no matter how dull or routine or trivial it may see in itself, has a dignity and a worth beyond human understanding. No man’s life is insignificant in God’s sight, nor are his works insignificant—no matter what the world or his neighbors or family or friends may think of them. Yet what a terrible responsibility is here. For it means that no moment can be wasted, no opportunity missed, since each has a purpose in man’s life, each has a purpose in God’s plan.”