Preaching on providence
I had the joy of celebrating the opening mass for the general chapter of the Sisters of Providence. What an honour to have been invited! I was just so amazed and delighted to be among these impressive women who have offered so much to God and their neighbour.
My homily was, as you can imagine, on the theme of providence. This is actually a fairly major theme for me in my own spiritual life. As a kid I used to ask myself, “Why am I who I am?” In other words, how was it that I was born into the family I was, in the country and society I was? Why was I born a boy and not a girl, why was my skin/hair/eye colour what it was, why did I have the ancestry I did, etc.?
Of course, it would be easy to say that these sorts of attributes can’t be answered with a “why”. They simply are what they are. But deep down, I always felt that these things were not just random accidents, or simply the result of some past historical process. And if they weren’t, then although I couldn’t name it at the time, I was already open in my heart to the idea providence.
I even find the word “providence” fascinating. The root is “pro-videre”, i.e. to “see forward”. It can mean things like to foresee, to plan for the future, and so on, but basically it means being intentional about knowing the future, and it implies adjusting to meet that future. A good example is a person driving a car: the driver has to “foresee” what is coming, both what he can see, and what he can’t but which, through experience, might show up. And of course, the driver needs to steer, brake, accelerate etc. as a function of all that.
Of course, the most important element of driving is knowing where you are going. A driver doesn’t just drive, he navigates. “Providence” therefore is not just about reacting well to your environment, it is about having a plan so you can get to your destination.
This is why I think this concept is so important with regards to God. People often experience disappointment with regards to God’s providence, thinking that God has not “provided” for them adequately. I can understand this in many cases, especially for people who have been true victims of abuse or neglect and are in the process of reclaiming their strength. But not everyone is in that situation: when a sense of entitlement or a consumerist mentality infects our soul, we lose not just our trust in God’s providence, we also lose sight of God’s plan.
These are real spiritual diseases. A consumer mentality, when it affects/infests our spiritual life, gradually causes us to objectify others as “suppliers” for our needs and desires. We can even treat God that way. And when we lose sight of God’s plan, or worse, the very idea that there even is a plan in the first place, then we implicitly place ourselves as the primary author of that plan for us. It places us at the centre. This is a powerful illusion in this powerful civilization we live in. But when the unexpected does happen, it shocks us in ways we just can’t handle.
I believe there are things we can do to keep a sense of God’s providence in our life. First of all, we need to see all things as gift. Yes, we may “own” things, but we need to see them as blessings, and not as possessions. And this applies not just to our stuff, but to our relationships. Our job, our school, our family — all is gift. Of course, when these things are sources of suffering, seeing them as gift is not as easy, but leaving that aside for a future blog post we can at least start with the mundane-to-positive things in our life.
We also need to develop a sense of God’s plan. Simply put, human history is bigger than our history. God has been at work for literally billions of years before each of us got here, and history will roll on after we will have died. What is our sense of where we come from, and where we are going? Having a clear sense of these issues helps us to handle whatever might come.
The second point ties to the first. Gifts must be honoured, not exploited. And when we see all things as gift, we enter the plan of love of the giver, who sought to bless us with the gift. In other words, the first attitude prepares and reinforces the second.
It’s curious, but I’ve noticed a lot people reacting very negatively to the idea of providence. It’s like they think providence is some naive, fairy tale notion, and that it is important to live in the real world instead. Is it a defence mechanism? Some fear of being disappointed, maybe even by God? It might even be anger, or guilt at feeling angry. It can be really complicated — but even those feelings can be part of divine providence. After all, if they help a person face something they are running from, or identify a deep-seated need for peace, then God’s providence is at work.