Providence Revisited

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Robert Maloney, C.M. · Year of first publication: 1995 · Source: He hears the cry of the poor.

Robert P. Maloney, CM, 23rd Superior General of the Congregation of the Mission (1992 to 2004), made extensive contributions to the understanding of the Vincentian charism.

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Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead thou me on. . . .
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

John Henry Newman

Throughout his life, Saint Vincent spoke of providence with great conviction. He saw God’s plan at work everywhere. He invoked provi­dence to encourage those who found themselves groping in the darkness, to strengthen those experiencing pain, to slow down the hasty, to promote initiative in those planning the future.

This chapter will attempt: 1) an analysis of providence in the words, writings, and life of Saint Vincent; 2) a description of some fundamental shifts that have taken place in thinking between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries; 3) a “re-visiting” of providence today; 4) a parable.

Providence in Saint Vincent

As one reads Saint Vincent, it becomes utterly clear how important a role providence plays for him. At times his words are eloquent:

We cannot better assure our eternal happiness than by living and dying in the service of the poor, in the arms of providence, and with genuine renouncement of ourselves in order to follow Jesus Christ1.

Saint Vincent offers no systematic philosophical or theological analy­sis of providence. But the documents we possess, particularly his letters written to fit particular occasions and to respond to individuals whose personalities were quite varied, give us considerable insight into how he understood it. In differing circumstances, providence takes on different shades of meaning for him.

God’s hidden plan works for good

We owe some of Saint Vincent’s most striking statements on provi­dence to Louise de Marillac. As she struggled, particularly in the up­bringing of her son Michel, she disclosed her pain to Saint Vincent. He encouraged her to do her best, to be at peace, and to place the rest in God’s hands.

He writes to her in 1629: “I wish you good evening and hope that you are no longer weeping over the happiness of your little Michel . . . Mon Dieu, my daughter, what great hidden treasures there are in holy provi­dence and how marvelously our Lord is honored by those who follow it and do not try to get ahead of it!” (SV I, 68).

He tells Saint Louise in 1634, in a delicate situation involving the Bishop of Beauvais: “Follow the order of providence. Oh! how good it is to let ourselves be guided by it!” (SV I, 241).

He was convinced that, when he had to go away on business, God himself in his providence would provide spiritual direction for Saint Louise, and he assured her of this (cf. SV I, 26).

The need to follow providence comes up again and again as SaintVin­cent writes to various confreres during his lengthy negotiations in Rome. In 1640 he tells Louis Lebreton, who was encountering obstacles in trying to get a house for the Congregation: “I know that nothing can be added to your diligence and that this [bad situation] is not due to you personally, to your zeal, nor your handling of the matter. Our Lord has given you both and is directing this matter according to the order of his eternal provi­dence. Be assured, Monsieur, that you will see in this situation that it is for the best, and I think I can already see it as clearly as the light of day. O Monsieur, how good it is to let oneself be guided by his providence!” (SV II, 137).

Vincent is utterly convinced that for those who love God and seek to do his will, “all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28). “In the name of God, let us not be surprised at anything. God will do everything for the best,” he tells Louise de Marillac in 1647 (SV III, 213). He tells Achille le Vazeux: “Let us place ourselves in complete dependence on God, with confidence that, in doing that, everything which people say or do against us will work out for the good” (SV IV, 393). Just before his death he writes to Rene Almeras: “God be praised, Monsieur, for all that he allows to happen to us! Certainly I would have great difficulty bearing these things if I did not regard them as God’s good pleasure, which orders everything for good” (SV VIII, 376).

“The Lord does not allow anything to happen without a reason. We do not know it at present, but one day we will see it,” he writes to Jean Barreau, in 1658. In the same year he tells Edme Jolly, the superior in Rome, “His providence alone is what takes care of this sort of affair. . . . The usage of the Company has always been to await and not to run ahead of the higher order” (SV VII, 385-86)2.

Saint Vincent appeals to God’s hidden plan in many varied circum­stances: to explain the surprising success of the works he had started (SV XII, 7), to console the Company when speaking of the sickness or death of missionaries (SV XI, 47; XI, 100), to make sense out of the loss of the Orsigny farm (SV XII, 53), to encourage those who lost their parents (SV VI, 444), to find meaning in the sudden departure of Missionaries or Daughters of Charity from the Company (SV IX, 481-82), to urge the Company to accept calumny and persecution with courage (CR II, 13).

He is so convinced of the importance of following providence for the Daughters of Charity that he even imagines their being called Daughters of Providence: “0 my Daughters, you should have such great devotion to, such great confidence and love in, divine providence, that if provi­dence itself had not given you the beautiful name of Daughters of Charity, you should bear that of Daughters of Providence, for it was providence that brought you into being” (SV IX, 74)3.

Peacefully and patiently waiting for God’s plan

This theme conies through very strongly in Saint Vincent’s letters to the impetuous Bernard Codoing, the superior in Rome, who often aroused the founder’s ire by moving too quickly or too brusquely. After rebuking Codoing rather sharply in a letter written on December 7, 1641, and after telling him to act with greater deliberation, Saint Vincent adds: “Reflecting on all the principal events that have taken place in this Company, it seems to me, and this is quite evident, that, if they had taken place before they did, they would not have been successful. I say that of all of them, without excepting a single one. That is why I have a particular devotion to following the adorable providence of God step by step. And my only consolation is that I think our Lord alone has carried on and is constantly carrying on the business of the Little Company” (SV II, 208). On March 16, 1644, Vincent reprimands Codoing for interfering in matters that are not his concern: “In the name of God, Monsieur, stop being concerned about things happening far away that are none of your business, and devote all your attention to domestic discipline. The rest will come in due time. Grace has its moments. Let us abandon ourselves to the providence of God and be on our guard against anticipating it. If our Lord is pleased to give me any consolation in our vocation it is this: I think, it seems to me, that we have tried to follow divine providence in all things and to put our feet only in the place it has marked out for us” (SV II, 453).

In another letter to Codoing later in 1644 he states: “The consolation that our Lord gives me is to think that, by the grace of God, we have always tried to follow and not run ahead of providence, which knows so wisely how to lead everything to the goal that our Lord destines for it” (SV II, 456). Three months later he adds: “But what are we going to do, you say? We will do what our Lord wills, which is to keep ourselves always in dependence on his providence” (SV II, 469).

He summarizes the point for Codoing on August 6, 1644: “I have told you on previous occasions, Monsieur, that the things of God come about by themselves, and that wisdom consists in following providence step by step. And you can be sure of the truth of a maxim which seems paradoxi­cal, namely that he who is hasty falls back in the interests of God” (SV II, 472-73).

There is a clear tension in Saint Vincent’s writings between activity and passivity. His attitude depended greatly on the circumstances. For instance, in trying to moderate the indiscreet zeal of Philippe le Vacher, he urges passivity: “The good that God wishes to be done comes about almost by itself, without our thinking about it. That is the way the Congregation was born, that the missions and the retreats to ordinands began, that the Company of the Daughters of Charity came into being… . Mon Dieu! Monsieur, how I desire that you would moderate your ardor and weigh things maturely on the scale of the sanctuary before resolving them! Be passive rather than active. In that way God will do through you alone what the whole world together could not do without him” (SV IV, 122-23). He often emphasizes this theme to Louise de Marillac: “All things come to the one who waits. This is true, as a rule, even more in the things of God than in others” (SV I, 233)4.

In all this, it is quite evident that Saint Vincent abhorred rushing. He tells others that “God’s spirit is neither violent nor hasty” (SV II, 226), “his works have their moment” (SV II, 453), they are done “almost by themselves” (SV II, 473, 466; IV, 122), they are accomplished “little by little” (SV VII, 216; II, 226). “In the name of God, Monsieur,” he tells Codoing, “if necessity urges us to make haste, then let it be slowly, as the wise proverb says” (SV II, 276).

But, as is suggested in the citation above, there is another side to this truth to be found in Saint Vincent’s teaching.

God’s co-workers must make haste, even if slowly

Saint Vincent takes the opposite side of the same passivity/activity theme with Etienne Blatiron, the superior in Rome in 1655. The emphasis shifts subtly as Saint Vincent makes it clear that he is eager for some action: “Do not stop pursuing our business, with confidence that it is God’s good pleasure. . . Success in matters like this is often due to the patience and vigilance that one exercises…. The works of God have their moment. His providence does them then, and not sooner or later…. Let us wait patiently, but let us act, and, so to speak, let us make haste slowly in negotiating one of the most important affairs that the Congregation will ever have” (SV V, 396),

The tension between activity and passivity within Saint Vincent him­self is evident in another letter he writes to Etienne Blatiron on November 12, 1655. In it he comments favorably on a practice that Blatiron had begun, namely to ask, through the intercession of Saint Joseph, for the spreading of the Company. He adds reflectively: “For twenty years I have not dared to ask that of God, thinking that, since the Congregation is his work, we should leave to his providence alone the responsibility for its conservation and its growth. But, struck by the recommendation made to us in the gospel, to ask him to send laborers into the harvest, I have become convinced of the importance and usefulness of this devotion” (SV V, 463)5.

Finally, if anyone should be tempted to interpret Saint Vincent’s teaching on providence too passively, he might recall the founder’s words to Edme Jolly: “You are one of the few men who honor the providence of God very much by the preparation of remedies against foreseen evils.

I thank you very humbly for this and pray that our Lord will continue to enlighten you more and more so that such enlightenment may spread through the Company” (SV VII. 310).

Following providence and doing the will of God in all things

One of the early, abiding influences on Saint Vincent’s thought is Benedict of Canfield’s Rule of Perfection, in which doing the will of God in all things is described as the central element in the spiritual life6.

From many of the citations above, the reader has already noted how central doing the will of God is for Saint Vincent. In the period of Louise de Marillac’s anguish over her son Michel’s future, he writes to her about another problem concerning a small infant, and then adds: “In any case, God will provide for the child and for your son as well, without your giving way to anxiety about what will become of him. Give the child and the mother to our Lord. He will take good care of you and your son. Just let him do his will in you and in him, and await it in all your exercises. All you need to do is to devote yourself entirely to God. Oh! how little it takes to be very holy: to do the will of God in all things” (SV II, 36).

The close link between doing the will of God and following providence is a recurrent theme in Saint Vincent’s letters. He writes to Rene Alrneras on May 10, 1647: “0 Monsieur, what a happiness to will nothing but what God wills, to do nothing but what is in accord with the occasion providence presents, and to have nothing but what God in his providence has given us!” (SV III, 188).

The clearest influence of Canfield’s doctrine on Saint Vincent is evident in the conference of March 7, 1659, where he describes the process of discerning and doing God’s will (SV XII, 150-165).

We must “will what divine providence wills” (SV VI, 476) is one of the ways Saint Vincent puts it, combining the two themes. He tells the Missionaries: “Perfection consists in so uniting our will to God’s that his will and ours, properly speaking, form only one will and non-will” (SV 318).

The two foundations of Saint Vincent’s teaching on providence7

1) Confidence in God

Trust in providence is the ability to place oneself in the hands of God as a loving Father.

“Let us give ourselves to God,” Saint Vincent says repeatedly to the Vincentians, as well as to the Daughters of Charity8. He has deep confidence in God as his Father, into whose hands he can place himself and his works. The journal written by Jean Gicquel recounts how Vincent told Frs. Almeras, Berthe, and Gicquel, on June 7, 1660, just four months before his death: “To be consumed for God, to have no goods nor power except for the purpose of consuming them for God—that is what our Savior did himself, who was consumed for love of his Father” (SV XIII, 179).

Saint Vincent wanted love for God to be all-embracing. He writes to Pierre Escart: “I greatly hope we may set about stripping ourselves entirely of affection for anything that is not God, be attached to things only for God and according to God, and that we may seek and establish his kingdom first of all in ourselves, and then in others. That is what I entreat you to ask of him for me” (SV II, 106).

Saint Vincent is profoundly convinced that, because God loves us deeply as a Father, he exercises a continual providence in our lives. He writes to Achille le Vazeux: “[God] knows what is suitable for us, and if, like good children, we abandon ourselves to so good a Father, he will give it to us at the proper moment” (SV VI, 308).

Many of Vincent’s conferences and writings speak of the providence of God (implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, the Father)9; many others speak of Christ’s providence for his followers10.

He tells the Daughters: “To have confidence in providence means that we should hope that God takes care of those who serve him, as a husband takes care of his wife or a father of his child. That is how—and far more truly—God takes care of us. We have only to abandon ourselves to his guidance, as the Rule says, just as ‘a little child does to its nurse.’ If she puts it on her right arm, the child is quite content; if she moves him over to her left, he doesn’t care, he is quite satisfied provided he has her breast. We should, then, have the same confidence in divine providence, seeing that it takes care of all that concerns us, just as a nursing mother takes care of her baby” (SV X, 503).

Speaking of the providence which Jesus himself has for his followers, Saint Vincent tells Jean Martin in 1647: “So, Father, let us ask our Lord that everything might be done in accordance with his providence, that our wills be submitted to him in such a way that between him and us there might be only one, which will enable us to enjoy his unique love in time and in eternity” (SV III, 197). One notes here again the strong influence of Benedict of Canfield on Saint Vincent.

2) Indifference

Saint Vincent speaks at length on this subject in his conference to the Missionaries on May 16, 1659 (SV XII, 227-44). Here too the influence of Canfield is evident.

Indifference, for Saint Vincent, is detachment from all things that would keep us from God (SV XII, 228). It sets us free to be united with him (SV XII, 229-30), disposing us to will only what he wills (cf. CR II, 10). It is indispensably linked with trust in providence. “Our Lord is a continual Communion for those who are united to what he wills and does not will,” he tells Louise de Marillac (SV I, 233). He repeats this advice to her again and again: “It is necessary to accept God’s way of acting toward your Daughters, to offer them to him, and to remain in peace. The Son of God saw his company dispersed and almost wiped out forever. You must unite your will with his” (SV V, 420).

To a priest of the Mission he writes: “What shall we do in that regard but will what providence wills, and not will what it does not will?” (SV VI, 476).

He speaks lyrically to the Daughters of Charity on the theme: “To do the will of God is to begin paradise in this world. Give me a Daughter who does for her whole life the will of God. She begins to do on earth what the blessed do in heaven. She begins her paradise even in this world” (SV IX, 645).

Some Horizon-Shifts between the Seventeenth and Twentieth Centuries

The problematic which I have described in the previous chapter on the cross applies to providence as well; I will not, therefore, repeat it here. A theology of the cross and a theology of providence are closely inter­twined. This is evident in the writings of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise, where the two themes often occur in the same context11.

Keeping in mind what has already been stated about the cross, here I will mention only briefly two other factors that influence the way one views providence; namely, two horizon-shifts that have taken place between Saint Vincent’s time and ours.

1. From an era of direct causality to one of secondary causes and autonomy of the human person

This shift was already taking place in Saint Vincent’s time. Today it is very much a part of the air we breathe. In a scientific era, one focuses on empirical data. Both well-being and disease are attributed to discern­ible causes, rather than directly to God. Even when the cause of a disease is unknown, we search for it today with the conviction that it will eventually be found.

In that context, attributing good or evil to God’s providence can sometimes sound quaint, or occasionally, hollow. Even worse, when someone is confronted with serious problems, the exhortation to abandon oneself to providence may run contrary to prudence, which instead urges us to seek remedies for our ills.

Of course, this shift in emphasis is not entirely new. Catholic moral theology has, in fact, consistently placed strong emphasis on the role of secondary causes, since it has always placed great emphasis on human responsibility. Moreover, Catholic systematic theology, with its stress on mediation, has often similarly accented secondary causes12.

Particularly since Gaudium et Spes (cf. #s 4,9,12,14,15,22), Catholic theology has emphasized the autonomy of the human person. One is surely slower today than in Saint Vincent’s time to attribute things directly to God when they are more evidently of human doing.

We are conscious too that this way of thinking lets “God be God,” so to speak. It recognizes his ultimate autonomy, his complete otherness. It recognizes too that his causality does not diminish human freedom, but is the ground for it; in fact, dependence on God and genuine human autonomy increase, rather than decrease, in direct proportion to one another13. God’s power does not enslave human beings; it empowers them14.

In this same perspective, the human person is seen as being in process, as incomplete but open to the absolute. Change is accepted not only as inevitable, but as desirable. Rapid change, moreover, has become part of life, and its rate seems to be growing exponentially. In this age of computers, we are convinced that we can “make things happen” and that we can eventually find the solution to almost all problems that arise.

2. A shift from a static to a historical way of viewing the world

The ways in which we view the world, the human person, and God are intimately intertwined and affect our view of providence as well.

Different ways of viewing these realities characterize different epochs but sometimes also exist simultaneously within the same epoch. Here, let me briefly decribe three15.

In a static understanding, such as prevailed in the fifteenth and six­teenth centuries, and into Saint Vincent’s time, the view of the human person is a-historical. Society has established orders, which are accepted as divinely willed. External laws and rules prevail. The political, eco­nomic and social spheres are governed by the established laws. Within this context the emphasis in one’s view of God is on the Absolute, the All-Powerful, the Omnipresent, the Omniscient. In speaking of provi­dence, one sees God as ruling over all and directing all. Faith in provi­dence takes the form of abandonment and absolute confidence in God’s plan which never fails. As is evident, this perspective has brought rich benefits to the lives of many saints, including Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, but there is a danger, for some, that this understanding of God’s providence can lead to escapism or lack of responsibility_

In a personalist understanding of reality, which has emerged increas­ingly since the eighteenth century, as the “rights of man” have come to be emphasized, the autonomy and liberty of the human person come to the fore. Human responsibility and creativity are accented. In ethics the emphasis lies on interiorization and conscience. In theology, history and process are highlighted. The Church is seen as the body of Christ. In speaking of God one emphasizes his personal love as Father. In talking about providence, one sees God as guiding each of us in his or her personal history. God loves us; he walks with us and leads us. While there are many advantages to this perspective, particularly on the level of conviction about God’s love and the need for personal conversion, there is a danger that this understanding of God and providence can fall into “intimism.”16

In a historicalsocial understanding of reality the emphasis is on the inter-relationship of people within a societal context and the building up of the human family. In ethics social responsibility is highlighted. The transformation of society and socio-political reality is underlined. Sin too is understood in a social context17. There is a call to change unjust social structures. In theology the Trinitarian God is emphasized. The Church is viewed as the people of God, living in a permanent exodus. When one speaks of providence, one speaks of God as the liberator of his people, freeing them from the bonds of oppression. This perspective has the advantage of moving toward concrete and fundamental resolution of social problems, which keep the poor poor; for some, it bears the risk of falling into an activism that loses focus on God’s ways.

Re-visiting Providence Today

There is much re-examination of providence today18, with a view toward articulating a theology that, while recognizing various levels of causality, accounts for both the rational and irrational within human existence and can find meaning where we experience chaos, disorder, violence and apathy. A theology of providence is at its root a theology of meaning. It seeks to bridge the gap between the polarities of human experience: design and chaos, health and sickness, life and death, grace and sin, care and non-care, plan and disruption, peace and violence. Ministers of providence are those men and women whose lives witness to meaning and who can speak meaning. Docility to providence is an attitude of reverent trust before the mystery of God, as revealed in Christ, in whom life, death, and resurrection are integrated19.

Trust in providence means rootedness in a loving, personal God

Belief in providence shows itself throughout history not so much in credal statements as in the trusting words of daily prayer. It is inseparable from faith in a loving, personal God.

The human mind balks at mystery. Yet we encounter it again and again at the base of our deepest joys and our deepest sorrows. Birth, death, beauty, tragedy—all are shrouded in mystery. We continually struggle to reconcile opposites, to plumb the depths of life and death.

As early as the fifth century B.C., the Greeks, particularly the stoics, use the term providence to denote a rational order of things where a divine reason pervades everything. This term enters the Old Testament rather late in the books of Job and Wisdom, where it joins an earlier strain that focuses not so much on a philosophical concept of cosmic harmony, but on God as acting in history. This fundamental Old Testament belief sees God as allied with his people. He is active in creating, covenanting, chastising, forgiving, liberating. He is with his people both in their conquests and in their captivity. He goes with them into exile and he returns with them. “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name” (Is 49:15-16).

This provident God of the Hebrew scriptures is the God of Jesus Christ. He is the Father whom Jesus loves and who captures his entire attention. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the ultimate proclamation of providence.

At the heart of New Testament faith is belief in a personal God, who reveals himself as Father in his Son Jesus, who takes on human flesh. Jesus himself struggles with the mysteries of life, growth, success, desertion by his followers, pain, and death. He finds the resolution of the struggle, not in some clearly stated philosophy that he outlines for future ages, but in commending himself into the hands of his Father. He trusts that his Father loves him deeply and that he can bring joy from sorrow, life from death.

The New Testament, reflecting on Jesus’ experience, tells us again and again to focus on the personal love of God for us. Jesus extols, in a passage that Saint Vincent loved (cf. SV XII, 142), God’s providence for his children: “Consider the lilies of the field. They do not work; they do not spin. Yet I assure you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was arrayed like one of these. If God can clothe in such splendor the grass of the field, which blooms today and is thrown on the fire tomorrow, will he not provide much more for you, 0 weak in faith” (Mt 6:28-30; cf. Lk 12:27).

Luke’s writings highlight God’s providence in a special way. The Spirit of the Father and of Jesus is active from the beginning in Luke, guiding the course of history. He anoints Jesus with power from on high and directs him and his disciples in their ministry20.

  • The Holy Spirit will come down on you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you (Lk 1:35).
  • Having received baptism . . . the Holy Spirit descended on him (Lk 3:22).
  • Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit . . . was led by the Spirit into the desert (Lk 4:1).
  • Jesus returned to Galilee with the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk 4:14).
  • The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (Lk 4:18).
  • Your heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Lk 11:13).
  • The Holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say (Lk 12:12).

One of the crucial signs of faith in a personal God is confident prayer. The very act of praying states that we believe that God is alive, that he relates to us, that he listens, that he cares about our journey, that he hears the cries of the poor especially, and that he responds. It is for this reason that Luke’s gospel insists so frequently on trusting, persistent prayer (cf. Lk 11:1-13; 18:1-8).

Hoping in God’s wisdom and power

Trust in providence implies trust in an unseen wisdom that guides the events of history and that is able to reconcile opposites.

We sometimes get glimpses of a larger picture where tragedy works for good. Destructive floods provide fertile land for the future. Enormous fires ravage forests, doing huge damage, but purifying them for luxuriant growth in the future. Pain and suffering at times mature a person and help him or her to grow in compassion and understanding for others.

In a striking Greek myth, the infant Demophoon is placed in the care of the divine mother Demeter, who caresses him, nurses him, breathes on him, and anoints him with ambrosia. At night she places him in a fire to make him immortal. When his mother discovers this, she cries out in fear. But Demeter responds: “You don’t know when fate is bringing you something good or something bad!” Demeter is giving a lesson in nursing. She shows that motherhood involves nurturing not only in human ways but also in divine ways. Holding the child in the fire is a way of burning away those elements that resist immortality21.

The “hidden plan” of God is a theme that Saint Paul returns to frequently. It is revealed in Christ, who brings together death and life, but its fullness is revealed only in the end-time when all things are subjected to Christ (Eph 1:9) and through him to the Father (1 Cor 15:28). “God has given us the wisdom to understand fully the mystery, the plan he was pleased to decree in Christ, to be carried out in the fullness of time: namely, to bring all things in the heavens and on earth into one under Christ’s headship” (Eph 1:9-10). The Pauline letters speak of “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory” (Col 1:27), “the mystery of God—namely Christ—in whom every treasure of wisdom and knowl­edge is hidden” (Col 2:2-3).

But, as the texts themselves state, God’s wisdom remains a mystery, “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23). The mystery of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the center of Christian hope and the symbol of God’s providence, provides no expla­nation of the reconciliation of opposites. It calls us, rather, to say with Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). The cross proclaims that the power of God overcomes human weakness, bringing life from death, and that the wisdom of God surpasses the limits of human reasoning, bringing light to the darkness.

Prudence, patience, and perseverance

It is striking how often Saint Vincent emphasizes good timing. He is utterly convinced that grace has its moments. Some of the classical works of literature contemporary with Saint Vincent witness to the same truth in more secular language. “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all,” states Hamlet22. In a more violent context, Brutus states in Julius Caesar: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, and we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures” (IV. iii. 217-23).

When used to describe a good sense of timing, docility to providence involves patient waiting, not in a passive sense, but with an active capacity for knowing the right moment to act. From this perspective, it is synony­mous with prudence, patience, and perseverance. Sometimes the right moment comes quickly; at other times, it arrives slowly. Sometimes it arrives unexpectedly, with almost no preparation; at other times, it reveals itself only with considerable prodding.

Often only the persevering see the fruit of patient waiting. A good example of this was the successful, but painfully slow, series of negotia­tions concerning the vows of the Congregation, which Saint Vincent guided to their conclusion. The process took two decades to complete. Some of Saint Vincent’s most eloquent statements about the need to follow providence come from those years. But he also reminded his representatives in the negotiations that providence is honored by using the means that God places at our disposal for accomplishing his goals23.

We are active sharers in God’s providence

Aquinas pointed out long ago that providence acts upon us not just as objects, but acts in and through us also as subjects: “The rational creature is subject to divine providence in a most excellent way, insofar as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others.”24 God acts not only upon, but in and through, free human beings. His freedom does not diminish but creates and enhances ours. His providence, then, works not only through the events of nature, through sickness and health, through life and death, through history, but through us personally. Not only God is responsible for the world, but we are too.

Each human person, therefore, bears responsibility in relationship to himself, to other persons, to groups within society, to the political order, to the natural resources around us. “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world” is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the Church and all its members today.25

Let me suggest four precisions about this responsibility:

  1. Each person shares in it. All are called to work toward a more just social order. This demands foresight (providere = “to see beforehand”) and action. The truly provident person can play a prophetic role within the human community by naming the ways of justice, even before society is ready to walk in them, and by calling for conversion to those ways. Charting the future and wise planning are a part of providence.
  2. The responsibility of each person is limited. Some can do more, some less. In order to concretize one’s personal contribution (and to avoid being overwhelmed by guilt or by the vastness of the world’s problems), it may be well to select a single area where we can genuinely focus our energies and leave other areas to other persons. We are not alone in bearing responsibility.
  3. An individual’s responsibility fits, moreover, within the larger context of his or her other duties (such as taking care of one’s own family, doing one’s job, etc.), within which it must be weighed.
  4. No matter how active one might be, there will always be much that must be left in the hands of God. There will be times when nothing can be done. There will be inevitable sickness and death. There will be moments of powerlessness before the violence of others or the misused freedom of others.

In this era when the Church makes a preferential option for the poor, one must ask the question: How will God’s providence be shown toward them? It will be shown particularly when we provide for the needs of the poor. God’s providence for them in their needs really becomes evident in a tangible way only when God’s people are active in solidarity with the poor.

Saint Vincent was quite aware that trust in God’s providence did not absolve him from his own responsibility to act. He was, in fact, very active, even while affirming that God was doing everything. Contemporary theology emphasizes that God’s action will often coincide with our action, as is quite evident in Saint Vincent’s life and works.

Saint Vincent was also very aware, however, of the need for prudence and for a good sense of timing. Some are inclined to act too hastily, plucking the fruit from the tree before it is ripe. Others are inclined to wait too long, leaving the fruit on the tree until it falls and rots. Grace has its moments, Saint Vincent said. It is important to know when the right moment has arrived.

Our own providence takes nothing away from God’s providence. Rather, it manifests it. Even when we are very active, we can still thank God for the gifts that he works in and through us. “He who is mighty has done great things to me and holy is his name” (Lk I:49). Providence today, therefore, can take the form of active concern for

Oneself One’s Health, One’s On-going Formation
Other Persons Attentiveness To The Needs Of The Poor
Societal Groups Socio-political Involvement
The Poor Action On Behalf Of Justice, Charity
Nature Care Of The Environment

A Parable

I offer this parable, which I have freely adapted from several ancient stories, for all those who struggle to believe in providence.

Once upon a time in a far distant land, there lived a young man named Pilgrim. Filled with energy from birth, he seemed to leap from his mother’s womb.

One day, when the years of playing games and swinging from trees had come to an end, he set out in search of life’s meaning.

At that time, in a remote mountain village dwelt a man renowned for holiness. Pilgrim journeyed to the saint’s tiny abode and found him in deep prayer. “What must I do,” Pilgrim asked, “to live life to the full?”

The saint gave him a Bible and a sleeping mat and led him into the mountains until they came to a tiny cave by the side of a river. “Stay here, till I return,” the saint said, “and God will provide everything.” Then he left him.

Pilgrim found the autumn days long and lonely at first. Seated by the river he read his Bible and meditated on its words. He ate the abundant fish he caught and drank pure water from the stream. In the cold of the winter he stayed mostly in the cave, reading and praying by the fire. In the spring he transferred to a rock by the river where he saw the trees bud and the flowers bloom. He even slept there in the summer, the hard­ness of the rock being softened by the sound of the water’s flow.

With the passing of a second year a deep peace welled up in Pilgrim’s heart, but he did wonder why the saint delayed so long in returning.

Ten years went by, with the earth’s rhythms of light and darkness, warmth and cold, blooming and withering. NI­grim’s body grew strong and hard; his spirit was tranquil.

One day the saint returned. Pilgrim baked a large fish, which they ate by the river, drinking from its plentiful waters. He noted that the saint now seemed much older. “Do you really think that there is life after death?” Pilgrim asked him. “The prior question,” the saint replied, “is: is there really life before death?” That evening the saint led him back to the village and placed him at the head of a household with seven orphaned children. “Provide for them until I return,” the saint said and left him.

The orphans ranged in age from seven to twelve, so Pilgrim set out to be a father and a mother to them. He made many mistakes at first since he knew little about parenting, but slowly the children began to love him, and he them. He prepared their meals, taught them to read and write, and advised them in the joys and pains of growing up.

As the years went on, the children matured well. Pilgrim found himself very happy. His reputation grew in the village and the people began to regard him as a holy man.

Soon many came from east and west to speak with Pilgrim and to consult him about their lives. His gentleness and wisdom became renowned in the land. His family of orphans had grown up by now and had learned to take care of them­selves, so Pilgrim devoted more and more time to those who sought him. Eventually, so many came that he had no time for anything else. Though he was tired, he sensed fulfillment within himself. His children urged him to rest more, to read and to cultivate the land as he had once done, but a drive to bear the burdens of others gnawed away within him.

One night a young woman came to seek his counsel. It happened to be his birthday, so his orphan children had brought him a feast of baked fish from the stream and rich new wine from the grapes just harvested in the mountains. They had eaten and drunk in abundance. The crowds visiting Pilgrim that day were great, so he could speak with the young woman only after the feast. A new passion stirred within him that night and, overcome with weariness and wine, he slept with her.

When Pilgrim awoke late the next morning, his family and the whole village knew. Filled with shame, he fled to his cave in the mountains. There he wept.

Another life began for Pilgrim that day. He gave himself to penance and to reading his Bible again and meditating on its words. He ate a single meal in the evening and slept on the hard ground of his cave. He cultivated a small field along the river bank and twice a year sent its harvest to the poor of the village, with a message to his orphaned children that he loved them.

After Pilgrim had lived thus for seven years, the saint returned to visit him again. He was very old now. As they sat at the fire that evening, eating a fish caught in the stream, Pilgrim asked the saint: “Have you finished your work here on earth?” “I have half finished,” the saint answered. “I have proclaimed justice for the poor and liberty for the oppressed. The needy have listened eagerly, but I am not so sure that the well-off have heard my words.”

The next morning the saint led Pilgrim to the village again. That year a terrible drought had brought famine upon the land.

“Provide food for the people,” the saint said, and stay here till I return.” Pilgrim was perplexed at first, but he remem­bered that water flowed abundantly in the river near his cave in the mountains, so he led half the men and women of the village to go there to plant and harvest. They slept on the hard ground, rising each morning to praise God for his gifts and working till evening, when they baked and ate the fish they caught in the river.

The village lay five miles downhill from the river. The other half of its men and women worked there under Pilgrim’s oldest orphan son. They dug troughs over the sloping land until, a year later, water ran down into the village fields. That day Pilgrim led all the people in prayer, rejoicing in the gifts that God had given them.

From that time on, the crops sprouted regularly in the fields and the poor ate abundantly. And the renown of Pilgrim’s holiness grew greater than it had ever been before.

On the evening when the waters ran downhill, the saint came to visit Pilgrim a final time. He died in his house that night. His last words to Pilgrim were these: “Trust deeply in God, and the sun will shine on you even in the night.”

Pilgrim knew that God provides and that the saint had directed him well.

  1. SV III, 392 (letter to Jean Barreau, French consul in Algiers).
  2. Cf. also SV V, 164; X, 506.
  3. Cf. also SV IX, 113-114; IX, 243-46.
  4. In a similar vein, but in very different circumstances, in 1659 he tells Jacques Pesnelles, who was initiating one-day retreats for the local community: “Since God does not depend on lime, he sometimes worts more graces in one day than in eight” (SV VIII, 70).
  5. But cf. SV VI, 177; VIII, 287.
  6. Benedict of Canfield, an English Capuchin named William Fitch ( 1562-161 I), having been converted from Puritanism, took refuge in France. He had enormous influence on his contemporaries and was a much sought-after spiritual director. Bremond states that his Rule of Perfection was the manual for two or three generations of mystics, calling him “the master of masters.” Cf. Histoire litteraire du sentiment religieux en France (Paris, 1916 and 1928), II:155-58, as well as VII:266. Cf. also T. Davitt, “An Introduction to Benet of Canfield,” Colioque 16 (1987) 268-82, Dodin points out that Saint Vincent read Canfield’s Rule of Perfection in the 1609 edition, which was considerably different from subsequent ones, and Ihat he was inspired by it throughout his life, sometimes copying it even literally, as in SV I, 68-69.
  7. Cf. SV V, 403.
  8. Cf. SV I, 253; III, 221, 291, 403; V, 195, 233, 320, 425, 440, 484, 626; VI, 68; VII, 613; VIII, 463; XI 26, 157; XII, 166, 221, 291, 403. For a striking statement of Saint Vincent’s attitude before God, cf, SV XII, 133-134, 146-147.
  9. Cf. SV II, 473; Ill, 188; V. 396; VIII, 152.
  10. This may not always be an intentional distinction since in Vincent’s writings sometimes the actions of the Father are not clearly distinguished from those of the Son.
  11. Cf., for example, Saint Louise’s words to Jeanne Lepintre: “It is perhaps for that reason, my dear Sister. that our Lord inspires you to remain at peace at the foot of his cross, completely submissive to the guidance of his divine providence” (SW 416).
  12. C. Curran, “Providence and Responsibility: the Divine and the Human in History from the Perspective of Moral Theology,” in Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America XLIV (Louisville, 1989) 44-45.
  13. Cf. K. Rahner, Theological Investigations V (Baltimore: Helicon, 1966) 166.
  14. Cf. Gaudium es Spes, 34.
  15. Cf. Ltiria Weiler, “A Divine Providencia passa pela organizacio e a partilha humatia. Converencio, vol. XXVIII, n. 259 (January 1993)21-37.
  16. Intimism is used here to describe a type of piety that focuses sharply on one’s personal relationship with God but fails to give sufficient attention to the social and societal dimensions of that relationship.
  17. Cf. Puebla, 28.
  18. Cf. the entire issue of the Proceedings of the Forty-Fourth Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America XLIV.
  19. Cf. Barbara Doherty, “Providence and Histories: Some American Views,” Proceedings of the Forty. Fourth Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America XLIV, 2-3.
  20. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles continues this theme of the “Gospel of the Holy Spirit.” There are fifty seven references to the Spirit in Acts; cf. J. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke, in Anchor Bible, vol. 28, 227.
  21. Cf. Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul (New York: Harper Collins. 1992) 44.
  22. Munk: V. ii. 229. cf. King Lrar V. ii. 10-12: “Ripeness is all.”
  23. SV V, 396: “Let us wait patiently, but let us act. and. as it were, let us make haste slowly.”
  24. Summa Theologica II/I, 91, 2.
  25. Synod of Bishops, 1971, Justice in the World, in Axra Apostolicae Sedis LXIII (1971) 924, henceforth, AAS.

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