I love the Jewish-Christian idea of divine providence, which the Catechism #302 defines very simply this way:
We call “divine providence” the dispositions by which God guides his creation toward perfection.
Combining the Latin words pro, “ahead” and videre, “to see,” providence’s “divine foresight” reveals history to be not simply the subject of blind chance, but as under the guiding watch of fatherly love that, in spite of the looming cross, ever-envisages a more glorious resurrection. That said, Catholic theology affirms that genuinely random chance is part of creation, fully compatible with a divine providence that allows the “space” required for the radical variables of chance and human freedom. As theologian Thomas Davenport puts it:
God’s creative power is such that the very powers that allow a creature to act and to cause, even to cause contingently and by chance, depend at every moment on His sustaining power. Whatever happens in the world, whether it is a radioactive decay, a biological mutation, a decision to sin, or a decision to praise Him, does not catch God by surprise. In fact, He gives His creatures their existence and their natures that allow them to decay, to mutate, to sin, or to praise.
For me, such a view of history is far more thrilling to contemplate than either a predestining providence that controls all things like a puppet on a string or a providence-less universe wherein history blindly presses on without hope of a final resolve into beauty. The first makes for a monstrous view of God who enslaves creation and the second makes for an ultimately meaningless, purposeless view of history. The Jewish and Christian universe, however, is filled with all the tensions of drama and surprise, mystery and faith, terror and eager hope of a labor and delivery room.
And with play.
All of this came to mind because of remarkable coincidence that happened last week, which I will recount for you in brief. A little background. Twenty-three years ago my wife and I fell in love. I remember precisely the place and time. We were in St. Augustine, Florida on a mini-pilgrimage to the holy sites there, in particular the Nombre de Dios mission with its tiny Our Lady of La Leche Shrine dedicated to Mary nursing Jesus. As Patti and I walked toward the two-hundred and eight foot tall cross marking the location of the first Mass celebrated by the Spaniards in Florida in 1565, I remember vividly looking at her face for the very first time with romantic love. We had been simply friends before that for years. Later that evening, after dark, we decided to visit the Shrine chapel to pray. The gates were locked, so we jumped the fence and went into the chapel. The alarm went off! So we prayed very quickly, and I consecrated our still very secret love to God and our Lady, and then we sprinted off.
It’s a wonderful memory she and I love to revisit together, and over the years of our marriage we would return to that Shrine chapel many times to pray for the gift of a child or to grieve our miscarriages.
Back to last Friday. Patti had been gone all week at a conference and I was feeling especially lonely that day. During the morning while I was working, I texted a friend of ours in New Orleans to wish him a happy birthday. He knows nothing of our St. Augustine history or the “shrine alarm” story. He responded to my birthday text at once, “Tom, so kind. I’m here at this chapel. NOW in St. Augustine. Will say a prayer for you and the family.” I assumed he was referring to a parish in New Orleans called St. Augustine, until he texted me a moment later the picture I included at the top of this post. A photo of Our Lady of La Leche Shrine.
I was flabbergasted and audibly reacted in the coffee shop: “WHAT?!” Two elderly men across from me fell silent and stared. I said, “Sorry, just an amazing coincidence.” I immediately texted him back to share the significance of his text to me, and he replied, “What!!???!! Wow. Mass at noon. You both will be in our intentions. So crazy. Right!!!! Literally. [You texted my your birthday wish] the exact moment we walked into the chapel.”
What the heck? How? Why? I don’t claim to know. Coincidence inhabited by the Creator. As a person of faith it’s easy to see in such moments what I like to call God’s playful providence. Maybe its part of His passion — so evident in Scripture — for connecting events, revealing hidden patterns, painting wild masterpieces, telling crazy stories, writing seemingly-cacophonous symphonies, creating stunning beauty, disclosing a new order of existence under the form of surprise. Glimmers and sparks of a conspiracy toward Christ’s final resolve into beauty, what we Christians call the final judgment, the parousia, the consummation of history when Christ “delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.” On that Day, evil will be definitively judged, love will conquer all, every tear will be wiped away and all things will be made new. The work God first began in the Virgin’s womb, nursing at her breast, will be brought to glorious completion in an eternal wedding feast.
Yes, right, a wedding feast that for us began in a Shrine as we ran.
How grateful I am that the Bridegroom chose last Friday to grant me a glimpse of His “divine disposition toward perfection” in my bride, and through the text of a dear and unsuspecting friend on his birthday.
Lead Thou me on.
Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Should lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years!
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on.
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!
Meantime, along the narrow rugged path,
Thyself hast trod,
Lead, Saviour, lead me home in childlike faith,
Home to my God.
To rest forever after earthly strife
In the calm light of everlasting life. — Bl. John Henry Newman