There is a very interesting line in the Book of Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp, Subduing nations before him, stripping kings of their strength, opening doors before him, leaving the gates unbarred: I will go before you and level the mountains; Bronze doors I will shatter, iron bars I will snap.” (Isaiah 45:1-2)
God’s prophet is announcing to Israel that even the pagan king of Persia is under God’s protection. And then importantly, that Cyrus is being allowed to conquer and shake up the existing power structures in the Middle East, “for the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one.” (Isaiah 45:4) God was ordering human history so that the Old Testament People of God could be protected and advanced. There is a divine goal for them.
Remarkably God is guiding history, now as then, although we are largely unaware of it – often even doubt it. There are many erroneous views on these matters: God only works when I am attentive; the distant God set the universe going and then went away to play golf. Or worse, that history is only about me – politicians and other public officials, for example, who take office to add to their CV and not for the good of the country.
For millennia, God has been leading the whole of history generally, and the history of the People of God specifically, to a conclusion that he has designed from the beginning: namely union with Him. The contrary, incorrect, and impersonal view of history is that history is just random occurrences that lead to our current situation. With diverse variations, the latter view comes to us from the Enlightenment.
Why bother to understand history correctly? The short answer is that people who lose their sense of history lose their way, sometimes quite literally, as we sadly see in the cases of people with Alzheimer’s – but in nations, movements, and organizations too. Even so, the patient does not simply fall out of history, because loved ones gather round to help the Alzheimer’s individual – as instruments and objects of God’s providence.
Helping nations and movements and organizations that lose history to recover themselves can be as difficult, sometimes more so. But the fact of the providential nature of history helps us not to lose our way before God and keeps us aware that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
The way that Vatican II expressed it was to say: “Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ.” With this we are close to the Catholic Encyclopedia definition: “As applied to God, Providence is God Himself considered in that act by which, in his wisdom, He so orders all events within the universe, that the end for which it was created may be realized.”
These are good neutral descriptions, but the real illumination lies in the goal of this vast history. The goal is the goal of all existence as decided by God, who is all good – so good we cannot second-guess his goodness. In fact, the Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that the “end is that all creatures should manifest the glory of God, and in particular that man should glorify Him, recognizing in nature the work of His hand, serving Him in obedience and love, and thereby attaining to the full development of his nature and to eternal happiness in God.”
The key words here are manifesting, obeying, loving, recognizing, serving, and attaining. God’s Providence is already at work, with us or without us, and these are the activities of faithful individuals and communities, conscious of this divine history. In doing these works, even in the face of the most terrible tragedies, we fully develop our natures and reach eternal happiness.
Also, most importantly, Jesus supremely fulfilled these activities in his life, death, and resurrection. We join him in his Church where we participate in his fulfillment and learn to do these actions well.
Manifesting the glory of God takes us as beings with bodies and spirits into the moral use of our bodies and spirits. Internet porn, for example, contradicts both of these and debases us in both dimensions.
Meanwhile being in the right place at the right time, cooperating with Providence for the Church, our families, our neighborhoods, our country and other countries simultaneously serves both of these goals.
Providence has given us the Scriptures (history) and the Church’s tradition (another history). These long historical narratives are steady guides for us as to how to collaborate with Divine Providence. We should spend a lot more time becoming familiar with them than in aimlessly searching the web, where not only porn but mind-numbing silliness are, seemingly, without end.
In our time, various social forces are at work trying to replace our living sense of Divine Providence with the belief that an all-powerful state can tell us what we need and provide it. But even this effort at usurping God’s prerogatives is used by Providence because: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Manifest the glory of God with joy. You are borne by his Providence!
*Image: Allegory of Divine Providence (and Barberini Power) by Pietro da Cortona, 1633-39 [ceiling at the Galleria Nazionale d’ Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome]