There is a God; I am not Him

Note for the record: Robert Royal is a Notre Dame fan and Brad Miner roots for Ohio State. But they are in agreement that, while God does not play favorites, we know which one His Mother will favor tonight when the Fighting Irish play the University of Michigan.

In the movie Rudy, young Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger is talking to the former president of Notre Dame, Fr. John Cavanaugh.  Rudy complains that his efforts have come to naught and soon his dream of playing football at Notre Dame will be over.  “Have I done everything I possibly can?” Rudy asks.  “Can you help?” “Son, in years of religious studies,” replies Cavanagh, “I’ve come up with only two hard, incontrovertible facts: There is a God . . . and I’m not Him.”

Whether this conversation took place as portrayed in the movie is unclear.  But a little history might be illuminating.  Cavanaugh was the president of Notre Dame before Theodore Hesburgh. He was known to have a close relationship with Joseph P. Kennedy and the Kennedy family – so much so that he officiated at many of the Kennedy family weddings.

After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Cavanaugh stayed with the Kennedy family at their Hyannisport estate before traveling with them to Washington, D.C. for the funeral.  He said a special Mass in the East Room of the White House prior to John F. Kennedy’s funeral and was one of three priests who served at the funeral itself.

Hence Cavanaugh was not without his connections.  When Rudy asked, “Can you help?” the request may not have been as naïve as one might suppose.  The underlying joke implicit in Cavanaugh’s responses may have been this:  “Look, kid, I may have connections at the highest levels of the U.S. government, and yes, I am the one who put Ted Hesburgh in the presidency of the university. But playing Notre Dame football:  I’m not God, you know.”

The scene may be a Hollywood creation, but the line is one Cavanaugh was known to make.  We would mistake his intent, however, if we took it as nothing more than expression of simple humility.

The world is filled with trouble.  Every day brings us reports of violence, strife, attacks on churches, floods, disaster, and death.  It would be easy to conclude that God does not exist, that what we call “God” is merely a dream, an idealized picture of a being we wish existed but doesn’t.

And yet through it all – through all the doubts and troubles and distress – we need to keep repeating to ourselves:  There is a God.  And He is watching out for us.  His loving providence covers every contingency.  He has a plan.  And He will not forsake us.

And thus we can have hope – hope that, in the end, good will win out over evil, whether it is the evil in the world or the evil in our own hearts; hope that every tear will be washed away and all God’s people will rejoice; hope that our struggles and sacrifices now, even if they seem pointless, will be meaningful.

The Golden Dome at Notre Dame

What can give us confidence that this is so?  For Christians, it is their faith in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The God who can bring good out of the torture and death of His own Son can bring good out of anything.

“All shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” Julian of Norwich assures us in her Thirteenth Revelation of Divine Love, a famous passage quoted by T. S. Eliot in Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets.

So off we go, to “do good,” to “fight the good fight,” “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”  And before long, we begin to notice, not only our own sinfulness but also our limitations.

Have you ever gone to Mass and looked at the faces of the other people, kneeling there, praying devotedly for the dozens of things they need so desperately the way you do for the dozens of things you so desperately need?

Have you looked at them and said, “I can’t even begin to fathom all the hopes and joys and fears within even this one person, let alone the hundreds in this church”?  Then you walk out into the street pass by even more people.  You look into their faces and see concern and worry or hope mixed with fear, desire mixed with uncertainty, love mixed with anger, and you wonder how you could possibly help all these people.

Crime rages in the city; lust and greed ravage people’s lives; disease and death take people we know and love.  And what can we do?  Not much. We are like the Apostles on that hill looking out at the 5,000, holding a few measly pieces of bread and some fish, saying to themselves:  “This isn’t going to be anywhere near enough!”

It is then that we need to keep repeating to ourselves the second important truth:  “There is a God, and I am not Him.”  When it all seems “too much,” we need to remember that God does not expect us to be Him.  We are called to love and serve the people God sends our way.  But we are not responsible for taking care of the world. Only God is big enough to do that.

The Good Samaritan was not able to stop crime in his nation or even on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.  But he was able to pick up the half-dead Jewish man he encountered along the road and care for him.  Mother Teresa was not able to solve the problem of poverty in India – who could? But she was able to pick up the next man, the next woman, the next child, she found half-dead by the side of the road.

“There is a God,” so we can and must act. “But we are not Him,” so after we have done what we can, we offer the rest to God’s loving, providential care.  We pray, and that is the best we can do.  There is a God; but I am not Him.

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.