Karl Rahner once said that one of the secrets to faith is to always see your life against an infinite horizon. My parents, and many of their generation, had their own understanding of this and their own recipe for doing it. For them, seeing your life against an infinite horizon meant having a sense of divine providence within every dimension and event of ordinary life.
For them, this meant that you always searched for the finger of God, some faith meaning, in every incident within your life. Thus, for example, if something tragic happened to you (sickness, the death of loved one, an accident, the loss of your job, or economic disaster) you would always ask yourself: “What is God saying to me in this?” Conversely, if something good happened to you (you met a marvellous person, you fell in love, you had a huge success, or you made a lot of money) you would ask yourself the same question: “What is God saying to me in this?” The idea was that, in every event of life, God spoke, said something to you, and meant this event to have spiritual significance for your life.
Part of the idea was that nothing was purely secular. Hence, my parents, who were farmers, would have a priest come and bless their land, bless their house, and even bless their marriage bed. Then, if they had a good crop, it was not interpreted simply as good luck, a lucky year, but seen as God’s blessing: “For God’s good reason, we are being blessed this year.” Conversely, if there was a poor crop, or no crop, it wasn’t written off as simple bad luck (“Rotten weather this year!”) but it was seen in the context of providence: “God wants us to live with less!” The idea was always that somehow God was behind things, if not actively arranging them at least speaking through them.
I remember one of my aunts, with the faith of a biblical matriarch, commenting on a tragic event in the community. The local parish in her town was painfully divided and fighting with each other over the question of the local Catholic school. In the middle of the all the fighting, their church, a beautiful new building, burned down. My aunt’s interpretation: “There! Now God has told us what he thinks of all our fighting!”
That might sound simplistic, but that’s real biblical faith. Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and Jesus would have said the same thing: In Scripture, for both Israel and for Jesus, there was no such a thing as a purely secular event, a pure accident. If Israel lost a war to the Assyrians it wasn’t because the Assyrians had a better army. Rather the event was seen this way: “Yahweh dealt this defeat to us!” Conversely, good crops, victory in war, and any other success were never understood to be simple good luck or the merited fruit of one’s own efforts. The idea was rather: “God has blessed us! God has done this!” Everything was seen against an infinite horizon.
Sometimes, of course, they overdid it. Rather than seeing God as speaking through an event, they saw God as actually causing the event. Thus, God was literally seen to be sending sickness, death, drought, and pestilence upon the earth; or, conversely, deliberately privileging some people over others. Beyond making for an awful theology of God, this sometimes led to an unhealthy fatalism: “It’s in God’s hands. I won’t take my child to the doctor. If God wants her to live, she’ll live. If God wants to take her home to heaven, then so be it. It’s God’s will!”
Bad theology sometimes crept in, but, overall, their sense of divine providence was very healthy. God was not seen to be actively manipulating things so as to deal out sicknesses, broken legs, victory in war, or bad crops to people, but it was understood that God did speak through these.
Divine providence might be defined as a conspiracy of ordinary accidents within which God’s voice can be heard. John of the Cross said as much when he wrote: The language of God is the experience that God writes into our lives. Karl Rahner, as we saw, suggests that it is a question of seeing against an infinite horizon.
My parents, and most of their generation, had some understanding of what this meant and searched always for the finger of God in their everyday lives. Sometimes they did this healthily and sometimes in less healthy ways. In either case, they prayed in a way that too often we do not.
When Scripture tells us to “pray always”, it doesn’t mean that we should always be saying prayers. Among other things, though, it does mean that we, like generations of old, should be looking at every event in our lives and asking ourselves: “What is God saying to me in all of this? What is providential for me in this event?”