Some years ago, in a class I was teaching, a woman shared an interesting story:
She had been raised in a religious home and had been a pious and a regular church-goer. During her years at university, however, her interest and practice in religion had progressively slipped so that by the time of her graduation she no longer attended church or prayed. This indifference to prayer and church-going continued for several years after her graduation. Her story focused on how all that changed.
One day, four years after having given up all practice of prayer and church-going, she flew to the Colorado to spend some time with a married sister and to do some skiing. She arrived on a Saturday evening and the next morning, Sunday, her sister invited her to go to mass with her. She politely refused and went skiing instead.
On her first run down the ski-slope she hit a tree and broke her leg. Sporting a huge cast,she was released from hospital the following Saturday. The next morning, her sister again asked her to come to mass with her. This time (“there wasn’t much else to do”) she accepted the invitation. As luck would have it, it was Good Shepherd Sunday. As chance would have it, there happened to be a priest visiting from Israel. He could not see her, complete with cast, sitting in the pews and yet he began his homily this way:
“There is a custom among shepherds in Israel that existed at the time of Jesus and is still practised today that needs to be understood in order to appreciate this text. Sometimes very early on in the life of a lamb, a shepherd senses that it is going to be a congenital stray, that it will forever be drifting away from the herd. What that shepherd does then is deliberately break its leg so that he has to carry it until its leg is healed. By that time, the lamb has become so attached to the shepherd that it never strays again!”
“I may be dense!” concluded this woman, “but, given my broken leg and all this chance coincidence, hearing this woke something up inside of me. Fifteen years have passed since then and I have prayed and gone to church regularly ever since!”
John of the Cross once wrote that “the language of God is the experience God writes into our lives.” James Mackey once said that divine providence is “a conspiracy of accidents“. What this woman experienced that Sunday was precisely the language of God, divine providence, God’s finger in her life through a conspiracy of accidents.
Today this concept of divine providence is not very popular. Our age tends to see it connected to an unhealthy fatalism (“If God wants my child to live he will not let it die – we won’t take the blood transfusion!”), an unhealthy fundamentalism (“God sent AIDS into the world as a punishment for our sexual promiscuity!”), and an unhealthy theology of God (“God sends us natural and personal disasters to bring us back to true values!”)
It is good that our age rejects such a false concept of providence … because God does not start fires, or floods, or wars, or AIDS, or anything else of this nature (“to smarten us up and bring us back to true values!”) Nature, chance, human freedom and human sin bring these things to pass. However to say that God does not initiate or cause these things is not the same thing as saying that God does not speak through them. God speaks through chance events, both disastrous and advantageous ones. Past generations, like my parents’ generation, more easily understood this.
For example, my parents were farmers. For them, like for Abraham and Sarah of old, there were no accidents – there was only providence and the finger of God. If they had a good crop, God was blessing them! If they had a poor crop, well, they concluded that God wanted them to live on less for a while …and for a good reason! And they would always, in the deep parts of their minds and hearts, figure out that reason.
That’s a deep form of prayer. In the conspiracy of accidents that makes up what looks like ordinary secular life, the finger of God is writing. We are children of Israel and children of Christ (and of our mothers and fathers in the faith) when we look at each and every event in our lives and ask ourselves: “What is God saying to us in all of this?”