Some years ago, in a class in religious experience, a woman shared this story:
She had been raised in a religious home and had been a regular church-goer until her university years when her interest in religion progressively dropped so that by the time of her graduation she no longer attended church. Her indifference to religion continued for several more years after her graduation. Her story focused on how that changed.
One day, several years after having given up going to church, she went to spend some time with a married sister who lived near a major ski resort. She arrived on a Saturday evening and the next morning, Sunday, her sister invited her to go to church with her. She went skiing instead.
On one of her runs down the hill that Sunday she hit a tree and broke her leg. Sporting a huge cast, she was released from hospital several days later. The next Sunday morning, her sister again asked her to come to church with her. This time, with skiing not an option, she accepted the invitation. As luck would have it, the readings for the day were about the Good Shepherd and as chance would have it, there was a visiting-priest from Israel. The priest could not see her, complete with cast, sitting in the back pews and so there was no explanation, other than divine providence or pure, sinister fluke, for how he began his homily:
“There’s a practice among shepherds in Israel, he said, that existed at the time of Jesus and is still in use today that needs to be understood in order to appreciate what Jesus says about God as the Good Shepherd. Sometimes very early on in the life of a lamb, if a shepherd senses that this particular lamb is going to be a congenital stray and forever be drifting away from the herd, he deliberately breaks its leg so that he has to carry it until its leg is healed. By that time, the lamb becomes so attached to the shepherd that it never strays again!”
“I may be dense,” shared the woman, “but, given my broken leg and all that chance coincidence, hearing those words woke up something inside me. I have prayed and gone to church regularly ever since!”
“The language of God is the experience God writes inside our lives,” says John of the Cross. James Mackey suggests that divine providence is “a conspiracy of accidents” through which God speaks. 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 such a concept of divine providence is not very popular. Our age tends to see this as too-connected to an unhealthy fatalism (“It’s all in God’s hands, I needn’t take all the necessary measures!”), an unhealthy fundamentalism (“God sent AIDS into the world as a punishment for sexual promiscuity!”), or an unhealthy theology of God (“God sends us natural and personal disasters to bring us back to our senses!”)
It’s good that our age rejects these false notions of providence because God does not start fires, floods, wars, AIDS, or anything else to punish us. God doesn’t break anyone’s legs. Nature, chance, freedom, and brute contingency do. Sometimes, admittedly, sin is involved, but that’s not the point. God doesn’t send catastrophes to wake us up.
But to say that God doesn’t initiate or cause these things is not the same thing as saying that God doesn’t speak through them. God speaks through chance events, accidents, both good and bad. Past generations more easily grasped this.
My parents, for example, had a finely-tuned and theologically-correct sense of divine province: They were farmers and, for them, like Abraham and Sarah of old, there were no accidents, only providence and the finger of God. If they had a good harvest, God was blessing them. If they had a poor one, 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 end figure out that reason.
Jesus called this “reading the signs of the times”. How do we do this? We do it by becoming meteorologists of soul who read the inner movements of the spirit in the outer weather of history.
In the conspiracy of accidents that make up the ordinary events of our everyday lives, the finger of God is writing and writing large. We are children of Israel, children of Jesus, and children of our mothers and fathers in the faith. We need therefore, like them, to look at each and every event in our lives and ask ourselves the question: “What is God saying to us in this?” The language of God is the experience that God writes inside our lives.
Reading that language is an important form of prayer, one that takes us beyond simply saying prayers to more healthily living out the words: “Pray always”.