11th Sunday after Pentecost
He hath done all things well.
This word of today’s Gospel gives us some profound insights into the workings of Divine Providence and it invites us to reflect on the way God ordains all for the good of our souls. Just a few weeks ago, we were told that this providence never fails in its dispositions, and guides all things to their end. The Book of Wisdom had already told us: “Thy providence governeth, O Father” (Wis 14:3). In the context of this book, reference is made to the wood with which the boat is made and that will be launched out onto the open sea, and which, with God’s help, will find a way to port. Our lives very much resemble that frail piece of wood. We often feel ourselves tossed around on the waves, and not knowing at all where we are going or how we will get there. In those moments, it is good to remember: He hath done all things well.
But what exactly do we mean when we speak of providence in God? Quite simply, we mean the plan according to which things are ordained to their end by the Divine Mind. The word providence and the word prudence have the same Latin root, namely providere, that is, literally, “to see ahead, to foresee”, to project plans for the future. Someone who makes plans for the future is being provident, he is being providence for someone and for something. God is providence for all, in that He sees ahead and provides each one of us with what we need to achieve our last end.
Of course, there are times when we do not see this, and Holy Scripture presents us with a number of episodes, apparently tragic, which turned into good. One of the most astounding episodes revealing God’s providence is that of the patriarch Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers. Years later, when they recognise him in the person of the ruler of Egypt, they are terrified. But their younger brother, whom they had thought forever gone but is now lord of the land, says to them: God sent me before, that you may be preserved upon the earth, and may have food to live. Not by your counsel was I sent hither, but by the will of God: who hath made me as it were a father to Pharao, and lord of his whole house, and governor in all the land of Egypt… Fear not: can we resist the will of God? You thought evil against me: but God turned it into good, that He might exalt me, as at present you see, and might save many people (Gen 45:7-8; 50:19-20). Through the short-sighted plans of men, it is in reality Divine Providence that realises its own merciful designs over humanity.
St Gregory the Great comments on this episode, highlighting how the sometimes perverse motivations of men achieve exactly the opposite of their intentions, because they are unknowingly guided by God: “Joseph was sold by his brothers so that they wouldn’t worship him, yet he was actually worshiped after he was sold. They ventured to do the crafty thing so that God’s plan might be thwarted, but in trying to turn aside God’s judgment, their resistance forwarded it. Where their crafty action had the object of altering God’s will, there precisely they were forced to fulfill it. Just so, when God’s plan is put aside, it is fulfilled. When human wisdom resists, it is caught. Joseph’s brothers were afraid he might prevail over them; nevertheless, the avoiding of God’s dispositions ends up by forwarding them. So human wisdom is tripped up by itself when it intends to resist God’s will, and that act brings about its completion”. Indeed, He hath done all things well.
God exerts this providence by means of instruments, that is to say, creatures whom He endows with the capacity to guide us to our goal. Why is this? Why doesn’t He intervene directly? There are two main reasons for this. The first is to manifest His generosity; if God chooses freely the cooperation of creatures, it is because He wants to manifest His supreme liberality by giving humans to participate in His goodness. St Thomas explains: “If God wants to have witnesses, it is not that He needs their witness, but it is to ennoble the witnesses He establishes. We also see in the order of the universe that God produces certain effects by means of intermediary causes, not because He is powerless to produce them immediately but because, in order to ennoble the intermediary causes, He deigns to communicate to them the dignity of causes. And so, even though God could enlighten all men directly and bring them to know Him, nevertheless, in order to preserve a proper order in things and ennoble certain men, He wanted his divine knowledge to reach men by other men”.
The second reason is that there needs to be a proportion between cause and effect. The good teacher wants to lead his students to his own level, but often he cannot do so alone. He sometimes uses an intermediary who is closer to the student and can more easily convey the message. “Men of weak intelligence cannot grasp the truth and the knowledge of God by themselves. So God wanted to put himself at their level and enlighten certain men more than others about divine things, so that these latter might receive from them in a human manner the knowledge of divine things, knowledge they could not attain by themselves” (ibid.)
God Himself acted this way when He sent His Son to take flesh and so be our Master and Guide. Christ in turn chose men, first the apostles to whom He revealed His plans and whom He established as doctors of the faith. Enlightened by Christ, these become light for others. The apostle is a lux illuminata; indeed, only Christ is the lux vera qui illuminat omnem hominem. But having been enlightened by Christ, the apostle is henceforth capable in turn of enlightening others. It is better to enlighten then to shine only – maius est illuminare quam lucere solum (IIa-IIae, q. 188, a. 6, corpus). “It is a greater perfection for a thing to be good in itself and also the cause of goodness in others, than only to be good in itself. Therefore God so governs things that He makes some of them to be causes of others in government; as a master, who not only imparts knowledge to his pupils, but gives also the faculty of teaching others” (Ia, q. 103, a. 6, corpus).
Among human beings, there is a very special category which is the saints already in the heavenly homeland. They are assimilated to the angels in this that God uses them as intermediaries to lead their brothers to beatitude. They have become in an eminent way providence for themselves and for others. The most powerful tool the saints have at their disposal is one that we too have: prayer. We too can be providence for others by praying for them. If we ask why God wants to associate us with His providential designs, giving us to merit in some way by prayer the gifts He offers, the response is that God wants to give to each of us the dignity of cooperating in obtaining the final end and also the final end for others.
By praying for each other, one feels involved in their destiny. What happens to my brother concerns me, for we are one and the same body. In this way, prayer leads the unity of the Church to its perfection. “We ought to desire good things not only for ourselves, but also for others: for this is essential to the love which we owe to our neighbour… Therefore charity requires us to pray for others”. Today’s introit, quoting psalm 67, confirms this when it has us sing that God makes us to dwell of one mind in the same house.
But prayer allows us also to be providence for ourselves, for when we pray it is not God that we change, but ourselves. By formulating our requests, even if only in our mind, we are already committing ourselves in some way to wanting what we are asking for, and we thus obtain the capacity to receive it from God. “Prayer, then, for obtaining something from God is necessary for man on account of the very one who prays, that he may reflect on his shortcomings and may turn his mind to desiring fervently and piously what he hopes to gain by his petition. In this way he is rendered fit to receive the favour”.
He hath done all things well. He hath made the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak. For through the Gospel we have heard the Word of God and are able to share it with others. Let us never again close our ears to the Divine Truth, nor close our mouth when we have an opportunity to speak of God.