The Lord Provides
First Day of the Novena in Honour of St. Anne (St. Anne‘s Church, Hamilton, Ontario)

It is a great honour to have been asked to preach this novena in honour of St. Anne. I remember having a discussion with Father Don a few years ago on the question of who is the greatest saint next to Mary and Joseph. We tried to reason our way to the answer. Father Don came to the conclusion that it must be a martyr, perhaps one of the twelve. But then he thought it would probably have to be the first martyr; after all, any martyr today would have the support of an army of great martyrs who have gone before him or her, but the first martyr would have no such support. He’d be alone in that regard. And so he concluded that the greatest saint would have to be St. Stephen.

We continued to think about this a bit further. Now, consider that it is an honour to be given a trust, that is, to be entrusted with something precious, and the quality and nature of the trust is indicative of the character and trustworthiness of the holder of that trust. So, the more precious is that trust, the more noble is the character of the one holding it. Jesus was entrusted to Mary, but Mary, the Immaculate Conception, the tabernacle of Christ himself, was entrusted to her mother, St. Anne, who was to be Jesus’ grandmother. And so the greatest saint next to Mary and Joseph would have to be St. Anne, and next to her St. Joachim her husband.

Now there is so little we know about St. Anne, just as there is so little we know about many other great saints. But that’s okay, because this life is only a prologue, and it is in eternity that we will have the joy of coming to know the glorious lives of these unknown saints, so many of whom are not canonized and who lived lives of total obscurity. And we will come to see just how much we are indebted to St. Anne; for all of us have debt to Mary for giving her fiat: “Let it be done to me according to your word”, as she said to the angel Gabriel. Because of that consent, a saviour was born to us. But how much of an influence did St. Anne have on the character of her daughter, our Blessed Mother? That is something that is reserved for us after this life, and a very large part of the joy of heaven will be the knowledge of how indebted we are to others, like the Holy Family, as well as the grandparents of Christ.

This is the first novena that I have ever been asked to preach, and what I find providential is that the theme of the readings for the first weekend I was required to preach as a deacon four years ago was exactly the same theme as the theme of today’s reading, which is divine providence. This is my favourite subject to reflect upon, because looking back at my life it has been so obviously providential. I always tell my students that the greatest disappointments in my life, especially my life as a teenager, have always without exception turned out to be my greatest blessings. Had things happened the way I wanted them to happen, my life would be a mess. Thank God they did not happen the way I had envisioned they should happen.

The point is that God is in control. It takes years to really learn this, but God is in control. Not us. The prime minister is not in control; bishops are not in control—they might think they are, but they are not. I am a teacher during the year, and so many of us think that the school principal has much control, but they do not. They have very little control. Talk to a principal and ask them; they will tell you. There is so much that we simply cannot do. We think we’re in control of our own children, but parents soon realize that their children have a mind and will of their own. They are not pieces of putty that we can mould into whatever we want them to be. That simply doesn’t work. They have a will that cannot be compelled. The harder we try to compel the will of a child, the more it rebels. We are not in control. God is in control. And He is in control of the hearts of all human beings. God is master of human hearts.

This is very difficult to understand. In fact, it is impossible to fully understand it, but the Old Testament reveals this very clearly. God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, and so the Pharaoh would not let Israel go. The heart of the Pharaoh of Egypt was in the hands of God, that is, under God’s providential control. And yet the Pharaoh has a free will; he freely hardened his own heart. At the same time, however, we must understand that the Pharaoh’s free decision to harden his own heart, to close it to the divine will, was not something that happened outside of God’s providential control. It was all part of the divine plan, the providential plan of God. That’s a mystery of faith: how God can shape the hearts of each person without violating his or her free will.

The word ‘providence’ is derived from the Latin ‘providere’. God provides for us, takes care of us, and sustains us, as a parent provides for his or her children. As a parent organizes and plans his life around the project of providing for his own children, God plans, and He plans from all eternity, and it is a providential plan, a plan that provides for us, all for the sake of our greatest happiness. And although the hearts of our own children are not in our hands, the hearts of all human beings are in the hands of God. Again, what is so mysterious and impossible for us to fully understand is how the hearts of all human beings can be in the hands of God, and yet remain free at the same time. God does not determine our course of action; we determine ourselves to this or that course of action. And yet, whatever I decide, God has known it from all eternity, and Hhjjjhhjfrom all eternity it has a place in His providential plan.

If it is an evil act, He has allowed that action a place in His providential plan, but evil will never have the final word. A freely committed evil action will never be out of place. God arranges it according to a sequence, as an artist organizes a dark color and places it on the canvas so that it contributes to the beauty of the whole work, rather than allow it to destroy the work. God will never allow evil to have the final word because God is Absolute Love and He is All-Powerful.

If God were absolute love without being all powerful, then it would mean that God wills our greatest happiness, but He is unable to bring it about—because He is doesn’t have the power to do so. If God were all powerful but not supremely good, then it means that God is able to bring about our greatest good, but He does not necessarily will it, because He is not pure goodness.

But God is Goodness Itself, absolute and unlimited Love, and at the same time He is omnipotent, that is, unlimited in power; for God has complete dominion over being: nothing exists except by the power of God. Put those two truths together and we have one necessary conclusion: God wills our greatest good, our greatest happiness, and He is able to bring about that greatest happiness. Thus, it follows necessarily that whatever God allows to happen to you or me in our lives, He allows it ultimately for our greatest happiness. He would not have allowed it otherwise. That is why St. Paul says: “…all things work for good for those who love God”. And that’s why he counsels us to give thanks to God for all things, not just the good things, but all, including our disappointments and sufferings.

Why does God allow suffering in our lives? The simple answer: for our greatest happiness. We’d be lost without suffering. I am my own worst enemy. We all suffer from the wounds of Original Sin. We love ourselves too much; we all have a propensity to self-seeking; we all have disordered passions. Each one of us has his or her own particular battlefield, and we have to be willing to take a good honest look at ourselves so that we can come to know what is our own battlefield, that is, allow God to show us our own flaws and disorders, and go forth to battle against it, with the help of His grace. That’s our road to Him.

I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children. Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

A child is one who learns, who is at ease with his own littleness, who submits to the direction of one who knows better. If we acquire the heart of a child, we will be given a light that is hidden from the learned and the clever, those who choose to eat from the tree of independence and self-sufficiency. They are forever in the dark. That’s what disordered passion does; it blinds the intellect, even the intellect of the most brilliant among us.

Our view of reality, the way we see things, is affected by our emotions, and if our emotions are disordered, so too is the way we see the world. One evening while sitting in a Mr. Greek Express waiting for my order, I was trying to think of a way to explain this to my students. There was a family on the other side of the restaurant, so I started to watch them, without them knowing they were being watched. The father was rather large, and he looked like he was enjoying his food, to say the least. He had two kids, a wife, and so I just began to observe how they interact, and if the father looked over in my direction, I’d just turn my head, and then go back to watching them. At one point, the father calls the waitress over and begins talking to her as if she’d committed some heinous crime. He demanded to speak to the manager of the restaurant. The manager comes to the table and he begins talking to her in a tone that was really quite frightening, because it was rather threatening, as if she’d gone out and scratched his new car. What happened is that his wife’s order got mixed up. She’d ordered chicken, not pork, or something to that effect. What struck me was the vehemence of his anger, his eyes, and the degrading way he treated that poor young waitress. It was so disproportionate to the mistake that was made.

This is an example of how disordered passion affects one’s interpretation of things. This man has a disordered appetite for food, and a simple mistake that has no life threatening consequences and that amounts to little more than an inconvenience, is interpreted as a monumental injustice. Compare that to the reaction of someone with a more ordered appetite. He or she would simply notify that waitress, who would then correct the mistake. Disordered passion distorts one’s judgment.

I remember one morning on the way to work when I was stopped at a red light. The traffic on the opposite side had an advanced green, and one is not to turn right on a red light on an advanced green. So I sat there, waiting for the cars to complete their turns. A young man behind me in an SUV honked. I just shrugged my shoulders and pointed to the advancing line of cars. He honked again. I just ignored him. When my light finally turned green, he stepped on the pedal, past me at a high rate of speed, cut me off and slammed on his breaks, in the middle of the road, waving his fist. He then proceeded forward. I took down his license number and made a report, but what struck me about the whole incident is that he had no idea who I was. I could have been a criminal, a sociopath, or someone mentally unstable. Lucky for him it was a religion teacher and a deacon.

How do we account for this kind of short sightedness? Disordered passion. It affects our judgment, our interpretation of what constitutes an injustice, so that what is truly unjust we see as a basic human right, and what is perfectly just, even required by law, is interpreted as a personal violation.

We all have our own personal battlefield. Some will struggle with gluttony, while others might struggle with disordered fear, which may lead to avarice or greed. Others might struggle with disordered sexual appetite (lust); others might be struggling with envy, or personal arrogance, others with disordered laziness, etc. All these blind the intellect.

When the Lord allows suffering into our lives, it isn’t so much a punishment for some sin as it is the Blacksmith forming and shaping the sword he’s working to produce. He puts it to the flame so as to dispose it so that it can be more readily shaped, which he does by pounding it with his hammer, so that in the end it will shine with a radiance and beauty that is pleasing to behold, and with the strength to withstand whatever comes up against it.

In the first reading from Isaiah, Assyria was merely the instrument the Lord used to purify Israel. Assyria did not submit to being so used; its will was evil. Assyria only intended to destroy. But God can and does use even the malice of those who intend evil. They are not outside His providence. God is in control, and so there is nothing for us to fear. As today’s psalm says: “The Lord will not abandon his people, nor forsake those who are his own”. And so there is nothing to fear when everything around us seems to be crumbling. The hearts of all, good and evil alike, are in the hands of God, and the psalms make very clear that all those who plot the destruction of the innocent, all their efforts in the end recoil upon them, such that all those they intended to harm are made better, while they are destroyed by their own malice. I’ve lived long enough to see that happen. It’s a fascinating thing to behold.

All we have to do is submit to His providence, abandon ourselves to His providential plan, which is partially revealed to us, individually, in the duties of each moment of our lives. Each one of us has a task, a very ordinary task, and holiness is achieved in faithfully fulfilling the duties of the present moment, the ordinary tasks of being a mother, a grandmother, a father or grandfather, whatever work the Lord has entrusted us to do. It is only much later, in eternity, that we will see the long term effects of our obedience and fidelity to these ordinary tasks, and that will be a great source of joy for us and for others to behold, as it was for St. Anne to behold, and as it will be for us to behold when we contemplate the meaning of her ordinary life as mother of Mary and grandmother of our Lord. Amen.

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