“God writes straight with crooked lines”
I’ve been thinking of this Portuguese proverb a lot this year, because there have been plenty of things going on in the world that jar with my prior views of ethics, theology, and the course of history.
Some people like to see the world as a battle between opposing forces of good and evil, faith and pride, wisdom and ignorance. If we can set things right or stop others from messing things up, then everything will be all right.
At first I thought these people were right about the battle. Then I thought maybe they were wrong about the battle. Finally I’ve concluded that some of us are meant to be fighters and others are not.
It has a lot to do with temperament, and maybe a little to do with upbringing.
Some people are simply born with a great deal of energy, an impressive perspicacity, and a will to fight for what is theirs, or better yet, what is all of ours – the common good.
Others (like me) are born with very little energy, a dismal outlook on life, and a corresponding inclination to pessimism.
Our energetic friends can throw themselves into the fray, knowing they’ll bounce back, they’ll survive, live to fight another day.
We, on the other hand, once we move we are committed. It’s all or nothing, and we better be sure the task is worth our all.
So instead of tactics, we talk ideals. Unable to face the thought of failure, we aim for a target we cannot miss. We look for the one, guaranteed path to tread, knowing that we won’t make it risking uncertain shortcuts.
That’s why I’ve had nothing much to say about the same-sex marriage postal vote which returned a “Yes” result this past week. I didn’t want to discourage more energetic campaigners, but to me the result seemed all but certain.
That is, it would have surprised me if this society, in which we’ve seen moral norm after moral norm explode in the face of individual autonomy, suddenly bucked the trend by voting “No” to same-sex marriage.
This is an individual perspective. I wouldn’t try to convince people not to campaign, if they feel that is what they should do. For me, campaigning would have felt insincere.
Because what inspires me is not the thought of victory in battle, winning the culture war, or defeating the enemy through cunning, effort, or good strategy.
What inspires me is finding the right path to tread, a path that will always lead in the right direction no matter what is going on in the world around me.
It’s this inclination of my temperament that draws me to consider God’s providence and purpose.
After many years studying and working in ethics, it’s very hard to focus on any single issue or social change as definitive.
It’s very hard to pretend that there was a golden age in the past, to which we could return if only….
It’s very hard to feel enthusiastic about the “right side” gaining control of the levers of power in our political and social order.
I prefer to think that people’s efforts should be authentic. Ideally they should be a joyful expression of their own selves – their faith, their love, their understanding. If I write an article, I want to write it because I think it’s true, and good, and worth writing.
Years ago I came across a small book written about a lay Discalced Carmelite in 17th Century Paris. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection was apparently well known for his wisdom and contemplative prayer.
His method of prayer was simply to act and work always in the love of God: “to make the love of GOD the end of all his actions.”
So what did Brother Lawrence make of all the evil and disorder in the world?
“as for the miseries and sins he heard of daily in the world, he was so far from wondering at them, that, on the contrary, he was surprised there were not more, considering the malice sinners were capable of: that for his part, he prayed for them; but knowing that GOD could remedy the mischiefs they did, when He pleased, he gave himself no further trouble.”
This method and perspective is not for everyone. Many people will baulk at it.
But there are times when this contemplative, providential, devotional spirit might be the right answer for everyone.
Because the excesses of activism and civic involvement are a tendency to lose our perspective on the spiritual truths behind our reality. We may forget in the midst of struggle that everything that exists is created and maintained in existence by God.
What do victory and defeat mean for us when God is the one in control of all existence? How does a postal vote on same-sex marriage relate to the will of God in the universe? What do we fear will be wrested from providence with the now inevitable legalisation of same-sex marriage?
Before joining the Carmelites, Lawrence fought and was injured in the Thirty Years War – a devastating religious, territorial, and political conflict that fractured Europe, caused widespread looting, famine, and disease, and cost eight million lives.
His approach to prayer was likewise difficult and full of hardship. But he persevered through the struggle to find a deep and incomparable experience of divine love.
“The difficulties of life do not have to be unbearable. It is the way we look at them – through faith or unbelief – that makes them seem so. We must be convinced that our Father is full of love for us and that He only permits trials to come our way for our own good.”
His approach to prayer is not for everyone. We aren’t all supposed to upend our lives and go join the Carmelites either. But Brother Lawrence’s faith, closeness to God, and above all his unerring vision of providence are a source of comfort and reassurance whatever our struggles and circumstances:
“God knoweth best what is needful for us, and all that He does is for our good. If we knew how much He loves us, we should be always ready to receive equally and with indifference from His hand the sweet and the bitter; all would please that came from Him.”
But surely Lawrence wasn’t referring to things like same-sex marriage and other monumental social and moral changes? After all, he’d only experienced trifling upsets like the Reformation, and the subsequent descent of Europe into a morass of warring states.
On the contrary, I think the mystery of Brother Lawrence’s inner life is such that nothing could disturb the peace and the love he enjoyed.
Yet in that peace and love we are better able to face the world without fear, seeing it in the correct light, the light of providence:
“The sorest afflictions never appear intolerable, but when we see them in the wrong light. When we see them in the hand of God, who dispenses them: when we know that it is our loving Father, who abases and distresses us: our sufferings will lose their bitterness, and become even matter of consolation.”