It could be said that at the very center of the Christian worldview is the conviction that God’s loving providence encompasses everything. Literally, everything, big and small. We might ponder how much faith is required, in the vicissitudes of life, truly to adhere to this conviction. I don’t often experience a temptation to doubt that God exists, that He is a trinity, that He founded the Church, that He is present in the Eucharist, or that He died, rose, and will come again. But really to believe that everything that happens is part of a loving and wise plan; in my experience, this is a different matter.
Certainly one of the natural aids to our belief in divine providence is the experience of a human providence.
When I close my eyes and think of my father, many thoughts come to mind. But the first is of his providence, his wise and loving care. He was always fore-seeing. Scanning the horizon, especially the horizons of those he loved, he would strain to see what was coming. One of the hardest aspects of being a man is not-knowing: not knowing what comes next, and thus not knowing how to prepare for it. Decisions need to be made in the present, with a measuring eye on the future and a remembering eye on the past. How often did I see Dad’s rational powers churning, sizing up situations—even those ostensibly unrelated to his own—and discerning how to arrange things for the good of those around him.
I would like to give a few examples. These may not be the best examples from his life. But they are the ones I would like to share.
1) Teaching people how.
I have never met anyone better at teaching someone how to do something. One of the unique joys of watching Dad be a grandpa to my children was having the opportunity to see again, this time from a distance, with a little more focus, what he had done for me as a child. He exercised a remarkable combination of direction, correction, encouragement, and letting-you-do-it-yourself. I can clearly picture his face when he would say, following his under-study’s suggestion of a highly dubitable method of proceeding, “Well, we could it that way.” But one way or the other, with the job complete, you were convinced that you had done it, and that you could do it again.
2) Attending to little things.
To me the story of Nicholas’s calendar is his Grandpa, my father, in a nutshell. From the time that Nicholas could walk, we arranged that Dad and he would spend regular time together, lunch and then the afternoon once a week. It would be scarce an exaggeration to say that Nicholas lived from Grandpa day to Grandpa day. He of course had no real sense of time, much less days and weeks. Dad realized that Nicholas needed a little help in managing his expectations regarding their getting together. What did Dad do? He built a one-week calendar out of a 1×4, complete with metal lining so that a magnet could be moved from day to day. Sunday, the first day of the week, is marked with a red cross—lest Nicholas forget the truly most important day. Wednesday, or Grandpa Day , the day Dad and Mom actually called Nicholas day, was specially marked with two stick figures, a man and a child holding hands. If today Nicholas knows the days of the week, I’m sure it’s because he learned them in relation to that red cross, and those stick figures.
3) Sage advice when needed.
A local friend and mentor of mine only recently shared the following with me. A few years back this gentleman experienced a personal tragedy on a scale that few people I know have endured. At one point while suffering from severe depression, this gentleman had a conversation with Dad, who said the following: “Well, sometimes a ship gets lost at sea in the fog, and the sailors have no idea which way to go. But they don’t give up. They make their best judgment, and they just keep going. And eventually they come out of the fog.” This admonition, reported my friend, was a turning point in his learning to accept the extremely bitter pill of his circumstances.
I myself often think of, and use, one of Dad’s favorite lines: “What’s the worst thing that can happen in this situation?” This does not mean: expect the worst. Rather it expresses in a very concrete practical way a confidence that the worst that can happen is itself always set in the context of the great things that Divine providence has in store for those who are faithful.
At the end of the day, how did he Dad it? Where does all this come from? Once I was nailing together some pieces of wood. When I looked up, there was my one year old Raphael standing next to me. He had picked up a stick and was swinging it with the same motion I was. When he saw that I noticed, feeling a little shy, he smiled broadly. Nature speaks from deep within: be like your father. What could be more fitting, more pleasing… to both father and child?
Having known my grandfather and grandmother, I know that my father was formed by their loving care. But there is something deeper going on. Dad had faith in, and even more, a participation in God’s loving care for each of us.
This past week, going through some of Dad’s things, I found on his desk a piece of paper, on which he had written little quotations from his spiritual reading. One that stood out to me, and which he himself had underlined, was this: “Do not worry about anything. Abandon yourself more to Me.”
Dad, I don’t think we will ever know how hard these last few years have been for you, and for Mom. So many times I assumed you simply didn’t realize what was going on. I now see that I did not give you due credit. You handled things with such grace, and abandonment to Divine providence. I did not give you credit for the struggle that dementia must have been for a man like you. But I am grateful, so grateful, that an all seeing and loving eye has nonetheless taken the measure of you; and has seen the measure with which you measured.
I want to end with words of Our Lord that recently struck me deeply: “…lend expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.” Luke 6:35
One thing I’m sure of: nobody on this earth knows how much Dad has loaned to people in need; not any accountant, not Mom. I hope that when I am laid in the ground one day, I may have loaned a mere fraction of the amount that Dad has never been paid back. Or hasn’t been yet.
Dad, I know that the words of Our Lord are true, and thus I know that your reward will be great, and that you are a son of the Most High. And another thing I know is that we your sons, daughters, grandchildren, relatives, friends, and neighbors are honored to call you neighbor, friend, uncle, brother, grandpa, and Dad.
Dad and Mom, thank you for your providence, your wise and loving care, that has given so many of us the occasion to see, to feel, and to live under that Providence which slowly, and ever so carefully, is working to bring us all together, with Him, one great day.
The photos are: my father and my son Raphael, September 29, 2011; and the funeral, September 21, 2013, kindness of Spiering Photography.