Monthly Archives: October 2011

Does God Provide?

I was at a fund-raiser for Providence Clinic last Sunday  evening and for some reason I’ve been thinking about the meaning of God’s providence ever since.

God’s providence is mysterious, for sure. But is it cold or fickle?  Or is God mostly uninvolved like the Enlightened Deists say. It’s all up to us, or politics, or economics. So God hasn’t much to say about little Providence Clinic.

Yet, according to Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue on Divine Providence, God is more than just an absentee land lord.

“The eternal Father, indescribably kind and tender, turned his eye to this soul and spoke to her:

‘O dearest daughter, I have determined to show my mercy and loving kindness to the world, and I choose to provide human beings with all that is good. But they, ignorant, turns into a death-giving thing what I gave in order to give them life…Still I go on providing. So I want you to know: whatever I give to human beings, I do it out of my great providence.

‘So it was that when, by my providence, I created human beings, I looked into myself and fell in love with the beauty of the creatures I had made – for it had pleased me, in my providence, to create human beings in my own image and likeness.

‘Moreover, I gave them memory, to remember the good things I had done for them and  to share in my own power, the power of the eternal Father.

‘Moreover, I gave them intellect, so that, seeing the wisdom of my Son,  they could recognize and understand my own will; for I am the giver of all graces and I give them with a burning fatherly love.

‘Moreover, I gave them the desire to love, sharing in the tenderness of the Holy Spirit, so that they might love the things that they knew and saw.

‘But my kind providence did all this solely that they might be able to understand me and enjoy me, rejoicing in my vision for all eternity. And as I have told you elsewhere, the disobedience of your first parent Adam closed heaven to you – and from that disobedience came all evil through the whole world.

‘To relieve human beings of the death that his own disobedience had brought, I tenderly and providently gave you my only-begotten Son to heal you and bring satisfaction for your needs. I gave him the task of being supremely obedient, to free the human race of the poison that your first parent’s disobedience had spread throughout the world. Falling in love, as it were, with his task, and truly obedient, he hurried to a shameful death on the most holy Cross. By his most holy death he gave you life: not human life this time, but with the strength of his divinity.’”

Fighting in Church

Today’s Office of Readings has the letter to the Corinthians by Pope St. Clement 1, written about 95 AD,  just after the last of the New Testament writings were written.

Fighting erupted among the members of the church in Corinth, once cared for by Paul the Apostle, who scolded them for the same thing. There’s slander and backbiting and complaining going on; people like to hear themselves talk, Clement remarks, quoting scripture: If you talk a lot you only hear yourself. A big talker thinks he’s always right.

The Corinthians were a scrappy bunch, it seems.

Clement tells them that their fighting makes the church look bad among their unbelieving neighbors. Who wants to belong to a community like that? Paul wrote to the Romans; I guess Clement thought he should write to the Corinthians.

Stop fighting among yourselves and do some good, the pope says. Obey your leaders, but above all, obey God. Bow down in respect before God and be silent before his holy will, as the Prophet Isaiah bowed silently  before the overwhelming presence of God in the temple.

“Our boasting and our confidence must rest on him. Let us be subject to his will. Look carefully at the whole host of his angels; they stand ready and serve his will. Scripture says: Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him, and a thousand thousand served him, and cried out: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole creation is full of his glory.”

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…” We say at Mass. We bow down before God; our thoughts, our judgments, our plans are nothing before God’s thoughts, judgments and plans. We know so little. Be humble before your God, Clement says, then you’ll get along with your neighbor.

Good advice for all of us.

Clement’s letter also gives the earliest testimony to the deaths of Peter and Paul at Rome.

Providence Clinic

The other night I was at a dinner and a stranger asked me what community I belonged to. When I told him I was a Passionist, he said “Barnabas Ahern was a member of your community. A great voice at the Vatican Council. Those were the days, but they’re gone now.”

Yes, those heady days are gone. Now we live in hard days.

But even in hard days, as the mystery of the Passion seems to overshadow all else, there are signs of Resurrection. The dinner we were attending Sunday evening was a fund-raiser for Providence Clinic, where poor people without insurance or funds in Monmouth County, NJ,  get treated by dedicated doctors and nurses. About 4,000 patients are taken care of yearly in this little clinic that started 14 years ago in a trailer in a church parking lot.

As the Director of the Clinic, Doctor Anna Sweany, remarked: “People came along and gave their help and their support.”

The clinic is a testimony to God’s providence. It would never have gotten started or continued through the years without God’s hidden, silent care. People “come along” and things are done.

Now they’re worried at Providence Clinic that some vital government funds will be withdrawn and they wont be able to meet their modest budget for this wonderful work.

Even in hard days, God offers signs of resurrection.  I’m hoping and praying Providence Clinic will continue to live up to its name.

Questions About God


At a wedding banquet some years ago, a little girl named Chelsea, a flower girl at the wedding, came up and asked if I wanted to see her walk on her heels. And she proceeded to show me how well she could do it.

Then she leaned over and said. “ Could I ask you something?’” I said “Sure.” She said “ What was God doing about a million years ago?”

Well, I had to think for a while about that. Then I said something like  “A million years ago, God was taking care of the sun in the sky, so that it could shine bright every day. And God was counting all the stars. God was making sure there were enough animals around, like giraffes.  About a million years ago, God was taking care of the world and everybody in it, and loved doing it.”

Children ask the best questions, questions that make us think about things we take for granted or maybe we’ve stopped wondering about. Or worse, we may think we know all the answers.

Some of the questions Jesus was asked are like that. “What does God want us to do?” Jesus is asked in today’s gospel. He answered; “God wants you to love him with all your heart, and all your  mind, and all your soul. And he wants you to love your neighbor as yourself.”

A curious child wouldn’t let it go at that. “What does loving God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your soul mean?” “How do you do that?” “”What’s does loving your neighbor like yourself mean?” “Who is my neighbor anyway?”

We should never stop asking those questions either. Questions about God and about love are big questions that open the windows of our minds to a bigger world and the way we live in it. They can make us grow.

I suppose that’s why Jesus told us that only by becoming a child will we enter the kingdom of heaven. Don’t lose the sense of wonder a child has. Don’t lose the curiosity of a child. Don’t lose the imagination of a child.

I think this is true especially in religious matters. “ I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” What does that mean? “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” What does that mean?

We need a childlike curiosity and imagination when we approach stories from scripture. My last blog was about an artist who tells the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus in Bethany. He had a wonderful childlike imagination. Take a look at the way at the way he tells that great story.

God meets us through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful story. Let’s not make it too small or forget it.

Bethany Revisited

Browsing through old books you find things you don’t expect. This morning in a book of old prints I found one by the 13th century Tuscan artist, Giovanni di Milano, illustrating the gospel story of Jesus with Martha and Mary at Bethany.

The gospels tell that story succinctly, but the artist offers some delightful details that he’s  thought about. He’s let his imagination roam. Notice the table set for four people. That would be Jesus, Lazarus, Mary and Martha.

But, others are coming in the door. Obviously, they’re Jesus’ disciples, led by Peter. One  is gesturing towards Peter, as if saying, “He told us to come.”

Poor Martha in her apron holds up her hands, “What are we going to do?”

There will be no miracle, except the miracle of Martha’s hospitality.

More than four are going to be fed.

We need this kind of reading of the gospels.

Praying in Weakness

Prayer is more than looking for something we know, Augusine says in  a letter to Proba, a woman asking him about prayer. It’s not only looking for a cure for sickness or success in getting a job. In prayer we search  for something we do not even understand, it expresses the hope we have for something beyond anything we know now.

“There is one thing I ask of the Lord. This I seek: to dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come. To gaze on the loveliness of the Lord…” The psalms express that hope very well.

We have an “instructed ignorance,” the saint says and the Spirit of God helps us our weakness.

“The Spirit pleads for the saints because he moves the saints to plead… to plead with sighs too deep for words by inspiring in them a desire for the great and as yet unknown reality that we look forward to with patience. How can words express what we desire when it remains unknown? If we were entirely ignorant of it we would not desire it; again, we would not desire it or seek it with sighs, if we were able to see it.”

The Coin of Tribute

Taxes. If you want to see people react strongly, just bring that subject up. Taxes are a big issue in politics and economics. Some  want to get rid of as many taxes as possible. Others say we need to rebalance our tax system to make it more equitable. We need to tax the rich more.

Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 22, 15-21) reminds us that controversy isn’t new. In Jesus’ day his enemies try to get him in trouble with a question about paying taxes to the emperor.

“Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The census tax to Caesar was a tax levied on the Jews that required everyone to pay one denarius (the equivalent of one day’s pay) to the emperor in Rome every year. It was a very unpopular tax, one more burden to all the other taxes people had to pay.

Some Jewish nationalists at the time argued against the census tax and at one point started a revolt against paying it. The Romans judged them to be traitors and quickly put them to death. Rembrandt’s illustration above shows the Pharisees and the Herodians questioning Jesus about the coin of tribute, but notice the fellow on the staircase ready to run and inform on Jesus if he says the wrong thing.

If Jesus said “Don’t pay the tax,” his enemies could have reported him to the Roman authorities and they would have taken care of him. But his answer is more complex.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

They replied, “Caesar’s.””Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God.”

On that coin, Tiberias Caesar, the Roman Emperor then, was pictured as godlike, wearing a crown of victory. His word and will were supreme. In a very clever way, Jesus says to give him his due,  but he’s not God, though he may think he is. Caesar, his state, his government, his empire are under a higher authority. All life is under God.

That’s a basic lesson for us today too as we look at all levels of government,  from our national to our local governments. Governments are also under God.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that a government follow a particular religion. In pluralistic societies like ours, it’s not prudent for a particular church to dominate.  We believe in separating church and state.

But that does not mean that governments should respond only to the will of the majority or the will of the powerful or the will of the rich.  Governments have to respond to the needs of all,  to respect human rights, “ life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”

When governments become the tool of private interests or powerful majorities, they no longer are under God who cares for all, especially the poor and the sick and the slow.

Later on, after he’s arrested, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who condemns him to death.  It’s a dramatic meeting. Pilate is a symbol of what can go wrong in governments. He’s  more interested in keeping his job than seeing that justice is done.

The One who stands before him has no power, no influence, nothing to give the Roman governor. He’s innocent, but the injustice done to him doesn’t matter to Pilate. He’s helpless, but that matters less. Pilate sentences him to death. Jesus stands for our vulnerable humanity. Pilate is an example of pragmatic power, looking after its own interests.

The great tragedy of governments is that they fall in love with their own power and position. But the greater tragedy is that we let them.