By Simon Falk, The Catholic University of America
A long time ago, I was a young man in love. It was the end of my freshman year of college, and there was a party celebrating the end of the school year. Everyone was enjoying the atmosphere of music and friends and celebration. It seemed the whole school was out on the grassy field and parking lot in front of the student center, and all seemed to delight in the party. I was not happy. I knew that the girl who was the object of my affection was with someone else.
Seeing her at the party made me feel a resigned sadness that was a counterpoint to the excitement around me. The merriment of others seemed dry with how I felt inside; I preferred to be alone. I meandered to one of my favorite places: an old classroom in the tallest building on campus. Walking up five flights of stairs was a small price to pay for one of the best sights around, a view of Washington DC like few others. I sat in one of the classroom’s chairs and kicked my feet up on the windowsill. It was late afternoon with few clouds and the sun still above the horizon. I decided to listen to music while looking at the view, eventually selecting the song “Reptilia” by the Strokes; for what reason I opted for this song, I am unsure.
There I was, listening to music, looking out at city and sunset, when something changed in me. For a reason unbeknownst to me, I felt a gradual easing of my sadness. To put it simply, I thought to myself, “I don’t need to worry about this as much anymore.” It was as if that sadness was suddenly lifted out of the depths of my soul. If my pain before was a boulder sitting atop my chest, impeding my breathing, it was afterwards a rock resting in my pocket. I am not quite sure how it happened. Perhaps the natural beauty of the sunset or my enjoyment of music moved my emotions; perhaps my openness to beauty gave God’s grace a chance to move in a way I did not then understand.
I tell this story to illustrate a point. Namely that it is clear to me that I do not understand everything that goes on in my soul; I know that I do not know. This kind of spiritual relief has happened to me on more than one occasion. I will be struggling with some sort of pain or sadness, and as I ask God’s help or try to reflect on what is going on, and something seems to change. I do not claim that God takes away completely every kind of pain in the exact moment I pray for healing. I say that sometimes He seems to work in ways I do not quite understand to bring me joy in an unexpected way. I have experienced times of suffering in which after I pray the suffering seems less crushing, less draining than before. The point is, I do not know every single way God works on a soul.
Though I cannot describe every way God’s grace works in people’s hearts, it can be said that He is working. Consider the words of Jesus, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…” (Jn 6:44) In the teaching of the Church we see that God gives us grace to accept Him, “But for man to enter real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith.” (CCC #35) It is a theological principle that God acts first, we only come to God because God has first called us. God does act, we as humans do not know exactly how.
God wants the best for us and our lives. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to salvation as a “plan of sheer goodness.” (CCC #1) Let us remember again the often-quoted passage, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:1) God is interested in how we live. He is not some distant being who started the universe and walked away. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of God’s care for the world using the term Divine Providence, “The witness of Scripture is unanimous that the solicitude of divine providence is concrete and immediate; God cares for all, from the least things to the great events of the world and its history. The sacred books powerfully affirm God’s absolute sovereignty over the course of events: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” (CCC #303)
God cares for us in the small ways; I offer my own experience of spiritual healing to illustrate this very point. I merely took a moment to look at a nice view and listen to music. Since we read that Divine Providence cares for small things, then it seems possible to say that God wanted me to take a moment of solitude so He can work however He willed in that moment. I do not remember what happened after I looked at that sunset. I hope I treated others I saw afterwards with more kindness because I had that moment of healing. How did it affect my decisions afterward, for the rest of the evening? I do not know.
How do these small moments play out in our lives? I cannot begin to guess. It seems to me that reading stories or watching movies can change our mindset and help us see the world in a different way. Does God’s providence care for what movies we watch? Does God’s providence lead us to go on a walk or take a moment of reflection for ourselves? Does God’s providence inspire a conversation with a friend or even a stranger that leads to deeper reflection about ourselves? From what the Catechism says, the answer to those questions is a yes.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says God cares for small things as well as major events of world history. Imagine how it would change our worldview if we really believed that God was at work in small things. We would see that God, through secondary causes, is ordering our lives in a multitude of ways. We can know God’s love and care for every human person by simply reflecting on the seemingly small events in our ordinary daily lives. Aside from any speculation on the precise theological workings of God’s acting upon a person, my central point is that God operates in the small things in our life; for as Jesus says to the Jews when they question why He heals on the Sabbath, “My Father is working still, and I am working,” (Jn 5:17). To put it plainly, God is always working, even on the Sabbath, because He eternally upholds the existence of all of creation. God is working in our lives, even the small things. There is a saying, “The devil is in the details.” That may or may not be true, but I would like to propose that God is definitely in the details.
I’ve always been a doer. I solved other people’s problems in living professionally for over 40 years as a therapist. Now I’m retired and the urge to fix is still strong but I’m my only available person who “needs my help.” I have to do a lot of praying and a lot of psychological “work” on myself to wait now for God to indicate the way I should go. Right now I am torn between staying in my home and near a woman I love, but won’t marry, or moving to a big city where my only son and his family live.
“I” can’t choose. I am waiting for some sign as to what God’s path for me the is already known to God, but not to me.