One of the distinctions between those the Church recognizes for their holy life (which recognition is manifested in canonization as Saint So-and-so) and those of us who struggle in the life of faith now is that the Saints exercised an expectant faith which sought for and often saw the workings of God in their daily lives, as well as in the critical moments. As Elder Porphyrios relates of his journey to Mt Athos to become a monk, while far below the age allowed:
By all this I want to show how God worked many miracles on me, unworthy as I am. His hand very manifestly protected me everywhere. And so in this case the hand of God led me into the hands of a holy elder and spiritual father who was to protect me. God had sent him and this elder saved me. It was a great miracle of God’s providence. In many things God’s providence has helped me but above all the great assistance I received was that I succeeded in going to the Holy Mountain at such an early age, in spite of the fact that it was forbidden. I knew nothing about monastic life. But God helped me. (Elder Porphyrios, Wounded by Love, p 9)
Certainly God’s Providence manifests itself in the miraculous–as in the story about how Elder Porphyrios acquired a walking stick. The lives of the saints are filled with dreams, visions, miraculous events. Sometimes, as Elder Sophrony relates, the Divine Providence works directly on the human heart, giving the grace of repentance.
Our God is intangible, invisible, searchless. Inscrutable, too, are the workings of His providence for us. How did His gentle but powerful hand catch hold of me when with the stubbornness of youthful folly I rushed headlong into the dark abyss of non-being? The heavenly fire burned into me and its heat melted my heart. Bitterly repentant, I prayed prostrate on the floor. . . . (Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is, p 37)
We today often think, due to our own paucity of such events, that these things are “abnormal,” unusual and not to be the expected fare of the day to day Christian. And, of course, to some degree this is true. After all, if everything is a “miracle,” then, well, nothing is a miracle.
But most of the time I think, when we call something “miraculous,” what we are really trying to express is the amazement and wonder at the way God weaves together so many normal, cause-and effect, free choices of untold numbers of human beings. Sometimes there’s that “inner voice,” directing a stranger to give a specific sum of money. But many more times, it is just the simple outworking of human choices.
Again, Elder Sophrony:
God’s participation in our individual life we call Providence. This Providence is not at all like pagan fate. At certain decisive moments we do actually ourselves choose from the various possibilities that are offered. When different paths lie before us, then normally we ought resolutely to move towards the ultimate Good that we are seeking. This choice inevitably implies being ready to accept sacrifice. (Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is, pp 40-41)
But the issue is not how Divine Providence manifests itself in our lives–whether by normal events and choices or by miraculous happenings–rather, the issue is that the saints call us to recognize Divine Providence everywhere. That is to say, we are called to see in all things, every event, every human interaction, every trial and every blessing, the working out of God’s care for us. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and if he has given us free will because he wishes to unite himself personally with us, then it simply follows that that love will manifest itself in ordering all things to our care and for our good–even the trials, and especially the blessings. Only an infinitely powerful, infinitely knowledgeable, and infinitely loving God could do so. And such is the God who condescended to be born of the Virgin Mary, to join us in our mortality, to raise us into his divinity, and mark us his own forever.
How God arranges his Providence, we will never know. But that he does so: this is what we are called moment by moment to accept in faith. As the Psalmist writes, “All things serve him,” and as St. Paul echoes, “All things work together for the good of those that love him.”
This acceptance is a volitional choice. Although God may manifest himself to us apart from our choice to look for him, we are normally called to approach each moment with the trust that in it, God cares for us and is drawing us in love and without loss of our personhood further into himself and into greater union with our brothers and sisters in the Faith and with those we love. This is rather easy to do when we receive blessings. It is excruciatingly painful at times to so accept it when faced with trials. But whether sunshine or rain, the path is always the same. We either choose to see things as God’s providential care, or we allow ourselves to be weighted down with unholy cosmic solitude. We are either Christians, or we are at best deists and at worse atheists. For if we do not accept the orientation of his Providence, we deny him. Perhaps unwittingly, and because our faith is weak and inconstant; but it is still a denial. We may repent of such a denial, as did St. Peter. But if we persist in it, we will suffer the end of Judas.
Thankfully our faith in God’s Providence can be strengthened by recourse to the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. We may read our St. John of Damascus on God’s Providence, but what most of us need is not more information, but rather more formation. And the lives of the saints, both biblical and outside the canon, provide for us that formation. Which is why I have been continuing to read the lives of holy men like Elder Porphyrios, Archimandrite Sophrony, and, via a loan from a friend, the life of Father Arseny. It is with one of those more “mundane” episodes of God’s Providence in Father Arseny’s life that I will close.
It was now time to light the fires. The stoves were cold and no longer gave off any warmth. It was not easy to lifght the fire for the logs were damp, and there was no dry kindling. The day before, Father Arseny had found some dry branches and put them in a corner near one of the stoves thinking, “Tomorrow, I will be able to light the stoves very fast!” When he went to get the dry kindling, though, he found that some of the criminals had poured water on it. He knew that if he was late in lighting the fires, the barracks would not be warm for the return of the workers. Father Arseny ran to try to find some dry bark or anything dry behind the barracks. And all the time he was praying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God! Have mercy on me a sinner,” but then he added, “Thy will be done!”
He looked everywhere, and could find nothing dry. He did not know how he would light the fire.
While Father Arseny was looking for the dry branches, an old man working in the next barrackes walked by. He was a criminal of immense cruelty and power. People said that even under the Tsar his name had been infamous all over Russia. He had committed so many crimes that he himself could not remember them all. . . .
This criminal was the boss of the whole barracks. Even the camp officers were afraid of him. It would only take a wink from him to have an “accident” occur. His fellow inmates called him “Graybeard.” . . .
Seeing that Father Arseny was looking for something, he shouted, “What are you looking for you silly priest?”
“I had prepared some dry branches to start the fire today, and somebody poured water onto them, so I am looking for something dry. The logs are damp. I don’t know what to do.”
“That’s right, silly priest, without kindling you are lost,” answered Graybeard.
“People will come from work, they will be cold, and they will beat me,” mumbled Father Arseny.
“Come, Pop [an insulting term for a priest in Russian], I will give you some kindling,” Graybeard said, leading Father Arseny to a whole pile of beautiful dry kindling. Father Arseny had a thought that perhaps this was a joke; he knew Graybeard only too well, and could not expect any help from him.
“Take, Father Arseny, take what you need,” the criminal said.
“Father Arseny began to quickly gather some dry branches, all the time thinking, “I will take some kindling and he will shout that I am a thief.” Then he realized that the man had called him Father Arseny. He prayed silently, crossed himself in his mind, and began to gather the kindling.
“Take more, Father Arseny! More!” Graybeard barked. Then he bent and started helping Father Arseny, carrying the kindling into the barracks and putting it next to the stove. Father Arseny bowed before him and said, “May God bless you.”
Graybeard did not answer, and left.
Father Arseny put the wood in the stoves and lit the fire. The logs began to burn. (Father Arseny 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, pp 7-8)