Friday, August 1, 2014

Sts. Anthony and Isaac on divine providence

I have been reading pieces here and there from the Philokalia, in the Romanian translation brought to me from Romania by my parents. It is monkish literature for those who take their Christianity a bit stronger than others -- an ascetic blend, we might say. One thing that sticks out is a strong belief in divine providence.

Hear the words of St. Anthony the Great:

The truly rational man has only one concern: to obey the God of all and to please him. . . . For it is not fitting to thank for the health of our bodies doctors who give us bitter, unpleasant treatments, and yet not to thank God for those things which seem to us difficult, and not to understand that everything happens to us as it should, for our own good and in accordance with His care.

. . . Those who don't understand don't think about this, however; that is why they also don't understand that all things are done to us for good and as they should, for our own sake, so that our virtues may shine and so that we may be crowned by God (On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life, 2-3; trans. by me from Filocalia Sfintelor Nevoințe ale Desăvîrșirii 1).

The sufferings of this world, even those intense sufferings associated with the rigors and travails of the ascetic life, are not to be despised or lamented. Rather they are likened to bitter medicines given by doctors for the treatment of what ails us. This way of thinking affirms a strong doctrine of divine providence, since Anthony includes everything that happens to us within the domain of those things intended by God for our good. If they are good, then we are to thank God; if they are unpleasant, then we are to use them as occasions for growth and for treating the illnesses of our souls.

Likewise St Isaac, in addressing those considering leaving the world to withdraw into the desert:

For this reason, always tell your soul: "I have a Keeper who keeps watch over me and not one creature may show itself before me unless the command is given from on high" (Ascetical Homilies I/3; trans. by me from Filocalia 10).

A strong doctrine of divine providence is important for a number of reasons. In the first place, it makes our experience of evil in the world intelligible: if I know that the things that happen to me are at the very least approved by God, who is good, then I know there must be some sufficient reason for which I am suffering. It may not be clear to me, it may not be obvious, it may remain a mystery the entirety of my life, but nevertheless they come from God and so there is a reason. The world in this way remains (at least in principle) intelligible.

In this way, too, I think our desire for life is strengthened. When I know that God guides the goings-on of the universe and is concerned for my individually, then I am eager to go out and live my life, to see what God has planned for me and what he wishes me to learn. If God has nothing to do with the events of my life, if they are left up to chance, then I may very well be paralyzed by the randomness and unpredictability.

It is important to emphasize, however, the unconditional goodness of God's providence. Apart from this assurance, there can be no guarantee that the evils which befall me are good for me. In that case my life will truly be a living hell, since I am suffering with no guarantee that there is anything to learn or gain from my suffering. But both Anthony and Isaac insist on this point: everything happens to us for our good and for our own sake. I imagine they would (like Origen) insist that this alone is a doctrine of providence worthy of God's goodness.