Teaching about Providence: the Perfections of God

 

Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle, Elkton MD 21921

 

One of the most practical items of faith that catechists and parents need to convey to Catholic children is the fact that it is possible to build an entire life on the firm foundation of God. Children need to have confidence that the basic truths will never shift, no matter how long they may live. This confidence should be based, at least in part, on the teaching that God truly does provide for all the things that we need in life.

 

If I as a parent can convince my children of the truth of God’s Providence, then no matter what else changes over the years, my children will at least have access at all times to an unchanging truth that constitutes a solid foundation for their lives, no matter how long they may live.

 

In order to appreciate what is needed at the personal level if a child is have a firm foundation in life, I find it helpful to consider an analogy with the Church, and the foundation on which the Church is built. In Christ’s only recorded reference to “My Church” (Matt. 16, 18), when He was speaking to Simon Peter about the latter’s profession of faith, Christ spoke about building His Church on a Rock. The powerful image (and reality) of a rock-like immovable foundation helps to convey to our earthly minds the impression of unshakeable solidity that the Church possesses.

 

The value of this image has been explored in vivid terms by Father Stanley Jaki O.S.B. in his book “And On This Rock; The Witness of One Land and Two Covenants” (Christendom Press, 1998). Father Jaki describes how “the neighborhood of Caesarea Philippi” (Matt. 16, 13) is characterized by a striking geological feature marking the spot where Simon Peter received his great commission. The description of this feature is as follows: “This marker is the precipitous southern end of one of the foothills of Mount Hermon, forming a wall of bare rock about 200 feet high and 500 feet wide” (p. 10). Father Jaki appends a photograph of this massive rock face which he himself took when he visited the site in 1976. Even in the photograph (which is rather grainy), it is clear that the rock face must make a great impression on anyone who stands close to it. In fact, there is clear historical testimony to the fact that people of several cultures and centuries were overawed by the locale: prior to Christ’s time, the rock face had been a focus of ancient pagan religions. There is a gaping cavern near the base of the massive rock face which the pagans referred to as “the gates of hell”.

 

Father Jaki argues that this massive rock structure would have been directly in the apostles’ view when they heard Christ’s words “Thou art Rock, and upon this Rock I will build my Church…and the gates of hell will not prevail against it”. The specialness of the locale would have made an impression on Peter, and also on the other apostles, an impression which probably remained with them for years afterwards as the Petrine ministry unfolded throughout Judea, Samaria, and eventually in far-off Rome. 

 

Now, if Christ considered it important to provide not only a solid foundation for His Church, but also a vivid and down-to-earth image to convey that truth, I believe that He also considers it worthwhile that children should be provided with a solid foundation in their faith life. And it wouldn’t hurt if a memorable image could be devised to accompany that foundation.

 

What is the foundation on which children may begin to build a solid faith life in the Church? In this regard, there are some striking words which appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: NOTHING IS MORE APT TO CONFIRM OUR FAITH AND HOPE THAN HOLDING IT FIXED IN OUR MINDS THAT NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD (CCC 274).

 

Although these words express a truism, nevertheless they seem to me to provide a valuable and practical starting point for teaching  children (and adults, for that matter) about Providence. If I can convince my children (and myself) that nothing is impossible to God, i.e. that He truly and literally is almighty, then we will have grounds for trusting in God at all stages of our lives. For we will then have the confidence that, at the very least, God does in principle have the ability to provide for all of our needs.

 

This leads to the practical question: how can I convince my children about the almighty power and strength of God?

 

An approach that I have found helpful in this regard goes as follows. I start with something that is strong, the strongest thing I can see, AND WHICH I CAN TAKE MY CHILDREN TO SEE, and then proceed to take the discussion to a higher level. Each catechist will have to find whatever it is that impresses him or her most in this regard. For me, the strongest structure I know is a dam across a river near my home. This structure (called the Conowingo dam) consists of a wall of concrete, almost a mile wide, and 100 feet tall. Behind that wall, there is a man-made lake containing about a billion tons of water, constantly pressing against the dam. The operators of the dam control the flow of water by opening one or more sluice gates: the more rain we have had recently, the more sluices are opened to help relieve the pressure on the dam. And when a dozen or more sluices are open, the water pouring downstream in a turbulent cascade with a thundering roar throws up spray that may reach as high as the road passing over the top of the dam.

 

Part of the dam is used to generate electricity. Along the lower face of the dam near the generators, there is a walkway where crowds of fishermen gather to ply their trade. Standing on that walkway, one can literally feel, through the steel and concrete, some of the prodigious energy of the gushing water that pours forth from the turbines.

 

When I stand on that walkway with one of my children, and we look up at the dam stretching far away on either side, and feel the vibrations of the great channels of water gushing from the dam, we have before our very eyes a powerful and direct representation of immense strength. There are undoubtedly larger dams in other parts of the country, but for me and my children, the Conowingo dam is the strongest thing we can experience first-hand.

 

And then I tell my child: strong as that dam is, God is stronger still. In fact, He is infinitely stronger. He can hold back not only the weight of the water behind Conowingo dam, but can also hold up the weight of the entire world. This provides us with a down-to-earth indication of God’s power: as we stand before the Conowingo dam, it is easy to come to grips with what might be meant by the fact that God is “all-powerful”, or  “Almighty”.

    

Paraphrasing the Preface of the Mass for Christmas, my child and I are drawn by things we can see to appreciate things that we cannot see. The hugeness of the dam is for me and my children a stepping stone to the hugeness of God’s strength.

 

     But this is only a first step towards appreciating God. My children learned in their catechism about the various Perfections of God. Not only is God almighty (they read), but He is also all-knowing, all-good, all-present, and all-loving.

 

Now once my children achieve a grasp on the Perfection of God’s almighty power, it is my hope that they can go on to appreciate the other Perfections of God, each of which also involve elements of hugeness.

 

For example, the immeasurable love that Christ has for his Father was revealed by His absolute obedience on the Cross. In order to re-establish justice and His Father’s honor, Christ “emptied Himself” (Phil. 2, 7) by literally going to the extreme limits of his humanness: He poured forth every last drop of His blood (Jn. 19, 34). For me, the vast quantities of water pouring from the Conowingo dam speak to me of the blood that poured forth in its entirety from Christ as He expressed in ultimate human terms the infinite love that He had for His Father. And my child and I come into the real presence of this love every time we attend Mass in our parish Church, especially when the priest consecrates the chalice, and Christ’s Blood is sacramentally separated from His Body on the altar.

 

And when I see the power lines stretching downstream carrying high voltage power to the surrounding countryside, I am reminded of St Paul’s vivid words: “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from His resurrection"”(Phil. 3, 10).

 

How should I teach my children about God’s perfection of knowledge? Because I am an astronomer, I like to convey to them the hugeness of God’s knowledge by having them look up at the stars on a clear night. Conditions are especially good for this when we go to a remote part of Maine for vacation: the sky is so dark there that one can see a few thousand stars with the naked eye at any one time. After staring at the stars for a while, the striking words in Psalm 147 (NAB) take on a vivid meaning:

 

“God tells the number of the stars,

He calls each by name”.

 

Now, knowing the name of each star is a truly impressive achievement: I know from the textbooks I have studied that there are about one hundred billion stars in our own galaxy alone. And there are billions of other galaxies. If God knows the name of each, then His knowledge must be huge, much more enormous than I can imagine.

 

By analogy, God’s goodness, His beauty, His justice, and any other Perfections that we would like to think about, are also more enormous than anything we can imagine.

 

However, my children need also to learn that the almighty power of God is not expressed in terms of brute strength. His almightiness goes hand in hand with tenderness, another Perfection that also exists on a grand scale. In the same Psalm that tells us about God calling each star by name (Ps. 147), there is another set of striking words that impresses me just as much as the words about the stars:

 

“God heals the brokenhearted,

He binds up their wounds”.

 

This is the God to whom I want to introduce my children: a God who is powerful enough to be bigger than anything that can ever happen to them, but who also knows how to bend down to them personally and take care of their wounds when the need arises. With this God for a Father, my child will have a firm foundation to trust in: here is Someone who not only CAN provide for all my needs, but who also WANTS to do so.

 

This is Providence at its most basic level. If my children can learn this lesson, then they will have a good chance of taking to heart what God inspired St Paul to write: “My God will provide for all your needs according to the riches of His glory” (Phil. 4, 19).

 

                With this as foundation, and with confidence in God’s providence, I hope that it will become easier for my children to practice the virtue of hope. These children of mine are growing up in a culture where there is a widespread lack of HOPE. This is strange indeed, for we live in the richest country that has ever existed in the world. Most American families operate on budget levels which are higher than anywhere else on the face of the Earth. And yet the population statistics indicate that the parents of many families are in effect saying more and more: “We will not have any more children. We cannot afford another child”. People who argue like that seem to forget that each child’s soul is created out of nothing by God: and the same God who makes the child does not forget about His creation. If God knows each mere inanimate star by name, then He will certainly know the name of each child, and take personal care of him or her. That is what Providence literally means. The virtue of hope takes God at His word and trusts that all things are in the best of hands because they are in God’s hands.

 

     Of course, teaching my children about God’s Providence is one thing: putting that teaching into practice is something else. There comes a time when each of my children (and I) must step out in faith and trust, just like St Peter had to do when he took his first step onto the water (Matt. 14, 29). The step may be as simple as having the courage to say out loud to a friend “Let’s say a prayer” when a difficult situation arises. I learned that very lesson from one of my daughters who found it helpful while babysitting at age 14: when she told me about her experience, her words inspired me to step out the very next day and use the same words with my graduate student who was searching for a job. Thanks to my daughter’s practical trust in Providence, I learned a valuable lesson about how to put into practice my own belief. And my graduate student also got a job that he is still enjoying to this day, 17 years later.

 

Even the grace to think about taking a first step out onto the water is a gift of God’s Providence. But there is no forcing involved: it is the invitation of a Father who truly wants to “provide for all of our needs according to the riches of His glory”, a Father whose power and tenderness exceeds even the hugeness of the Conowingo dam. Thanks be to God.