The cynic will deny the existence of Providence. That is because he wants to be the sole master of both his dowry and his destiny. What he does not realize is that God has, so to speak, beaten him to the punch. It was God, not he, who granted him existence, placed inclinations in his being, and provided him with the means to fulfill those inclinations. We do not invent our destiny, no more than we choose our parents and our place of birth. We pursue it. Without God, we can do nothing.
During Black History Month, it is most fitting to recall how Wilber Wilberforce (1759-1833) saw his role as fulfilling the providential duties that God had given him. Far from being self-centered, Wilberforce believed that the great choice he had to make in life was between self-interest and something much larger in working for God. As he stated in his diary, “My walk is a public one. My business is in the world, and I must mix in the assemblies of men or quit the post which Providence seems to have assigned me.”
Wilberforce was an Evangelical Christian and one of the leading Abolitionists in England who fought unremittingly against slavery. “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear,” he wrote, “that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.” The work of the Abolitionists proved successful and led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 which abolished slavery in most of the British Empire. Wilberforce died just three days after hearing that the passage of the Act through Parliament was assured.
The attitudes of Wilberforce and Abraham Lincoln toward slavery were strikingly similar. The former held that everyone should live “by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us.” The latter affirmed that “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” In this regards, they both upheld democratic values.
God has left the final carrying out of his Providential Plan to us. Some cooperate; others do not. We are given our life, our appetites, and the means of directing them to their proper ends. When we accede to these gifts, Providence becomes evident to us. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, “He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright”.
In America, Jackie Robinson is honored as the first black baseball player to cross the color barrier. This particular crossing, however, would not have taken place without the vision, determination and courage of Brooklyn Dodger executive, Branch Rickey (1881-1965), who, like Wilberforce before him, was a man of deep Christian faith. Rickey, who played professional football as well as baseball, detested racism and was determined to do what he could to overcome it. “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field,” he once stated, “but I sure can do something about it in baseball.”
In 1847 Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, thanks to the assistance of Branch Rickey, made his baseball debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was named baseball’s first “Rookie of the Year” and led his team to the World Series. Though he was jeered by opposing players, managers, and fans, he was extremely popular with the American public. For Mr. Rickey, his role in opening the door for blacks to play in the Major Leagues was the crowning achievement of his illustrious career and a key factor in his election to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Branch Rickey was a thinker as well as a doer. He knew that if Providence was to be fulfilled, people had to apply themselves to the God-given laws of reality. “Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen by chance,” he once stated. “Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.” No doubt, Rickey would have applauded these words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
From a philosophical perspective, “fortune” may be a better word than “luck”. We are fortunate to have a providential God. One may cite one illustrious example from history. Giovanni Fidanza (born 1221), was stricken with a grave illness when he was an infant. His mother prayed to St. Francis of Assisi who, according to the account, not only cured the child but foretold his future greatness. “O Buona Fortuna! (O Good Fortune), cried the mother, in sheer gratitude. Thus, the child was renamed Bonaventure. He became known as the “Seraphic Doctor” and ultimately, St. Bonaventure. “Man proposes, God disposes.” This oft-repeated phrase first appeared in Thomas á Kempis book, The Imitation of Christ (Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit). “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Mattthew 7:7).
We are blessed by Providence when we put ourselves in a situation to receive it. In order to hear the music, we must first turn the radio on. Providential assistance is always available. It is up to us to cooperate with its benefits. Finally, in order to find answers to some of the vexing problems associated with divine Providence, one may read Rev. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP’s excellent work, Providence: God’s loving care for man and the need for confidence in Almighty God.