In March of 2010 I visited my local parish priest and we discussed suffering, spiritual desolation, periods of dryness, the absence of spiritual consolation, and Providence. Whatever troubles I had at the time I truly cannot remember. But I left him with work to do on my own and with God.
This priest was an artist himself and truly appreciated the masters. Shy of going to Europe, he advised me to visit and spend some time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Baroque exhibit. Spend sometime there and meditate on the great paintings and pieces in this wing, he said. He seemed to be saying if the majesty of these works cannot move your spirit – no one can help you my son. Well, perhaps he didn’t go that far.
The art museum was and always has been inspiring for me. I had visited this wing as a tourist before – but not with the unrushed eye of a believer. That visit enriched my spiritual imagination and meditation as well as my appreciation for other great works of art. This advice was easy to dispatch and I have visited that wing a few times since. I must get myself to Europe as well someday.
He also recommended I read “The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi)” by Alessandro Manzoni and was astonished I had not heard or read of one of the most famous Italian novels. If he were still in my parish he would be astonished it took me 8 years and 5 months to read this famous literary work. I started this book on March 26, 2010. In this novel I am familiar with its characters despite it being set in Italy in 1628 and not published until 1842.
The lovers Renzo and Lucia are pelted by injustices, a hypocritical priest, great sufferings, and a particularly gruesome depiction of the plague that struck Milan in 1630. It is not too unlike our disappointment and great anger towards our fallen clergy today, our failing politicians, and the countless injustices committed every day in plain sight. Renzo’s journey introduces us many characters and troubles with his flight from his persecutor and consequent separation from Lucia. A chain of events ripples through the novel with vicious commentary on the human mind and condition.
When our preferred path in life is diverted, when we do not get what we want or become who we aspire to be, it may be a blessing in disguise. Our imagination may paint a glorious fantasy of what could have been had it not been for this tragedy, that one, or some other misfortune. We tend not to think that if not for that tragedy, that one, or some other misfortune we could of suffered great misery unforeseen by our limited vision of the fragility of the human experience and journey. We may even be blinded to the many gifts and opportunities that we have today by our resentment on whatever fictional grandiosity we hold as to how things should be.
Eight years later I have further insight into the meaning of suffering, spiritual desolation, periods of dryness, the absence of spiritual consolation, and Providence. There are things I desire that I cannot have or demand. No, I am not talking about man made desires – but they apply as well. Who am I to covet spiritual consolation more so than what gifts I have already received? Who am I to not accept the little crosses I carry? Who am I to be dissatisfied with the woeful adversities I have faced or may face down the road?
Is there any Providence in that it has taken me 8 years and five months to finish this novel? I think so. A lot has transpired and changed during these 8 years and five months and perhaps during several of those years I would not of had the presence to be fully appreciate completing this work of literature.
What if Jesus were to reveal himself to me and say “What do you want.” Let us say I have the courage to say I want to be close to you and do what you say. Would I be ready to give up everything and do what he says, to follow his directions after he has departed? Would I have the courage to accept suffering and fear at whatever I was called to do for receiving such a visitation? I hope so but dare not say so. However, that is exactly what we have been asked to do. He has departed and we have been left with his teachings, sacred tradition, the sacraments, and the advocate (Holy Spirit). And yet as a faith we have great difficulty applying these teachings to our daily living. In our personal journeys we tend as a faith to be risk averse, have little tolerance for inconvenience no less suffering, and more inclined to define our identity by human standards (which are sorely low) than by divine standards.
How little we understand of divine providence and suffering in general. When the mythical Renzo was faced with yet another obstacle, he “extricated himself as he could, without impatience, without bad language, and without regrets; consoling himself with the thought that every step, whatever it might cost him, brought him further on his way, that the rain would stop when God should see fit, that day would come in its own time, and that the journey he was meanwhile performing, would then be performed.”
At the end of the day though, it is still a love story. In May 2015, at a weekly general audience at St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis asked engaged couples to read the novel for edification before marriage. This is not a small ask for newly engaged couples. It is 720 pages long.
Sometimes it is enough to just love people to the best of your ability and leave the rest to God’s mercy. I would like to say we need that today more than ever, but after reading the depiction of the plague I am not so sure. And for inspiration we have great art, architecture, music, and literature to inspire and ignite our imaginations (not to replace our seeking God with images that become idols in themselves). Our focus should be on living a saintly life – aim for the ideal knowing we will all fall short (at least most of us) and have faith in God’s mercy and providence for us all.
“And for this reason, adds he, we ought to aim rather at doing well, than being well; and thus we should come, in the end, even to be better.”
What better way to participate and aim to have your life aligned with God’s providence?