Dear Souls and Hearts Community Members
In this Christmas season, there is a great focus on gifts – retailers invest millions of dollars in advertising, product manufacturers try to convince you that someone in your life needs this or that gadget. Service providers work to convince you that what they offer is just what you, or your spouse or parents or children or friend need to be happier, healthier, or better in some way. Gifts. But what about the giving, and more importantly, what about the Giver?
All is Gift
No, I’m not talking about the Luke Spehar song (though it does capture some of the themes I’m discussing). I’m discussing a theological reality. All is gift. Everything. Every. Single. Thing. That. Happens. As long as you love God – that’s the one condition. The trauma you or your loved ones experienced, the relational wounds, the injustices, the tragedies – none of those invalidate or create any exceptions to St. Paul’s audacious statement in Romans 8:28.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
There are no footnotes to indicate caveats here. No exceptions except the big one — when we fail to love God. Then all bets are off and we can have unmitigated tragedies.
Orthodox priest, theologian and author, Alexander Schmemann, in For the Life of the World puts it this way:
All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God…God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation.
Your Existence and Future Hinge on your Response to “All is Gift”
I don’t think it goes too far to say that our entire existence is shaped and eventually determined by whether we really believe in Romans 8:28 or whether we gloss it over without serious consideration or whether we deny it. So many of us have parts that assume on a deep level that there was no goodness, no gift, no benefit, no upside to so many painful, distressing, traumatic or harmful events we experienced. Insistence on both the letter and the spirit of Romans 8:28 seems so counterintuitive to many of our parts that verges on ridiculous, or maybe it seems like some pious theological mystical spiritual bypassing designed to quietly let God off the hook for all the evil that happens in the world.
In Episode 22 of my Podcast, Interior Integration for Catholics, titled “The Core of Catholic Resilience” I argued that what separates more resilient from less resilient Catholics is a deep and abiding confidence in God, especially in God’s Providence. And in Episode 31, titled The One Essential You Must Have to Be Resilient, I expand on absolute necessity of confidence in God, which St. Thomas Aquinas defines as “a hope, fortified by solid conviction.” If we believe that loves us infinitely in His Providence, and perfectly in His omniscience and omnipotence, the everything He does actively or allows passively is oriented to our good. In short, all is gift.
A very accessible and approachable resource to get a better intellectual grip on God’s providence is the short book by Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint Jure and St. Claude de la Columbiere, Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence. Highly recommended to you.
The Problem of Evil
How do we square God’s Providence and “All is Gift” with the problem of evil? As a Catholic clinical psychologist, this question comes up so frequently, often from the depths of pain and distress and trauma.
How could a good God have allowed this childhood sexual abuse, the rape at age 19, the death of my baby son – how could an Almighty and All-knowing God stand back during all the wars and genocides and atrocities committed by men and women through the ages? And sometimes there’s a rider, piggybacking on the anguished cry — Don’t give me any of that “It’s a mystery” hogwash, that spiritual gibberish isn’t going to cut it on this tragedy. I want answers. I want God to render an account of Himself on this one.
Maybe you have experienced this depth of pain yourself or sensed it in the life of a loved one – when you seem stymied, unable to help.
I can offer you a witness. Over and over and over, again, without fail, I have seen that when someone comes to believe, by faith, that all is gift, when a person holds with great confidence that God is pure love, and that all His active and passive acts are good, that he is intimately aware of our suffering and pain, and when that person responds by loving back – then that person experiences a sense of peace and joy that surpasses human understanding. This is the testimony of the saints. This is why saints can choose martyrdom joyfully. They are operating on a whole different plane of existence. I want that for you.
The converse is also true. I’ve seen many people cling to very negative God images — gods that were neglectful, distant or uncaring or controlling, unreasonably demanding, harsh, and even abusive. Idols not worth worshiping. The negative God images may help make sense of the person’s experience, but that they are not accurate. The real tragedy is when we abandon Faith and allow ourselves to be taken over by parts of us that have a very limited and distorted understanding of God, So when we insist on avoiding or even renouncing God (for whatever reason), He respects our freedom and we suffer, but our alienation is by our own hand, not God’s. Then a whole host of tragedies will inevitably befall a person.
The Problem of our Foolishness and Lack of Trust
The bottom line here is that we are like sheep — references to us being sheep proliferate in Scripture. Being called a sheep is not really a compliment to our rugged individualist notions of ourselves. I’ve raised the hardiest sheep for a decade now — Katahdins and Dorpers, and they need a lot of help. Sheep are the animals that are the least prepared make it on their own. If we leave a bale string out in the pasture, it seems that a sheep will always find it, and figure out a way to tangle itself up with it, becoming helpless. Gene Logsdon, the “Contrary Farmer” has this description of sheep in his book on pasture-based farming, “All Flesh is Grass.”
As far as caring for sheep in general, one learns over the years that sheep love to die… A few sheep will find new and imaginative ways to end at all. One of my sisters kept sheep in her orchard. Her children tied a rope swing onto one of the apple tree branches. A ewe managed to hang herself on the swing. I had a ewe commit suicide by eating poisoned hemlock, even though the plant is so absolutely bitter that livestock will seldom eat more than a taste. Thought she was Socrates, I guess. My saddest story concerns one of my best ewes (always the case, it seems, who drowned herself. I cut a hole in the ice on the pond for the sheep to get a drink. The hole was not big enough for the ewe to fall into. But with the genius of the suicidal, that ewe managed to slip as she drank, lunge forward, and ram her head into the hole. She was unable to gain footing so she could not back out.
We need a our Good Shepherd. We need Divine Revelation. And we need faith and trust. We are not going to figure God out on our own, we are not going to understand Him just by our own efforts. The prophet Isaiah (55:8-9) tells us:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
We need to engage with Him in a deep personal way and have Him correct our false notions and explanations of Him through a personal experience.
Short Time Horizons
A final issue concerns our very short time horizons. This earthly life is just the opening scene in the first act of our existence. Our existence is eternal. But when we are stressed, when we lose integration, we have a hard time seeing beyond the present moment. One of my clients once gave me a handmade plaque that said “This too, shall pass.” And St. Paul, who is no stranger to suffering, tells us in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
A Catholic Resource for Understanding the Existence of Evil
A theological explanation of the problem of evil is beyond what I can do in a weekly email, but I can offer you the best, most accessible book I’ve found on the topic — Why Does God Permit Evil? – English Benedictine Monk Dom Bruno Webb wrote it while the Nazi bombs were falling on London in World War II. The book was born in the crucible of experience and is much better that the oft-cited Rabbi Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
Seeking the Human Formation and Integration Necessary to Know that “All is Gift”
In the Resilient Catholics Community (RCC) we want that resiliency, we seek to overcome our difficulties on a human level – trust issues, relationship issues that get in the way of us deeply knowing God is all good and that if we have that confidence in him, then all is gift, The whole point is to overcome the natural obstacles that keep us from a deeper relational intimacy with God and Mary.
If you really resonate with these emails and with my Interior Integration for Catholics podcast, if they really speaks to you – considering joining so many like-minded Catholics and me the RCC on our pilgrimage of human formation, grounded in the truth of the Catholic faith. Information and the application form are on our landing page here.
Thank you for reading this – let me know what you think – you can reach me via my email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my cell at 317.567.9594, especially during my conversation hours, every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern Time.
In the Infant Jesus and our Mother,
P.S. I invite you to pray with me about how all is gift in this Christmas Season, as the Magi make their way, with their gifts to the Infant Christ. I will be praying for you.