Mary Ann Fatula, O.P., holds a doctorate in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.
AS we enter into the spirit of hope at the heart of this Advent season, the extraordinary world developments of this past year invite us to reflect on what it means for us to trust in God’s care for us. In this past year we have witnessed movements toward democracy in communist countries, astounding developments that have turned a cold war between eastern and western powers into a search together for peace. And even in the midst of crises such as the Persian Gulf conflict, these other developments, nothing less than miraculous, give us new reason to trust the assurance of mystics such as Thomas Aquinas, Karl Rahner and Julian of Norwich: the God who has made us and redeemed us not only can but also will, in Jesus, make all well that is not well — in the world and in our own lives.(1)
LIVING IN TRUST
Seven hundred years ago, Thomas Aquinas recognized in the amazing turn for good that world events can take — even in the face of the most impossible obstacles — an indisputable sign of God’s providence at work in the world.(2) This same provident love is no less forceful in our own lives, if only we learn to expect it and to trust the God who delights in giving it. In one of his sermons, Aquinas urges us to match God’s lavish giving to us with equally extravagant trust in God. Aquinas compares us to a beggar who expects no more than a penny from an outrageously wealthy and generous king. (3) But our paltry trust insults God’s limitless generosity by expecting from God only what a stingy miser would give. Aquinas, in this way, gives us a powerful image for Paul’s own conviction: “God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all; will this same God not also give us all things with him?” (Rom 8:32).
Aquinas’ appeal for our unrestrained trust in God’s care is mirrored in the thought of a contemporary theologian who had far less reason to believe that all would indeed be well in the world. A newly edited translation of interviews with Karl Rahner in his last years evidences the touching and simple trust of this great man. Several years ago, Rahner was asked if he was hopeful that the world could avoid a nuclear holocaust. Yes, he answered, but he knew that his hope went contrary to all the available evidence. “As far as I can see, there are no conditions that have the capacity at the moment to force the other side to act in such a way that a catastrophe will be avoided.”(4) And yet, Rahner added, “I believe that God will triumph over the stupidity and malice of humankind. God will not abandon us (FW 158; emphasis added). Rahner could not have predicted the events which this past year has produced: unforeseen, miraculous developments which now vindicate his hope in the face of apparently hopeless conditions.
Rahner’s hope was not only for the world’s preservation from destruction; his trust extended to that final ‘destruction’ we each have to face: our own death. Rahner admits that as he grew older he could not escape seeing his life flow in some way “into disappointment, simply because death waits at its end” (FW 104). He recalls how different it is when we are young. Grandiose plans fill our minds and hearts, and we see only visions of success ahead of us. But as we grow older, we find instead another reality: unrealized plans, dreams that never materialized, health and energy that grow less vigorous each day. But how are we to face these disappointments? It is true that we can rant against the injustices life has dealt us or refuse to let go of what had been wrested from us. But our own experience proves how surely this attitude only increases our misery. Rahner invites us to do, instead, what he himself chose to do: hand over to God our whole life, our disappointments and pains, our successes and failures and sins; hand over, indeed, our very incapacity to deal with the mess that our life may seem to become. For though we may have known many blessings and accomplishments, the reality of original sin means that none of us can escape a certain amount of “mess” in our life. And “only God can make sense out of [the] mess,” Rahner assures us! (FW 105; emphasis added).
Rahner loved the figure of St. Francis in this regard. Francis does not offer us a “recipe” for dealing with our pain and disappointments. But in this time of preparation before Christmas, when the media tell us that we and our loved ones cannot live without the very best in material goods, Francis shows us the uselessness of valuing what, in the face of death itself, fades into insignificance — possessions, success, money, power, even treasured relationships and our health itself. In learning to treasure an intimate relationship with Jesus above all else in the world, Francis underwent a radical conversion that showed him how truly little we need to be happy. And by his life, Francis asks us whether there is anything less than God that we identify with our self WW 121).
TRUST IN THE FACE OF DIMINISHMENT
Francis himself was not spared disappointment, failure, sickness. Before his death he seemed to see a collapse of all he had worked for in his life. But, as Rahner points out, Francis learned to be at peace with his disappointments and failures, even with his own death and the diminishment that attends it. He learned to praise God not only for his dear brother, the warm sun, and his sister, the sparkling spring water, but also for his sweet friend and sister, death (FW 122).
In our own way, each of us faces what Francis had to face. As we grow older, our losses outnumber our apparent gains; our failures outrun the successes. With each year, we give up more of what is dear to us, not because we want to, but because we cannot keep it from being taken from us. We begin to lose, one by one, our family and friends to death. Our memory grows less reliable, our body less vigorous. We become sick; our marriage ends; a close friend fails us. Our energy escapes us, and success. evades us.
At this point, Rahner comments, our peace and inner freedom hang in the balance. Life itself then begins to ask us whether we can freely let go, yes, even with trust and a gentle smile, of what has, in fact, already been taken from us (FW 121).
The disappointments of the past and injustices of the present that wound us, the losses that outrage us, all of these are provisional, secondary, in comparison with the one ultimate reality which embraces us in our every need: the infinitely tender and provident love of God given to us in Jesus. Rahner admitted that he had witnessed countless scandals and had himself been the victim of not a few injustices. And yet, he confessed, measured by the intimate love of Jesus for us, everything else takes second place: “For me all the anger is in the end secondary” (FW 142).
Rahner reminisced about his own life. Once he was told that he could write only in conjunction with a Roman censor. His response was simply to think, “Well, I just won’t write anymore, and then the matter is over and done with, right?”(5) But God’s providence provided a different answer. Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, and the matter of censoring Rahner was forgotten entirely.
Criticism of Rahner continued to the end. A short while before his death, a proposal for church unity which Rahner made in a book he wrote with Heinrich Fries was judged by Ratzinger to be “utter nonsense” (WS 143). Did he get “worked up” about this? Or did he fume about the way some people began dismissing his theological insights as “the grumblings of an old man?” Well, Rahner responded, life had taught him that this kind of “unfair” treatment should be expected; it is simply a “normal consequence of old age. One shouldn’t let oneself get worked up about it” (IR 71).
Rahner recalled also the time he had spoken with Paul VI in a private audience. He reminded the pontiff how, a few years earlier, the “Holy Office” had forbidden him to publish any theological writings on concelebration. But, Rahner reminded the pope, “Today you yourself concelebrate.” The pope smiled and said quietly, “Yes, there is a time for laughing and a time for crying.” Rahner was not sure exactly what the pope meant, but he was sure about what this incident proved to him: we may never conclude that “everything said is said in vain” (IR 72).
And so, Rahner confided to his interviewer, he could never get very “worked up” about unfair treatment he received. In his own life, God’s providence somehow always found a way to prove itself stronger than everybody else’s schemes. In fact, Rahner confided, he learned not to worry about anything; in the end, God always worked things out for the good anyway (IR 63).
But what about disappointments of another, perhaps more difficult kind? What about the diminished energy we suffer, for example, as we grow older? Rahner admitted that with his growing age he himself had to surrender to increasing limitations in carrying out his theological work. And yet, if he could do only two or three hours, or even only a half hour of productive theological work a day, he hoped he would simply do that little bit and be satisfied with that. He recalled the figure of Albert the Great: “At the end of his life he forgot all of his magnificent theology.” Finally, the great theologian, philosopher and scientist could do nothing more complicated than pray the “Hail Mary” (ER 103).
If this happens also to us, Rahner writes, then “good.” Let us gently accept our situation and by God’s mercy cope with it. For on our deathbed everything will be taken from us, even our power to fight our diminishment. When this happens, “all the better.” “Then, I believe, you find yourself all the more in God’s hands and no longer in your own. And you are better protected and more secure in God’s hands than where you think you must be in control at all costs” (IR 103).
Rahner knew from his own experience that it is natural for us to feel more lonely with growing age. And certainly, he writes, we can try to numb the pain by self-pity or clinging to others. We can try to fill up our emptiness with things, or assuage our sense of uselessness with all kinds of busy work. But it is much more simple and healing for us, Rahner comments, if we simply admit that we live in a world that is now livelier than we are, and that it has tasks to be done that we cannot do anymore. Most of all, we can turn in our loneliness to the God who intimately loves us; we can spend time not simply doing projects but truly giving ourselves to God and to others. In not running from our loneliness, we can experience a mysterious kind of fullness, a fullness of love that anticipates the grace of our death (IR 104).
Indeed, we can learn even to enjoy our growing age! When an interviewer asked Rahner if he allowed himself to enjoy some of the good things of life, he responded, “Certainly, and why not?” He recalled with relish how, when he was young, a Jesuit noted for his asceticism had told him, “The good things in life are not only for the rascals!” (IR 84).
Asked if he feared death, Rahner answered that we have the right to be afraid of death. In shrinking from death himself, Jesus gave us the right to be afraid! Rahner acknowledged that he felt no dreadful fear of death at that moment, but he would have to wait and see. If he could stay unafraid of death, that would be good. But even if he would begin to fear death, he would simply give his very fear, too, along with everything else, to God. “If I am afraid of death, then I shall hand myself over to God’s grace” (IR 106).
When Rahner was asked whether he believed that we would escape nuclear destruction, he answered that our very trust in God obliges us to do all in our power to avert such a colossal disaster. This same trust obliges us to work actively to right wrongs wherever we find them (IR 111). Knowing that “in the final accounting nothing can go wrong” for us because we trust in God, we will not run from problems but rather will face them head on. And when the cause warrants it, we will dare everything, even at the risk of our lives (FW 189). But even if our efforts seem to prove useless, we must never despair of God’s power to make well all that is not well.
Thus, Rahner comments, it would be “all too horrible and frightful” if our world were to fall victim to a terrible tragedy. But even if we were to destroy ourselves by atomic weapons, even if the whole human race were to “fall into the abyss;” even then, Rahner assures us, he would still trust in the infinitely provident love of God. “I would still be firmly convinced …that such an abyss. . .ultimately ends in the arms” of God (IR 111).
This kind of trust in apparently hopeless situations is no merely natural hope in the future but rather a gift of God, an “eschatological reality” that entrusts us to God’s own loving embrace. And for those who trust in God, even in the most hopeless of situations, finally, “nothing can go wrong” (FW 189).
EVERY KIND OF THING SHALL BE WELL
Five hundred years before Rahner, the fourteenth century English mystic Julian of Norwich contemplated the same mystery: because Jesus has been given to us, “all will be well and every kind of thing will be well” for us (225). In Jesus, God cares for us not simply in the great things, but also even the little: “the smallest thing [is] not forgotten” (231). And so our inescapable call is to respond with lavish trust in God’s extravagant care for us.
When Julian balked at the “unreasonableness” of such reckless trust, Jesus himself assured her: “What is impossible to you is not impossible to me …. And I shall make everything well” (233; emphasis added). “I never remove my hands from my works, nor ever shall without end . … How should anything be amiss?” (199). If we saw now the joy that will be ours in heaven, Jesus seemed to tell her, nothing could finally trouble us (215). Having healed already the worst possible harm in human history, the sin of our first parents, God certainly will not withhold from us the healing of anything less (228).
Julian was in this way assured that in Jesus everything shall be made well, and that God wants from us most of all our unreserved trust (196). We are to trust God even in our weakness, even in our sin; for those who love God, all things work together unto the good (Rom 8:28). Julian recalls a saint she knew; he was deeply loved by the Lord, and yet, “the Lord allowed him to fall.” But God’s love for him was more powerful than even his sin. God turned his weakness to the good, filling his heart with even greater depths of charity, humility and compassion. Thus Julian saw that God rewarded him in heaven with joys infinitely greater than if he had never fallen. And she realized that “all this was to make us glad and happy in love” (243; emphasis added). Therefore, “let us meekly recognize our weakness,” she writes, “knowing that we cannot stand for the twinkling of an eye except with the protection of grace.” And in everything, “let us reverently cling to God, trusting only in him” (281).
But how shall we gain such trust? Our own experience shows us that we cannot give ourselves even the ability to trust. This kind of unreserved confidence in God can come only from God. Our way is simply to ask for it, to pray for it. And even if our prayer itself seems pointless, we are simply to keep on praying. “Though you may feel nothing, though you may see nothing, yes, though you think that you could not, for in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and in weakness, then is your prayer most pleasing to me, though you think it almost tasteless to you” (249).
And so we contemplate the good news of this season: even if we cannot yet see the full effects of Jesus’ saving work in the world, or in our own lives, the God of unbounded love has already made well, in Jesus, all that is not well in the universe. All the more, then — as mystics such as Karl Rahner, Thomas Aquinas and Julian of Norwich urge us to trust — will this same provident God heal all that is not well in us and in those we love. This Advent time of hope and gentle waiting thus encourages us to pray for a healing of our anxiety and discouragement, of our feeble trust and hope. Even more, this season invites us to ask for a confidence in God that honors, by its own lavishness, the unbounded largesse given to us in Jesus.
- Julian of Norwich, Showings ch. 32. Translated and Introduction by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and James Walsh, S.J. (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 233. Further references to this text will simply cite the page number.
- Truth, q. 5, a. 5.
- “Petite et Accipietis;” in J. B. Raulx, ed., Sermones et Opuscula Concionatoria (Paris, 1881), 453.
- Karl Rahner, Faith in a Wintry Season: Conversations and Interviews with Karl Rahner in the Last Years of His Life. Edited by Paul Imhof and Huber Biallowons. Translation edited by Harvey D. Egan (New York: Crossroad, 1990), 757. Further references to this text will be cited as FW.
- Karl Rahner, I Remember: an Autobiographical Interview with Meinhold Krass. Translated by Harvey D. Egan, S. J. (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 63. Further references to this text will be cited as IR.