Providence?

Last week I wrote a blog entry describing problems with my bowel and “small moments of grace.” As I reread that blog from a different vantage point today, it really does seem like the author is a super spiritual sanctimonious twot. Isn’t he wonderful, such a man of faith in the face of hard times? Vomit.

The author of this current entry (perhaps an alien has exchanged the brain in the body that looks like Shane Clifton) cannot see any grace in the midst of godforsakenness. He spent three days last week in bed and thought the issue was over. Monday, he went to Prince of Wales (outpatients visit with Dr, physiotherapy, MRI, x-ray – nothing like a day at hospital to turn the skin green). Tuesday he went to college, taught a class in the morning, but at two o’clock in his office his tummy rumbled and out came the poo. Off he went to the train, but missed it by 15 seconds. Another half an hour wait on the platform, and for good measure his bum opens again. Gets the next train, and of course the movement brings more crap – which manages to find its way onto the floor of the carriage. He stinks to high heaven, and like the toddler who covers his eyes and imagines he is alone, he pretends that the carriage is empty. He makes it home eventually and his carers turn up at 5 for a horrendous cleanup.

Wednesday (today) he is woken, taken to the toilet, showered and put back into bed. Two hours later he is on the phone to his friend and, surprise surprise, the body leaks. Another surreal experience, a phone poo.

Providence? Faith? Moments of grace?

And as he finishes another appalling blog post (sorry if it hits your inbox when you’re eating), he asks again, why is he writing and publishing this? I suspect he just needs to vent, to shout into the void. So don’t pity him and don’t kid yourself that he is anywhere near being an inspiration. Just pray a quick prayer (Daniel and Bianca, you can light a candle). He doesn’t have the faith right now to hope it will make much difference, but he likes to be prayed for. There is something comforting in the thought of friends in prayer, whatever its connection to the providential workings of God.

The Strangeness of Prayer and Providence

Life is all a matter of perspective. Let me tell you the same story in two ways – don’t worry, I will keep it short.

On Thursday I had a class to teach in the afternoon at Hillsong in Baulkham Hills (feminist theology and the doctrine of the Trinity – one of my favourite subjects). I woke up feeling a little bit uncomfortable but nothing serious enough to keep me from taking the journey to class. Just as I was about to leave, however, my chair broke down. The challenge with an electric chair is that mechanical problems can leave you stranded. So, I cancelled my class, got hoisted back into bed, and went about trying to arrange a repair. About an hour later I noticed my tummy rumbling and the result, given I have no control of that part of my body, was pure yuckyness. Once again my brilliant carers to the rescue.

So what has this got to do with providence? Well, if my chair had not broke down, I would have been on the way to Hillsong – perhaps even in class – and the result does not bear thinking about. As things stood, I needed to spend two days in bed (perhaps more – I’m still there), and so the fact that it took two days to repair my chair was of no consequence. All in all I am able to thank God for his providential care in this odd confluence of events.

Or am I?

Of course, I might also be able to complain about providence, given that both my broken chair and broken bum prevented me from making my class and kept me stuck in bed.

Now if you really want to send your brain in circles, ask yourself what prayer I should pray in this situation? Of course I have prayed (and I would invite you to pray on my behalf) that this current sickness leaves me. But the challenge of this prayer is that this current problem is subsidiary to a larger one – and God does not seem to have answered the many faithful prayers that I might “take up my bed and walk” (John 5:8).

For many, these are the difficulties that lead to atheism or agnosticism. I understand that. If I’m honest, I am also sometimes agnostic – a Christian agnostic, wondering where on earth God is. But it is contemplation of Christ, his revealing God in the midst of his godforsakenness, that reminds me that faith is not predicated on my control of God through prayer, nor on the assumption that life should be free from crisis and pain. If all of life is understood as gift, as a wondrous spark amidst the fragility and finitude of the universe, then there is reason for thankfulness for the small moments of grace.

So, thank you God that my wheelchair broke down yesterday.

Romans 8:26 the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Virtue and happiness

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about “the good life” and, in particular, what it might mean to try to lead such a life in the face of the loss of many of the things that make it enjoyable. For those of you familiar with the “virtue tradition”, I have been reading Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and through him the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas (the originals are readily accessible online, have a read).

According to this tradition the end or the goal of human life is happiness. Given the pressures of the last year, this seems like a goal that is completely out of my reach. But by “happiness”, what is intended is not fleeting pleasure. As Aristotle observes,

to be happy takes a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed5 and happy.

What Aristotle is looking for is that deeper and more permanent pleasure that comes over a lifetime of living well.

What is it, then, to live well? According to Aristotle and Aquinas, it is to live virtuously. To be virtuous is to live according to our purpose, and so to be happy. Actually, this is too simplistic a summary. It is to live in contemplation of truth, ultimately divine truth. Such contemplation leads to thinking about goodness and virtue.

So, what this suggests is that I can be happy – to know deep happiness – even though the circumstances of life might be utterly depressing (I’m stuck in bed again with the pressure mark on my bum, the second in a month). The challenge, though, is to live virtuously during these times, and I think that is easier said than done. You might think I seem like I am being virtuous (courageous, patient etc) but that is because you do not have to live with me! Fortunately, Aristotle allows the story of my life – and not this brief period in time – to define my happiness.

And yet Aristotle requires that I live virtuously, especially in tough times, since these are when patience and courage and self mastery and hardiness (to name a few of the ancient virtues) are most needed. Yet they are also the times when vice seems more likely, impatience, cowardice, Irascibility et cetera. And so we need help from God and from our friends. That is why in the scriptures virtue is seen as a fruit of the spirit:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Of course, this may all be wishful thinking. Perhaps the good life has nothing to do with virtue and everything to do with luck; with whether or not you are lucky enough to get rich and stay healthy. Maybe the best of lives would be to have it all, prosperity and virtue. But they don’t often seem to go hand in hand, and since I cannot have the former I guess I can at least try for the latter. For that, I think, I shall need plenty of prayer!