As we approach New Year's, social media sites are being flooded with posts and commentaries that all bring up the same thing, in one form or another: 2013 was a weird year, and not a good kind of weird, either. My favorite of these posts comes from the blogging website Tumblr (yes, I'm on Tumblr; no, I don't have much of a social life), which said “[sic] 2013 was my character development year which means 2014 is strictly action and story progression and i dont know about you but i’m excited” (Here's the link to the original post: http://tapdancers.tumblr.com/post/70431736223/). I think one of the reasons why I find this so amusing and apt is because this touches on an important lesson that I've learned this year: the power of God's providence.
Wait. We should back up. I just realized that was a horrible and totally impersonal introduction, with a side of mysteriousness (not the cool, tall-dark-stranger kind either, but the confusing kind). I should introduce myself. My name is John-Paul Heil. I over-tax myself with a lot of extra-curricular activities at my university, and I manage to pull them all off, because I think sleep is for smart, healthy, well-rounded human beings, and I am none of those things. I make a lot of bad jokes (which I often deliver in parentheticals. I overuse parentheticals, by the way. You can skip them if you'd like, but, if you'll permit a brief digression, I've always been a fan of parentheticals. Not many people are anymore, but I am, because I think they kind of serve as a way of getting the author's notes between the margins into the text itself. Parentheticals is where you find an author's soul. I guess that means my soul is mostly bad jokes, which makes sense) and I've been told that I have a wit that's dryer than one of those sponges that you leave out after cleaning up from Thanksgiving dinner that gets all crusty and that you can never quite get damp again. I promise this entire thing won't be as self-centered as this paragraph has been. Hang with me here, we're getting to the good bits.
Recently, I got myself mixed up leading something called Kairos. Kairos, for the uninitiated (I won't be spoiling any Kairos secrets. Sorry.), is a Catholic retreat which centers around the idea of time: reflecting on the past, preparing for the future, implementing better faith practices for the present, and most importantly giving God the time He deserves. This last facet really appealed to me when I applied to lead—I had been trying to give God the time He deserved, and I thought that leading would be a good way to keep myself accountable (it was). I gave a talk on the nature of suffering itself, the eponymous question, specifically in terms of suffering. The main thesis of the talk was that it should be a reflection on why, if He is truly all-good, God allows human beings to suffer—Kairos is careful to point out that the talk should not attempt to answer the question. After reading this, I quickly decided that my talk should attempt to answer the question.
I was supposed to share my witness in such a way that it answered this loaded metaphysical question on the nature of suffering. My major concern was being able to relate my story to the retreatants. I'm eighteen years old. I started reading when I was two and after my parents discovered this fact, they home-schooled me until college. I graduated at fifteen. Since the age of three, I've been discerning a religious vocation. Until the end of my first semester as a senior in high school, I assumed I would be going into college seminary after I graduated. After a long and complicated story which you probably don't want to hear about anyway, I learned that I would not be able to attend college seminary because of my age. As I'm sure high school seniors can attest, early December is not exactly the greatest time to learn that one's college plans have suddenly been thrown out the window. I had had an idea of what God was calling me to do and, in a very short amount of time, everything I thought I knew about my vocation was thrown out the window. I headed to college at the age of sixteen. I had always quietly resented being younger than my intellectual peers: I was frequently looked down on because of my age, and now my age had prevented me (at least I thought) from doing God's will. I questioned God and questioned myself. I probably wouldn't have gotten through my freshman year if it hadn't been through the support of my family, a whole lot of prayer, and, most surprisingly, the friendship of people I met at school. Though it was far from smooth sailing, by the time I started my sophomore year in August 2012, I had reconsidered my previous doubts. I started believing that maybe going to college is what God had wanted for me all along.
Then came 2013, and things got more complicated. The same friends who had opened their hearts and welcomed me into their lives suddenly turned their backs on me. My two closest friends, in particular, were the source of these troubles: I had gotten into a fight with the pair of them after I insisted that they actually liked each other, which didn't end well (we later reconciled and are still very close—the two of them have since started dating and are very happy together). I was devastated; I was being abandoned by everyone, including (it seemed) God. At the same time, however, one of my acquaintances, who I knew only tangentially through the friends who had just abandoned me, was going through friend troubles of her own. Our paths crossed, and we became closer friends. Eventually, she became my best friend. I was there when her boyfriend (whom I am also close friends with) proposed to her and, hopefully, I'll be part of her life for a very long time. However, I would not have been in her life at all if I had not suffered the loss of my other friends. My suffering, though I did not realize it at the time, had meaning.
To return to the original prompt, theologically speaking, there are three major answers to this question of why humanity suffers, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is because, as sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we are subject to our own concupiscence, subject to sin. We hurt God, despite His infinite Goodness towards us, and for that reason, it is just that we should suffer calamities. The second is so that we can offer up our sufferings to glorify God. The third is so that these sufferings can bring about God's larger plan for us. The last reason is called providence.
What I've realized looking back on the year, especially in relation to the greater context of my life, is how much my temporary suffering was all part of God's plan, God's providence. Providence is an interesting idea in the Catholic tradition, and one can sometimes be bandied about without fully realizing its meaning. What is its meaning? The philosopher Boethius (yes, yes, we're going to talk about philosophy—stay with me, I promise this'll be fun) used an allegory to describe God's providence: imagine you are at a chariot race. Or a drag race. So you're sitting up there and looking down at the action below you. From your vantage point, you can see things that the players themselves might not be able to: a crashed chariot, a careening car, a falling wide-receiver. From your position, you can see the totality of the game and make predictions about what's about to happen next. God's providence works in a similar way. God sits above all of Creation and can see all of time and space in its totality, all at once. God can see all of our actions and the effects that our actions will have. From this position, God can influence the course of our lives, placing obstacles or helps in our path that are all for our benefit and will ultimately bring us closer to Him.
I've seen a lot of God's providence in my life recently. Without the suffering that I've had to go through, I would not be the man I am today. Of course, that doesn't mean that my life is champagne and roses. These are the barest bones of my story, and there are still a lot of things I've gone through, even as recently as this past semester, that I question why I went through. Despite this, I think I've found an answer to why we suffer, at least one that is fairly satisfying for me personally: “so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (that's right I'm pulling out the big guns y'all just got 1 Peter 1:7-ed) and, if we praise, glory, and honor the revelation of Christ, Christ will repay us in ways we cannot comprehend now.
So when I saw that post on Tumblr (you know, whenever I type that out, I just can't take it seriously), I started thinking about that question of why we suffer again, in the context of the year 2013. 2013's been a pretty (pardon my laconicality) crappy year for a lot of people. The government shut down, the Earth is running out of bees and helium, and “Wrecking Ball” topped charts. That being said, I think 2013 as a whole has been a chance for us to fire-try our faith, to grow in becoming more like Christ, to develop as well-rounded characters in the story of our lives. So, if you've been thinking about 2013 as a bad year, or a confusing year, or a year that was, for the most part, disappointing, I encourage you to think about all the blessings you've received this year as well. Think about all the people in your life who have helped you, who care about you. Think about the person you were a year ago and how different (and hopefully better) you are now. 2013 has not been a waste, my friend, and, if you open yourself to God's providence, 2014 will not be worthless either.
John-Paul Heil is a junior at Mount St. Mary's University, where he is triple-majoring in Philosophy, Italian Studies, and History and minoring in English; he is studying abroad in Florence, Italy in the spring semester of 2014. He is the oldest of eight siblings, and some say he is the result of a failed government experiment to combine human and Time Lord DNA. He plans on pursuing a doctorate in Philosophy after graduating and is currently discerning his vocation.