February 14, 2023 // Perspective

Seeing God’s work in retrospect

Gazing at the snow-topped bluffs, those steadfast sentinels that keep watch over the Mississippi River, I was filled with wonder. Snow gently fell, as if each flake were being placed by hand, the way young children sometimes carefully and meticulously arrange their toys. Lights pierced the snowy darkness, turning the distant scene to the cloudy snowfall that seems more fog than snow. Cold nipped at my face. And as I walked with my friend, I marveled.

Not because the scene was so extraordinarily beautiful, although it was. I marveled because I couldn’t believe what God had done in my life. Every now and again we get a glimpse of God’s action in our lives. We see the past in a different light, because we’re able to see God’s hand in places we formerly hadn’t. When I returned to my former college campus to give a talk on the Eucharistic Revival, I expected to enjoy my friends and share a few memories. I did not, however, expect for God to reveal so much of His work in my life.

What I’m talking about is far more powerful than nostalgia. It’s the kind of thing that Eveyln Waugh captured at the beginning of “Brideshead Revisited.” In the opening pages of the novel, Lieutenant Charles Ryder describes his reaction to hearing the name of the estate he visited as a youth, saying that his colleague “had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.”

Memory is an integral theme of Waugh’s novel. It becomes the thread that God tugs as grace draws the protagonist near. And memory can be ardent, even consuming for us.

In Book X of his “Confessions,” St. Augustine praises the amazing power of memory. He describes memory as a storehouse, in which we’ve packed away the things we’ve sensed. “When I am in this storehouse,” he writes, “I demand that what I wish should be brought forth, and some things immediately appear; others require to be longer sought after, and are dragged, as it were, out of some hidden receptacle; others, again, hurry forth in crowds, and while another thing is sought and inquired for, they leap into view, as if to say, ‘Is it not we, perchance?’” Like shoppers wandering down the aisles of our lives, we look and sample this or that thing. Some memories, when they spring forth, overwhelm.

“I will soar, then, beyond this power of my nature also, ascending by degrees unto Him who made me,” says St. Augustine. I’ve heard it said that one of the reasons that God does not reveal His designs at once to us, is because they are so good that we would be overwhelmed. We cannot fathom what He really has in store for us. And were we given the full thing; we wouldn’t be able to handle it.

So instead, God reveals Himself to us bit by bit. And we often see Him mostly clearly in retrospect. With time and distance, we are able to more freely attribute the events of life to God’s Providence. What was once sorrowful or frustrating can be appreciated as cathartic, even purgative. And joys can be fully embraced, their warmth still burning brightly despite the exhaustive nature of time.

Let us remember then, these winter days, the paths we’ve walked and hills we’ve crossed. For now, and again, God will show us that we weren’t forging a path alone, but that His love guided us then and directs us still.

Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, is Editor of Our Sunday Visitor. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickMaryOP.

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