Summer 1989, Vol.41 No. 2, pp. 101-111.

Thomas F. McKenna:
      Providence as Courage For Renewal

For religious women and men today, the passage from older to newer paradigms of spiritual life requires trust in Providence as a willingness to act beyond self-concern.

Fr. Thomas McKenna, C.M., teaches spirituality at St. John's University, Jamaica, NY, where he is assistant professor of theology. In 1982, he received the doctorate in sacred theology from the Catholic University of America and has served his community in a variety of formation programs.

TUCKED away in the folds of any successful effort at renewal have been certain core convictions which provided the motive power for the movement. Providence has always been one of them. Whatever form it takes at the time, belief in God's care has carried any reformer's emerging vision through the fits and starts of the birthing process. Every founding mother or father of a religious community has been pulled along by this trust and in a scanning of their writings, more likely sooner than later some variation of it comes to the surface.

The obvious link between renewal and Providence is the relation both have to the future. Literally, renewal means infusion of new life. In a Gospel context it means the breakout of the Spirit's own vitality within a group of believers as the impetus for their decision to step off into a future which they believe is God's own. Providence centers around the believer's undying conviction that the future is in some way held by God and filled with God's favor.

There is an additional strength which has to join forces with Providence if the whole trusting process is to come full circle. The disciple has to find a certain courage welling up within if his or her professed trust in God is not to be only a half life and stay in the realm of wishes.

This article will reflect on the interplay between Providence and courage. It will portray the belief in Providence necessary to renewal of religious life as a type of bravery to regive oneself to God's future and will find a more pointed lead in the trust of founder whose reliance on that reality was especially strong.

The reformer is Vincent de Paul, that seventeenth-century Frenchman who through pastoral innovation so successfully strove to lay open the Church of his day to God's new life. Looking at Vincent's enormous achievements from hindsight, it is easy to spot the divine vitality at work in his world. But standing in the shoes of an observer of the French Church of 1600 and there feeling the drag of accumulated rust on so much ecclesiastical machinery, it becomes apparent how deep in Vincent's heart was sunk the conviction that God's loving care would actually show itself off in a gracious future.

Vincent de Paul gave a variety of meanings to Providence as he wrote to the different communities he inspired.(1) The one strand we single out here is his portrayal of Providence as a trust in God's continued care:

One shall cast his care upon the Lord, convinced that as long as he shall be rooted in this charity and grounded in this hope, he will always remain under the protection of the God of Heaven. And thus no evil will befall him nor will he be wanting in any good, even though he may think that everything he possesses is about to be lost to him.(2)

Surely, the great secret of the spiritual life is to abandon all we love to him by abandoning ourselves to all he wishes in perfect confidence that all will be for the best .... He will take the place of father and mother for you. He will be your consolation, your virtue, and in the end the recompense of your love.(3)

With such counsels, Vincent almost pleads the point. Providence is a vibrant sense that the loving God will be present in the time and events stretching out before us.

That the future is spotlighted by any group intent on growth is hardly debatable. What shall we do with the people we now have? How will we allocate our financial resources? What choices should we make about service in the twenty-first century? The shape of the world to come is a live question for renewal. Providence viewed as a kind of courage gives a platform from which to address all those painfully ambiguous issues which press in so tightly on any plan for renewal.


Fundamentally, courage is the acting out of hope. An individual, for instance, is faced with a situation which involves the future. How to decide about a mission possibility, a direction to take in therapy or spiritual direction, or a stand on a social justice issue? There are two fundamental steps through which he or she must move.(4)

The first is calculation. One must plan and as a part of that try to envision all possibilities and consequences. The effort here is much like a chess game: if the bishop is moved then eight new possibilities arise. How to deal with each? As a thinking being, the reformer has an obligation to plan.

But next, that individual must make a move. Before all the pieces of the future are in hand, one has to decide. There will be no time when all the variables are in sight. Is this not preeminently the case in matters of the human heart whose depths of freedom are the least calculable factors of all? Here is born the many-times jarring realization of the frightening distance between the deed as planned and the deed as done.

Enter courage, the bridger of the chasm. The gap between the deed as not 100% calculable and the deed as accomplished is spanned by courage. The individual (or group) has a sense that out there on the opposite bank of the abyss of decision there is a welcoming something or someone. This beckoning reality is mostly unknown in shape and unforeseen to any great detail, but it nonetheless holds out nothing short of genuine rescue.

Intuiting this does not take away the felt possibility that things could go wrong, that one could miss what he or she expects fo find. But at bottom the person or group has enough hope that things are working out for the ultimate (even beyond death) best. And that is courage, the bridger between the calculated future and the unseen future. It is acted-on hope. It is the leap taken into acceptance, communion, and transformation.

In theological talk this courage is an instance of performative transcendence. It is an event wherein individuals and groups actually put their actions where their mouths are when they talk about fulfillment being in something beyond themselves. In Vincent de Paul's language, this is Providence, the happening wherein people do not simply hold up trust in God as a commendable quality and as a hallmark of strong belief, but where they take the plunge into God's future in risk and hope.


All this could go the way of unanchored speculation were it not for the path traced out by the God-human. In Jesus of Nazareth we see humanity's case study of courage before God.

It is helpful to think of Jesus here from the viewpoint of a much used phrase referring to a basic and common experience; viz. "falling into." One falls into error, into the hands of someone else, into despair, and perhaps as most frequently encountered, one falls in love.

Involved in any such happening is a going out of self into a world one no longer controls. "Falling into" is in large part a cessation of self-disposal, a loss of self-direction. The familiar disappears and one is transported into some larger universe. One falls off the edge without knowing what is at the bottom.

Many of these "falling into" experiences mark Jesus' life, especially as he grows in intimacy with his Father. In the temptation accounts, Jesus is led out into the desert to face the unknown and to cope with questions that might well swamp the closeness he feels to his Abba. The insights coming to him are inspiring but vague exhortations about the styles of deciding in his Father's Kingdom. For his part, Jesus makes statements of intent but they too are not detailed blueprints. He resolves rather to let his God be the absolute in his life in whatever form and shape that direction takes. Transposed into our phrase, Jesus says, "I will allow myself to fall into God's plans and God's ways."

The clearest example of the falling into experience occurs in the events surrounding Jesus' death. There is a slow buildup of resistance within him leading to the terror in Gethsemane. He is progressively isolated from even his closest friends. There is an ever-increasing seriousness in his mood, his growing repulsion at the road ahead, and finally his day of agony. While actually hanging on the cross, his sense of abandonment knows no previous bounds since he feels left behind not only by his friends but also by his dear Father.

The image here is of a deserted and betrayed person being led right to the edge of a great abyss and gazing there into nothing but unfathomable darkness dropping away beneath. In this extreme state of aloneness, Jesus falls into not the empty void, but into God's rescuing freedom. "Into your hand I commend my spirit" -- the falling into; "and God raised up Jesus" the gracious welcoming.

In this act of passing over, Jesus lives out what Rahner calls paschal courage. It is the ultimate instance of constructing a bridge between what is calculable and what is not, between his control over life and the unknown graciousness that he hopes is there awaiting him.

The resurrection says it indeed is there. The far bank turns out to be all mercy and life beyond anything imaginable. It was the murky anticipation of something of this sort which gave him the courage in the first place. And in fact, the only way that Jesus was able to experience his God as totally accepting and wholly on his side was actually to go ahead and leap. The full reason for courage is experienced only in the act of courage itself.


While these thoughts have their own kind of validity, there is the further question of relevance to our situation. Do they have some suitable point of insertion into modern American religious life? One juncture especially suggests itself. An opening is becoming apparent in the increasingly discernable call from what can be termed a movement from health to gift.(5) Along the path of this trajectory are to be found many helpful impulses for rebirth of religious communities.

In the past fifteen to twenty years a change that was stirring the wider culture caught up with religious life. A shift occurred away from what has been called the collective world. In political terms it was away from the totalitarian, and in religious language from the totally communitarian. In the collective paradigm, group life was normative. Its will presented itself as the value to which the member totally dedicated him or herself and in the face of which any conflicting feelings or opinions were to be surrendered. High on the universal ideal and low on concrete individuality, the collective took such names as nationalism and unquestioning patriotism in the political sphere and found its religious equivalents in terms like "uniformity" and "the good community person."

Delivering such a concentrated impact, turning out so many heroines and heroes, and by and large fitting into a more homogeneous society, the system certainly had its advantages. But it also had its underside.

The collective mindset tended not to set aside enough space and freedom for assimilation of and growth into the stated ideals. For some people it provided a crippling substitute for the tasks of personal growth. At an early stage one could identify so tightly with the community that group-belonging supplied for the essential human process of self-appropriation. The effects of such identity-formation were all too painfully seen later on in the tremendous fear and hardened resistance which arose when different communities began to experience shifts in mentality and to discuss modifications of some pivotal symbols. For the individual who had lived totally under the light of the group ideal, such changes carried the threat of nothing less than the loss of a personal center.

In the wider society, the collective gave way to the individual -- or perhaps as more usefully described, the group model was overtaken by the "health" one. The change dawned with the adoption of the map of humanity sketched out by Freud and his compatriots whereby people were escorted into the realm of the subconscious and there came more alive to inner needs and heretofore unrecognized drives. It was this new body of wisdom which supplied the heaviest-caliber ammunition for laying siege to the collectivities.

Individuals grew suspicious of enshrined group ideals because they saw that some of these were grounded not only in noble aspirations infused from above, but also in the desire of authority for more control. To be exhorted for instance to "give up one's life" suggested not only the grain of wheat dying to bring newness but also the gain in power falling to the leadership. In time the new anthropology ushered in a kind of reflex questioning of counsels such as "sacrifice everything, especially your own thinking, for the sake of the group;" and heightened a contrary desire for personal health and wholeness. This reconfiguration of values has been aptly portrayed "the rise of the therapeutic." (6) Psychotherapy is held up as a model with its attendant goals of maturation, inner adjustment, facing up to insecurities, integration of different inner images, and overall self-definition. It made beachheads in all sectors of life, from the Dr. Spock method of raising children to Woody Allen movies featuring the psychotherapist as both hero and villain, to the nationwide proliferation of human development movements, methods, and centers.

Not surprisingly, the impact of the health model was (and is) pervasive on the lives of American religious. Most all have felt the attention given to developmental issues in renewal programs. Formation allied itself in no small degree with therapy and Jung and Kohlberg stand side by side with spiritual classics in most any novitiate library.

Hardly anyone would quarrel with the gains accruing from this shift. It produced a more intelligent concern for personal maturation, less tolerance for hurtful forms of community, especially those which fostered prolonged adolescence, and more of an internal check on abuses of authority -- to name just a few. And to be sure, passing from the collective paradigm over to the therapeutic called for its own kind of bravery. For those who struggled to make this move, the paschal courage of Jesus can stir chords of hope-filled recognition.

But as one might suspect, the health paradigm is not without its own problems. The commentators who note them have grown in geometric proportion over the past few years. Tom Wolfe's phrase, "the Me Generation," sounded the opening shot of a swelling charge that narcissism had crept in to pervert the health model into an enemy of its original self. Articles about the post-health meaning of transcendence, the annoyance of Third World believers who wondered how so much energy could be devoted to personal integration when societal disintegration clamored so much more loudly as the doomsday issue and most recently the popular critiques of Alasdair Macintyre(7) and Robert Bellah and colleagues (8) about the ethical impasse in America brought on by an individualistic world view -- all are warnings homing in on the same general point.

From different angles these cautions point out that psychologically men or women tend to turn selfish when left to themselves. The critics observe how the personalist corrective to the early ideology, collectivism, has now produced a shoot on which grows a new ideology, individualism. They detail how the satisfaction of individual needs can become not just a necessary phase to be faced with courage and insight, but the final norm in terms of which everything else is evaluated.

Such critics contend that the therapy model can forget that honesty about experience is not yet choice about the direction of experience. It can miss the fact that coming to health (coping) is not solely for its self but for the sake of donation to something greater. Getting self back together and satisfying basic needs for individuation are not the end of the road but in a more totally developmental picture only the stopping off-points.

And so the critique of the health model runs: self determination. Yes, but for what? Coping, adjustment, living in one's body, maturation, needs being met, development of one's own gifts! Amen, but to serve what reality/cause beyond self? At root the entire criticism is an attack on a flattened, isolated view of the human self and a call to keep going beyond in order to "fall into" something still greater.

The reader recognizes that these cautions are not meant to be reservations about health or therapy as such. No one can really give him or herself away unless there is something genuine within to give away in the first place. But the questions however do issue the warning that self-concern creeps in if personal integration is the only value in the field. They imply further that there is a reality out beyond the goals of the health paradigm which beckons the person into uncontrollable surroundings and which might even at times have the appearance of death. The criticisms grant that the call to go beyond one's insecurities involves real transcendence and even applauds the bravery needed for passing over fixated places. But they also hold that there is a further transcendence which consists of a move beyond even that healed self.


We are back at Christian courage, the bridger of the distance between what one can see and what is calling out as fulfillment even though it be unknown, risky, and unsettling. At the time religious were feeling at home with a collective personality, this paschal courage enabled them to take the leap into the unknown land of feelings, needs, and intimate gifts. But perhaps at this juncture when many are relatively peaceful with the health/ growth issues, paschal courage can again be an enabler, this time for the further plunge into concerns more expansive than a given individual's growth. It can help members pass over into God's agenda for the world, so to speak, especially as it is indicated by communal deliberations which are usually concerned with issues wider than one person's peace of mind and self-development. The new shift can be the prod to a change from regarding the group's prime function as provider for the health and growth of its members over to viewing its fundamental job as moving outward towards God's causes in a wider world.

While it would be wrong for a congregation to revert to the collectivity making all decisions or the group-think of the earlier model and not paying enough attention to individual needs, it would be equally questionable for it to guide itself by the goals of a purely therapeutic community with primary focus on the self-development of its members and not in some effective way calling them beyond the individual issues to ones of transforming their environment.

American religious of the late 1980's have a clearer vision of their mission than they did even ten years ago. As communities, they generally see themselves as people who live communally because like their founders they are of a mind that it is better to act together than to work alone. As followers of hope-filled believers like Vincent de Paul, they might be experiencing the call to view themselves as developing individuals who are opting at a post-collectivity stage to throw in their lot with the communal effort, even when the particulars of that lot are not really known or might at times even appear closer to dying than living. And therefore, they might well be feeling within themselves a great need for the paschal kind of courage, for this kind of Christ-inspired "falling into," which people like Vincent de Paul leave as their heritage.

One can listen with deeper appreciation for the truth of the Providence that such a reformer holds out for us today: "Surely, the great secret of the spiritual life is to abandon all we love to him... in perfect confidence that all will be for the best. He will take the place of our father and mother. He will be our consolation... and in the end the recompense of all our love."

  1. E.g, counsels to wait patiently for God's hand to reveal itself, calls to indifference about means in light of the overall movement toward the Kingdom, prayers to grow in confidence that God has a hidden plan, advice that haste is to be made slowly so as not to second-guess the divine intention, etc. Pierre Coste, St. Vincent de Paul: Correspondence, Entretiens, Documents (Paris, 1926), vol. 14.
  2. Common Rules of the Congregation of the Mission (Paris, 1660) chapter 2, sec. 2.
  3. Coste, vol. 8, pp. 255-56.
  4. Karl Rahner, "Faith as Courage," Theological Investigations, vol. 18 (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 211-25.
  5. Leo O'Donovan, "The Pasch of Christ: Our Courage in Time," Theological Studies, 42, 3: (September, 1981) 353-72.
  6. O'Donovan, p. 354 (citing the work of Philip Rieff).
  7. After Virtue, (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1981).
  8. Habits of The Heart: Individualism and Committment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California, 1985).