Leave Nothing to Chance

‘Chance,’ says Anatole France, ‘is only the pseudonym God uses when he doesn’t want to sign his name’

John William Waterhouse, “Dante and Matelda,” ca. 1914-1917
John William Waterhouse, “Dante and Matelda,” ca. 1914-1917 (photo: Public Domain)

There are no accidents with God. No serendipities will fall from the sky today without God knowing and willing their descent. However sudden and unforeseen their appearance, however much they may startle and delight the earthbound creature, it is by divine design alone that God allows us to hear every bell and whistle from above. Has he not already counted the hairs on our head?

And so next time you find yourself struck by the unexpected event, do not call it chance, as if the universe were nothing more than a random swirl of atoms. Because it is but an instance, endlessly replicated in a world which did not make itself, nor does it sustain itself, of the hidden choreography of God.

“Chance,” Anatole France tells us, “is only the pseudonym God uses when he doesn’t want to sign his name.” 

It ought to become a habit, therefore, as Luigi Giussani urges, “to perceive in all things — from the boughs of the tree to the hairs of the person you love — the presence of the Mystery that became a man in flesh and blood. … Getting used to seeing this in everything is a history that God allowed you to begin.”

It might not be a bad idea, in other words, to try and get accustomed to giving God permission to work his magic in our lives, permission to send out his epiphany rays. He will do so anyway, of course, but what a blessing to join our will to his and thus see it all unfold day by day. How unwelcome can that be? To see life, not as chance, but as dance, and to learn the steps along the way. The Lord of the Dance will show us how. In fact, he longs to perform it with us, as together we dance before our common Father in Heaven. How felicitously does the poet Hopkins put it in the following fragment, reminding us how, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in eyes and lovely in limbs not his; / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

Let me tell you a quick story of how I was freshly reminded of this fact. It happened in a small but wholly unexpected way. The other day, sitting down to a cup of coffee and a donut in a strange city, I reached for my old, battered copy of Dante — turning, almost by accident you might say, to the first canto of the Paradiso. 

To be sure, an odd choice for a donut shop, but not for someone no more odd than I. People may say, to paraphrase Logan Pearsall Smith, that life’s the thing, but I’d rather be reading. Now you’ll need to know at this point when exactly it all happened. Because the point of the story turns on knowing both day and time. Precisely. And so it was exactly at noon on a Wednesday. That was the exact moment I opened the Dante book and began to read Canto I. Why does it matter? Why is that so important to my story? Because the story Dante tells in this third and final movement of The Divine Comedy, climaxing the greatest epic in world literature, began exactly at noon on Day 6 of the journey, making it a Wednesday, six days after it had all started back on a Friday — Good Friday, as it happens — in the year 1300 when Dante, age 35, first found himself lost in a Dark Wood. 

Coincidence? I don’t think so. Not in a world governed by divine design. 

So there I was, vicariously perched on the very cusp of eternity, seeing both Dante and Beatrice standing together in the Garden of Eden; and he, Dante, having just drunk from the river of Good Remembrance, turns to her and sees that her gaze is now fixed upon the sun, just reaching its zenith above, no brighter than which can be imagined. Dante does likewise and is happily surprised to find that for all its intense, burning brilliance, he too is able to bear the sight.

Not for long, of course, for in the allegory God’s grace reveals itself as a beginning stage in the soul’s ascent, and Dante is not yet there. There being, as Dante will soon inform us, “where every where and when are focused.” But the journey is now underway, nine successive layers of heaven standing between him and the Emperium, the dwelling place of the Triune god. And upon hearing the music of the heavenly spheres, his whole being bathed in a great sea of light, he declares:

Within that heav’n which most receives his light
Was I, and saw such things as man not knows
Nor skills to tell, return from that height;
For when our intellect is drawing close
To its desire, its paths are so profound
That memory cannot follow where it goes.
Yet now, of that blest realm whate’er is found
Here in my mind still treasured and possessed
Must set the strain for all my song to sound.

By journey’s end, of course, Dante will have gone all the way from heaven and back, his mind filled with the images of all that he has seen. And Beatrice, along with the Blessed Virgin and the saints, will have accompanied him along the way. But she especially, the one he first espied on the streets of Florence, the memory of whose loveliness and grace he will never get over, will be his chief guide, the star whose unblinking light casts no shadow upon his way. Not only is she with him from Eden to Eternity, but from Hell itself to Heaven, God having expressly summoned her to teach him the steps. “O thou,” he tells her three cantos before the end, “in whom my hopes securely dwell,

And who, to bring my soul to Paradise,
Didst leave the imprint of thy steps in Hell,
Of all that I have looked on with these eyes
Thy goodness and thy power have fitted me
The holiness and grace to recognize.
Thou hast led me, a slave, to liberty,
By every path, and using every means
Which to fulfil this task were granted thee,
Keep turned towards me thy munificence
So that my soul which thou hast remedied
May please thee when it quits the bonds of sense.
Such was my prayer and she, so distant fled,
It seemed, did smile and look on me once more,
Then to the eternal fountain turned her head. 

It is the place we all long to be, the fountain where all that we thirst for awaits our coming, led by the Love that moves the sun and the stars. Leaving nothing to chance along the way.