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Stunned by Providence…in very dramatic times

In the French movie "Les Innocentes" there is a very dramatic moment centered on the providence of God. The whole movie is very intense because of its subject: a monastery of nuns in Poland in 1945 experienced a few days of horror when Russian soldiers invaded it and raped them all repeatedly for a few days then left. The movie starts months after the events, dealing with the consequences of these rapes, and it is, overall, handled in a pretty fair and restraint manner, as truthful and respectful of the faith as possible, and one specific line in that movie taught me a big theological and moral lesson.

cross in a snow forest

Transatlantic flights are long and I watched a second one "Of Gods and men" next. So although I was in a cramped seat in Economy and the surroundings were not technically the best ones, I felt fortunate to be able to watch TWO GOOD MOVIES where the Catholic faith is at the core of the story. Two exceptional movies, with a fascinating narrative, beautifully shot, unfolding as an adventure, intense and weighty, loaded with emotional ups and downs, because the story in each case is a very powerful and tragic one. I completely understand that these movies would not appeal to everyone, although "Gods and Men" has a much more general appeal. It won the Grand Prize in Cannes, it manages to be a very courageous Christian witness moment on one hand AND a shining example of Christians and Muslims living peacefully side by side on the other hand. In today's context, there is an amazing message of hope in the monks of Tibherine and if you have not read yet Christian de Cherge's testament, please do google it.

But "Les Innocentes" is a little gem too or so it turned out for me. I must admit I found a certain humor in the fact that my own faith in Divine Providence was deepened in that particular flight! I have known for some times now, since my own return to the Church almost twenty years ago, that the essence of the Christian message is love and hope, truth and mercy and trust. No matter what. For myself, I am well aware that I came to this realization rather late in life (in my mid forties) and this awareness keeps me humble (most of the time…). For others, I often wonder how to communicate it to them, how or what could help them see the beautiful truth of this message. So in many ways I thought I already knew about Divine Providence and I was surprised to learn the limits of my understanding and to suddenly see it expended so clearly. On that day, in that particular plane, I understood it much more than ever before because of one specific sentence in the movie.

snow landscapes

The plot (in a nutshell): After the Russians are gone, some of the nuns slowly realized that they are pregnant, some of the very young ones do not even understand what is going on, while others have to face syphilis, and all of them have to live with the traumas of rape. A young Red Cross doctor ends up helping them, reluctantly first, and the story unfolds as she delivers their babies again and again. Since this is happening in winter, in a country ravaged by war and famine for years and which is now brutally annexed by the Soviet, the question in the convent of what to do with the babies is a huge challenge. Apparently, the Mother Superior said earlier that she gave the babies to neighboring farmers families who took care of them. But at one point in the movie, more than half-way through it, we understand that the families are getting overwhelmed and start refusing to take them. We see her going through the forest, holding the little bundle in her arms, then following a dirt road, next to various fields, and depositing the baby in the snow, at the foot of a country cross. Later on, back in the convent, another nun (the second in command if I understood correctly) grills the Mother Superior to say exactly what she has been doing with the babies.

snow landscapes with baby

This is where the Mother Superior speaks of God's providence very dramatically. This is the sentence that stuck in my mind long after the movie was finished. She says very vehemently: "Don't you believe in God's providence?" The stark juxtaposition of these words and the reality of a small bundle left in the snow stunned me first and I was immediately pulled in two opposite directions: one voice in me was horrified at the idea of abandoning an infant in the snow just as the other voice, at the very same moment, understood what the Mother Superior said and what she meant and trusted it completely! This second voice got louder and louder ever since my return to California. We are told to trust in God, from the very beginning, the Psalms, the Proverbs, from the story of Job. Romans 8:28 spells it out. Jesus himself tells us in Mat 6:31 "Do not be anxious … Your heavenly Father knows what you need. Seek first His kingdom". Many saints have repeated it. And it is especially in the bleakest of conditions that we need to do it. Even when God seems silent (St John of the Cross, Mother Teresa).

As the credits of the movie were rolling in front of my eyes, I thought that if the following lines had been added "In those difficult and troubled times, more than one baby was found and saved at the foot of a cross in a country road, in that region, but because of the turmoil of those days, there is no way to know if they came from the Monastery"….It would have made it easier, right? But what's the point of rewriting the ending? "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed". I was given the opportunity to grasp much more fully one key point of the faith and I needed to concentrate on that.

snow landscapes and baby

The truth is that I have not used the word "providence" as much as "trust" or "mercy", which are two words I use all the time! In the Jesus Prayer and in this year of mercy. For that matter, I have specifically begged for growth in trust in the last 2 or 3 Lents. So it finally occurred to me my requests were answered in a most unusual way…

Looking back on the movie, I can now see that providence was at work in the very first scene. As soon as the very young nun came to the Red Cross quarters and begged the female Doctor to come with her and help but, when pressed to answer questions and give details, she remains silent. She refuses to say more, she is not saying why or where… So the female Doctor brushes her off and tells her to leave, they already have so many patients to attend to right there and then. The Doctor goes back to her work. Then during her break, she lights up a cigarette and goes by the window and sees the young nun outside kneeling and praying in the snow, waiting for her… So the Doctor hesitates a few minutes, then grabs her coat and steps outside, motioning for her to climb in the jeep with her. That was definitively a moment of divine providence in action through the prayers of one and the reaction of the other!

There is much more than this happening in the movie and it ends up on a very positive note, which is hard to believe from what I have said so far, but trust me it is true!

snowy pine cone            snowy leaves           

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says about Divine Providence (§307): "God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors. Though often unconscious collaborators with God's will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers and their sufferings".

Actions, prayers and sufferings? My own previous understanding was too superficial. In our world today where priests can have their throats slit during Mass (last July in France), when waves after waves of thousands of emigrants are risking it all to come to our shores, when the grotesque gesticulating of our politicians fills the news as diversion every night, when violence and terror invades more and more our daily lives, I am extremely grateful for the wakeup call I received. To reflect on Divine Providence has made me ponder again the visible world and the invisible one, the mystery of evil, and our own freedom. Divine Providence does not destroy our human freedom, on the contrary, it is what allows us to use our freedom in the most just manner. So I tell myself: keep your eyes on Christ, put yourself in the hands of the Most Holy Trinity, practice compassion and gratefulness, patience and trust in the smallest things and in the largest events.
And share it…

Posted initially on Catholic365 in October 2016 here

I have now updated this page with more photos since I just happen to have lots of photos of snow (in the French Alps) and lots of photos of babies (in my own home!). This movie is now available on Netflix and it has come up in conversations recently. I wanted to add one little tidbit of information about the title of this movie, which to me, in my own heart, refers both to the women in the story and to their babies.... This makes more sense in English where adjectives are not subject to the gender of the noun they refer to. But in French the title is in the feminine gender and babies, by grammatical generalization, would be in the masculine, so obviously it makes a difference. I love grammar, semantic, spelling, languages and so on. I am fascinated by their quirky rules and rich idioms. I love it and I do not see it as a constraint but as a beautiful fabric being the foundation of our communication, in writing or in speaking. When I used to teach French to American (at Inlingua, which was an offshot of the Berlitz schools), and when students would ask me why is a "chair" feminine in French but not an "armchair" (la chaise vs le fauteuil, etc) I used to answer that in most grammatical rules there is an underlying explanation which makes sense, but in the gender for material things or abstract concepts, it does not always work that way and you just need to memorize it, learn it and use it! All of which in the end is a good lesson in life. Obedience to grammatical rules! Precision matters! I thought that English is rather simple to learn but that we (us French, who are taught for early childhood that we have a gift for intellectual pursuits...) are priviledged to have such a rich and varied, extremely precise but also infinitely poetic language to express ourselves. So it does happen that the title in French is more specific than in English, but the bottom line is that there is no ambivalence, we all know who are the innocents! And by the end of my article, hopefully, many will agree to stretch themselves and accept that miracles do happen - even when we do not see them with the eyes of our body…

Definitions and Quotes re: Divine Providence
and the virtues of trust and love and faith...

V. Dieu réalise son dessein : la divine providence.
§302 La création a sa bonté et sa perfection propres, mais elle n’est pas sortie tout achevée des mains du Créateur. Elle est créée dans un état de cheminement (" in statu viæ ") vers une perfection ultime encore à atteindre, à laquelle Dieu l’a destinée. Nous appelons divine providence les dispositions par lesquelles Dieu conduit sa création vers cette perfection :Dieu garde et gouverne par sa providence tout ce qu’Il a créé, " atteignant avec force d’une extrémité à l’autre et disposant tout avec douceur " (Sg 8, 1). Car " toutes choses sont à nu et à découvert devant ses yeux " (He 4, 13), même celles que l’action libre des créatures produira (Cc. Vatican I : DS 3003).

A fascinating commentary by Fr. Cantalamesa on the way to God and the different venues to reach Him, principally via faith or through the heart or a mix of the two: here . I add this link as a ressource to grasp Divine Providence better. Because it all has to do with faith, with trust, with the love of God and the love for God.. or so I think.

The Spiritual Canticle
Poem by St John of the Cross

My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service;
Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I any other employment:
My sole occupation is love.

We firmly believe that God is master
of the world and of its history.
But the ways of his providence
are often unknown to us...

CCC §312
Jean le Sublime dit que : « L’amour vient de Dieu » et « Dieu est amour » [5]. Le modeleur de notre nature a mis aussi en nous ce caractère : « En ceci, dit-il, en effet, tous connaîtront que vous êtes mes disciples, si vous vous aimez les uns les autres [6]» Donc, si l’amour est absent, tous les traits de l’image en nous sont déformés. Enfin la Divinité voit tout, entend tout, scrute tout. Vous aussi, par la vue et l’ouïe, vous percevez les choses et par la pensée, vous pouvez examiner et scruter l’univers... ici Sainte Catherine de Sienne dit
"Tout procède de l’amour,
tout est ordonné au salut de l’homme,
Dieu ne fait rien que dans ce but "

(dial. 4, 138).
Un merveilleux site Jésuite, tres complet, tres clair, sur "L’Abandon à la Providence divine"
d'apres Jean-Pierre de CAUSSADE, s.j. ici
“Trust and trust alone
should lead us
to love”

Thérèse de Lisieux,
Collected Letters of St Therese of Lisieux
La plupart des recits de conversion sont souvent des temoignages spectaculaires de la providence divine....
Paul Claudel baignait, comme tous les jeunes gens de son âge, dans « le bagne matérialiste du scientisme de l'époque ». Il se convertit au catholicisme en assistant en curieux aux vêpres à Notre-Dame de Paris le 25 décembre 1886, jour de Noël. « J'étais debout, près du deuxième pilier, à droite, du côté de la sacristie. Les enfants de la Maitrise étaient en train de chanter ce que je sus plus tard être le Magnificat. En un instant mon cœur fut touché et je crus. »


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