By Deacon Tony Amato
Above the main doors of my seminary, Theological College, at the Catholic University of America, you will see an inscription in Latin which reads: Providentia Dei nos providebit (‘The Providence of God will provide for us’). It is a reminder to all the men who enter there that in His infinite wisdom, God has foreseen every moment of our lives and even in that very moment when we walk through the door, we should know that we are cared for by His loving solicitude. For men who are in formation for the priesthood, and have discerned well that they are in fact called to the priesthood, they must trust, first, that God has given them the proper natural dispositions to live such a life and, second, that God’s grace is always available to them.
This truth about God’s providence and His care for us applies to people in all walks of life, no matter their vocation might be. We find this case being made in this eighth canto of the Paradiso when Dante and Beatrice ascend to the Third Heaven, the planet Venus. There they meet Charles Martel, a friend of Dante in life, though he is not explicitly named here. They begin their discussion around Charles’ death at a young age and the political and social circumstances of his demise.
The main point of this canto is then introduced by the question: “How from sweet seed may come a bitter fruit?” [line 93]. Thus the question of God’s Providence and human free will come to the fore. In lines 100-105, we see the metaphysical arrow appear again as we saw in the second canto, directing each soul to its proper end. We are assured in these lines, by Charles Martel, that “the Mind that in Itself is perfect” not only knows the natures of all things, but knows and provides for their well-being. And so, “whatsoever this bow shoots/ falls predisposed to a determined end/ as a shaft directed to its target” [lines 103-105]. God knows our end and our fate, but he provides every means for us to attain to our heavenly goal.
There are two scientific questions that should be briefly addressed here. First, the ordering of the cosmos and movement of the planets was thought to determine the ordering of things on earth. This is assumed in Charles’ argument for God’s foreknowledge, based on the belief that the “intellects” (angels, incorporeal beings) move the heavenly spheres. Since these beings cannot fail in their task, because they were created perfect, by a perfect God (“the primal Intellect”), we therefore have a predetermined course for our lives. The fact that the intellects move the heavenly spheres—creating a buffer between God’s will and human action—shows that while our lives and ultimate end are known by God, man is still free to choose his path [lines 106-111].
Second, it is God’s Providence that is used to explain the diversity amongst men and the ordering of society, predisposing people for different tasks and vocations. It was thought that the father transmitted all hereditary traits to his children, while the rational soul is given directly by God, and so father and son would be identical in every way, including their dispositions to particular vocations. This does not, however, undermine the truth of Charles’ claim. Again, in the midst of a type of Socratic dialogue between Dante and Charles, Aristotle’s philosophy makes its appearance. Charles references a line from the opening of Aristotle’s Politics in which it is stated that, “Man is by nature a political/social animal.” The duties and responsibilities of man, therefore, are necessarily diverse [lines 115-123], not predetermined merely by heredity, but guided by Providence. It is in this fact of God’s loving solicitude for humanity that we find our security, hope, and courage to embrace the various crosses that God has given to each of us.
Our Lord has provided for all orders of society to carry out their duties for the good of all. Charles tells us that “one is born Solon and another Xerxes, one Melchizedeck” and another Daedalus [lines 124-126]. These correspond to four main orders in society, namely, legislators, generals/kings, priests, and artisans, respectively. More important to the topic at hand than the mere fact of God’s ordering of society in such a way according to man’s natural dispositions, are the consequences of not following the path God has set out for each of us:
Always if nature meets a fate
unsuited to it like any kind of seed
out of its native soil, it comes to a bad end,
and if the world below paid more attention
to the foundation nature lays and built on that,
it would be peopled well [lines 139-144].
I am reminded here of the gospel parable of the master who goes on a journey and entrusts his possessions to three servants, each getting a certain number of talents according to his abilities (Mt 25:14-30). The Master knows each of his servants. He made each of us and so he knows our abilities and our limitations. The good news is precisely that God has given us every grace to be able to heal our wounded human nature and to build on “the foundation nature lays” to live a life in the grace of God and the practice of the virtues.
This means that God has also given us the opportunity and grace to be able to discern well the gifts he has given us and how to use them for God’s greater glory and for our sanctification. This is the sole task of our lives: to be holy. We are called to a life of holiness at our baptism. As we discern which direction our life is to take, the primary concern is how God is calling us to live a life of holiness. The tragedy of life is when “you force into religion one born/ to wear the sword, and make a king/ of one more fit for sermons” [lines 145-147]. A person in such a situation is bound to be unhappy and will search for other, perhaps destructive, ways to feel fulfilled in this life. However, if we pay attention to the abilities God has given us, and the promptings of God’s grace, we can become the person God has called us to be: a saint.
We trust in God’s Providence precisely because of who it is that has provided for us. Our Lord gave us our life, our vocation, and every means to attain the salvation that he has won for us on the Cross. There are many situations in life in which we might find ourselves and that we did not choose. These may even be painful and show themselves to be a true test of our faith in God’s love for us and in his solicitude for our spiritual well-being. What Dante tries to show us here is that the goal of our life and even the means to attain that goal is given before we were born, by a loving and merciful God. We have no reason to fear. The Providence of God will provide for us.
Deacon Tony Amato is a seminarian and transitional deacon with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY. He is in formation at Theological College at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.