The old timers in my childhood often used a word I never understood. The word was “Providence.” My people could not articulate the meaning of this particular word because it had more than two syllables.
Also, it really is a difficult word to define. Even now, when researching this column I couldn’t find a concrete definition of Providence. One dictionary said one thing, another website called the word “archaic.” Today the term is so outdated that if you’re a younger person reading this I’ve probably already lost you.
So I’ll explain it’s meaning by telling you how the word was invoked by the rural people of my youth.
Okay. Let’s say there was no rain, the world was crackling and dry, and no farmers were making money from crops. It wasn’t “bad luck.” It was all part of heavenly Providence.
And when the rain finally began to fall; also Providence.
When two people fell in love? Providence.
If someone got cancer and died, people prayed for the family to receive solace in Providence.
Job promotion? Providence.
Finding $20 in your coat pocket? Major Providence.
My people, you see, did not believe in good luck, coincidences, or even flashy miracles. It was all Providence.
To them life was like a trapeze act. Mankind was always swinging recklessly from trapezes, back and forth. Sometimes man fell, sometimes he didn’t. Either way, there was a divine reason for everything, good and bad. You weren’t supposed to know the reason. That’s Providence.
Thus we did not believe in accidents, happenstances, mistakes, flub-ups, or oversights. Neither did you merely “bump into a neighbor” at the supermarket. It was all meant to be. Mapped out ahead of time. Heaven was not an indifferent observer, but an active participant in your life. Providence.
The reason I bring this up is because I received a letter from a young woman who I will call Rebecca. She is undergoing surgery while I write this.
I won’t give details because she doesn’t want me to. Rebecca might not survive this surgery. Rebecca is 19 years old.
All week she has had chaplains in and out of her hospital room, and she’s had nurses prepping her body. Her smile has reportedly never left her glowing face. Rebecca is a brave young woman.
“I am not scared,” Rebecca writes. “I refuse to be afraid even though I want to be afraid, I am only asking that Providence be my comfort.”
Nineteen-year-old kids don’t talk this way. Nobody talks that way anymore. This is an exceptional child.
She is a child whose mother is frightened, whose father is beside himself, whose older sister spends each night lying in Rebecca’s hospital bed, telling her how much she loves her.
But Rebecca says she is not scared.
This morning, I stand outside my Birmingham hotel, looking at a big sky, drinking coffee. I see white clouds. Morning traffic whirls on a highway before me. There is a hotel maintenance guy spraying for weeds in the parking lot. A maid leans against a wall with her COVID mask atop her head like a sun bonnet, smoking a cigarette. I see a man walking a dog. But I’m thinking about Rebecca.
I have tried to write this column fifty times already, but can’t get more than a few words out. I’ve tried to answer emails. But I can’t do that either. I’m too preoccupied, wondering about this 19-year-old child. Her heart is still beating, her brain is still flickering, and her body is laid open beneath powerful surgical lights on a steel operating table.
Nothing makes sense in this life. Not a single thing. I’ve been trying to figure this world out since I was a kid but I’ve never been able.
I went through a period of sad living, when I believed this universe was against me. I lost faith in everything: in people, in goodness, in miracles. For a while I quit believing in God. I told him this often.
But the big merciful sky was patient with me. Heaven gave me time to grow up. And over time something happened. Something changed. I can’t pinpoint when this took place. I don’t remember how it happened.
I started noticing little sacred occurrences in daily life. They came in the form of coincidences. Big ones. Little ones. Medium-sized ones. These events happened every day. Every few seconds. Every moment, a microscopic miracle which could not be explained would occur in plain vision. Nano-wonders of the natural world. Small glimmers of something “other.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been spared when I should have died. I can’t tell you how many times something beautiful happened when I didn’t deserve it. I can’t tell you how often destiny stepped in and changed the route of my future.
Slowly, year by year, I came to believe that I was wrong about this natural world, and my humble ancestors were right.
Life really is like swinging between trapezes, making sudden, dangerous movements midair. But there is more to it than that. Because there is also a wide and gracious net beneath us which not even hell itself could destroy. And indeed, no matter how scary this world is, I believe this net is infinitely more real than the trapeze.
Before I finish this column, my phone vibrates. An email pops up on my screen. It is Rebecca’s mom:
“Just wanted you to know my baby made it through surgery and is doing great. We are taking turns holding her right now.”