Fearful Symmetry

There are patterns within patterns and a fearful symmetry within the providential order. In today’s Mass reading (from Isaiah 38) the story is told of King Hezekiah’s deathbed. The good king is about to die from an infected abcess. He pleads for his life and God grants him another fifteen years. As a sign of this mercy the shadow of the sun moves miraculously back ten steps.

As a child we had a record by a Christian story teller named Ethel Barrett. She told this story and produced an interesting detail. She told how, elsewhere in the New Testament, God had prolonged a day. It’s the story of Joshua being in battle and the sun stood still. (Joshua 10). This has led to a long standing ‘urban myth’ about the missing day. The idea is that for Joshua the day was extended twenty three hours and forty minutes, and for Hezekiah it was extended for 20 minutes. Voila! There’s the missing day. God remembered and evened things out.

Maybe, maybe not, but the underlying point is that God’s providence runs according to a fearful symmetry that we cannot always see. Things connect over time that we didn’t expect to connect. People meet.Words are said in a casual way that bear fruit many years later. A connection here makes sense there. At one point you think it is all absurd and the suffering you are going through must be pointless. Then many years later you see how it all fit together and the Bible verse, “All thing work together for good for those who love God and who are called acccording to his purpose” suddenly becomes blazingly beautifully clear.

Here’s a story from our own family to show what I mean. My great grandmother was a Catholic. She baptized my grandmother into the Catholic faith. Soon after that my great grandmother converted to Protestantism and my grandmother was brought up as a  Protestant and married my Protestant grandfather and brought up my Dad and his five siblings in a good, God-fearing Protestant home.

Then many years later I had become an Anglican priest with Catholic convictions and beliefs. My grandmother lay dying and was suffering from dementia and kept repeating, “Forgive me. Forgive me.” My aunt was looking after her and re-assured Grandma that she was forgiven. Still Grammy cried out, “Forgive me. Forgive me.”

I was visiting on vacation from England and went to see Grandma in the nursing home. I heard her cries and said to myself, “She needs absolution.”

I said, “Grammy, do you know who I am?”

She said, “Yes, you’re Jim’s boy who went to live in England.”

“That’s right. I’ve come to celebrate communion and bring you God’s forgiveness. Would you like me to do that?”

“Yes please.”

So I borrowed a Mass kit from a local priest and celebrated Mass at her bedside and gave her absolution. and she died in peace a few days later.

OK. I was an Anglican priest and not Catholic, but it was as close as we could get, and in that strange way perhaps that Catholic baptism she received, and the good Christian life she had led was completed so she could continue her journey home.

If you’re going through a time when you can’t see how it all makes sense–hold on. Maybe God is teaching you to put your trust in him in a deeper way. He wants you to learn the lesson that he is in charge and that it will all work out in the end, and you couldn’t really learn that lesson and learn how to trust in this deeper way if it weren’t difficult.

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PS: Extra points for whoever can name the poet and poem from which ‘fearful symmetry’ comes. Hint is in the illustration.

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