Reading the Signs of the Times

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Originally Published on

Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

There’s a story told about Anna Akhmatova, a Russian poet, who used to go each Saturday morning and stand in lines outside a prison in St. Petersburg where she, along with other women, hoped to drop off letters and packages for loved ones who had been arrested during Stalin’s purges. The lines were interminably long, the women were cruelly treated by the guards, and they didn’t even know whether their loved ones were still alive or if the letters and packages they dropped off would ever be delivered. Their waiting was an exercise in frustration. One Saturday, waiting in this way, Akhmatova was recognized by another woman. The woman approached her and said: “You’re a poet, can you describe what’s happening here?” “Yes,” Akhmatova replied, “I can.” Then, the story goes on to say, something like a smile passed between them.

What had happened here? What passed between these women in that covert smile?

There’s something very important in the naming of things. Just to be able to name and describe something is a political act, a prophetic act, a defiant act, and an act that in some way makes us transcendent to whatever circumstance we happen to be caught up in. Naming something is also an act of prayer. How so?

Jesus challenged us to “read the signs of the times”. The challenge here is not so much to have an intellectual insight into a particular event as it is to see the finger of God in that event. John of the Cross says: “The language of God is the experience that God writes into our lives.” To read the signs of the times is to look at each event of our lives and ask: “What is God saying through this event?”

The Jewish scriptures are already a wonderful example of this. We see there that, for Israel, there were no pure accidents, no purely secular events. God’s finger was everywhere, in every event, in every blessing, in every defeat, in every victory, in every drought, in every rainfall, in every death, in every birth. If Israel was defeated in battle, it wasn’t the Assyrians who defeated her. God defeated her. If she reaped a bountiful harvest, it wasn’t simple luck, God was blessing her. Nothing was ever purely secular or simply accidental.

Israel wasn’t so naive or fundamentalistic, of course, as to believe that God was actually the efficient cause of these events or that, in the case of death and disaster, God even intended those events. But, nonetheless, in her view of things, God still spoke through those events. The finger of God and the voice of God were seen in the conspiracy of accidents that made up the outer events of her life. To discern the finger of God in the everyday events of life was, for Israel, a very important form of prayer.

My parents and my many of their generation understood this well. Reading the signs of the times was a spontaneous practice for them. They believed in something they called “divine providence” and, for them, like Israel, the finger of God was everywhere, in every event, good and bad. There was no such thing as pure accident or simple good luck. God was in charge, somehow behind everything. Sometimes they took this too far, believing that God actually started wars, burned-down houses, caused someone to get sick, or broke somebody’s leg to teach a lesson. But, generally, they weren’t that naive. Despite the language (“God did this to us!”) they believed only that God spoke through the event, not that God caused the event.

Whatever our religious strengths today, we no longer search in this way for the finger of God in the ordinary events of life. For us, adult children of the Enlightenment, there is a lot of pure accident, pure secular event, simple good luck, sheer luckless fate. In most of the events of our lives, we’re on our own, orphans without God, at the mercy of fate, victims of a pure conspiracy of accidents.

Thus, we look at the events in the world and the church and we see only historical accident: In September 11, only terrorism, not God, speaks; in the sexual abuse scandal in the church, only the media, not God, speaks; in our incapacity to create peace and justice, we hear only human voices, not God’s; and in the personal blessings and tragedies within our lives, we hear only the voice of luck or fate, not the voice of God.

Partly our instincts are right. God didn’t cause September 11, God didn’t send AIDS as a punishment for sin, and God doesn’t single out some people to win lotteries, while causing sickness and tragedy for others. A conspiracy of accidents does that. But God speaks to us through all of those accidents, good and bad, and one of the most important tasks of faith is to search within that conspiracy of accidents to try to find there God’s finger and God’s voice.