This reflection was originally published in 2019.
An old farmer’s horse ran away. When his friends came to him saying, “What an awful thing to happen!” the farmer just shrugged and responded, “Good or bad, hard to say.”
A week later, the horse came back accompanied by seven wild horses. “What good fortune!” his friends gushed. The farmer shrugged and said, “Good or bad, hard to say.”
Then the next week, the farmer’s son was riding one of the wild horses, when it bucked and was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. “We knew it,” said the farmer’s friends. “It was bad luck all along.” The farmer shrugged again. “Good or bad, hard to say,” he said.
Then the king of the village went to war, and commanded every able-bodied man to enlist. The farmer’s son wasn’t well enough to qualify.
Good or bad? Hard to say.
The moral of this fable is that we’re so driven to find meaning in what appears coincidental—to make sense of what we don’t understand—we can forget that declaring whether something is “good or bad” assumes we have knowledge that only God has.
Recently, my little sister came home. She had spent the last two years in a strictly cloistered convent, and she’d been hoping to spend her whole life there. But her health was steadily declining, and a long stream of specialists couldn’t find any answers—or even any clues—as to what was wrong. She was less and less able to live the life her sisters were living, and eventually, her superiors said that they were sorry, but since they were no closer to a cure, she would have to return home.
My sister isn’t having an easy time, and as to how this story will play out in the larger picture of her life, that’s up to God. How will He use it for good? What will that look like? We don’t get those answers, but we do get to know exactly one thing: that God can use my sister’s mysterious illness for His own ends. My sister says that wherever she is, God is the same God she’s always loved, and that’s something.
The lives of the saints were full of obstacles and setbacks, too. There’s a lot of comfort in that. Their problems no doubt look different to us, from our vantage point, than they did to them.
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, also known as Mother Cabrini, is one saint whose life helps us to remember God’s perspective when we’re in the middle of our own disappointments and frustrations. She was born premature, and because of her delicate health, was not admitted into the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, the order she had hoped to join. Instead, she ended up founding her own order, the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Mother Cabrini dreamed of becoming a missionary in China, but when she finally obtained an audience with Pope Leo XIII, he sent her “not east, but west,” to America, to help address the crisis of the thousands of poor Italian immigrants struggling to survive in New York. She went on to become the patroness of immigrants, and the first naturalized citizen saint of the United States.
Today, Mother Cabrini’s order is doing God’s work in fifteen countries, and that’s to say nothing of the effects of her intercession, which we have no way to quantify. Her life had plenty of failure in it, but ultimately, it’s a story of God’s victory.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s setbacks turned out to be just as important in God’s plan for her life. Another heroic American foundress, her conversion to the Catholic Church came as a result of a desperate trip to Italy, where her husband’s health failed to improve as she had hoped. As a widow, she turned to teaching when her family and friends, scandalized by her conversion, distanced themselves from her. From there, she went on to found the first congregation of women religious in the United States, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s.
Even when she didn’t know why God had allowed an event to take place, Mother Seton always understood that when her plans failed it wasn’t the same thing as God failing. Her faith in Divine Providence steadied her. She advised her son not to put too much weight in his own plans, “Since the Providence of God turns out so often quite different from our calculations,” and that he should not blame fate for his misfortunes, since “you say fate…but I say tide of providence which [is] as infinite goodness.”
To her friend Julia, she wrote, “God will provide, that is all my comfort never did that Providence fail me.”
If it seems simple, that’s because it is. There’s a kind of heroic, courageous simplicity that accompanies faith that leaves everything in God’s hands. Mother Cabrini and Mother Seton were steadied by that faith throughout their tumultuous lives, and we can be, too.
So events might be good, or they might be bad. We have to accept the fact that we won’t know what’s what until we get to heaven and see our life through God’s own eyes. Here on Earth, though, we don’t need to spend too much time wondering what’s good and what’s bad, because we know what Mother Seton and Mother Cabrini knew: that God is good, and no apparent failure is so devastating that He can’t bring good from it.
ANNA O’NEIL likes cows, confession and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She lives in Rhode Island with her family, and tries hard to remember that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
Image: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini MSC, also called Mother Cabrini