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In darkness and light, God can be found in all things — Elise Italiano Ureneck

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The Nativity scene and Christmas tree in St. Peter's Square are seen as Pope Francis leads his Christmas message and his blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 25, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

When I was first asked to write this column four years ago, I was working for the Jesuits at Boston College. They introduced me to the tenet of Ignatian spirituality that we can “find God in all things.”

I was a bit skeptical at first glance. It seemed like something that could easily give way to a new-agey pantheism.

But the example of a Jesuit priest made me give it a second look. One night at my dinner table, he shared with my husband and I that he was a Vietnam veteran and that for a long time he was wracked with survivor’s guilt after watching his commander, a man he thought had greater character and virtue than he had, die on the battlefield.

After much wrestling and prayer, he heard God say, “You’re right. He was a better man than you and that’s why. You need more time. I’m not finished with you yet.” He went on to work as a reporter covering the war, then served Cambodian refugees for Catholic Relief Services. Eventually he entered the Jesuits and now teaches at the university.

He has found God to be present through it all, even the hellish parts.

Elise Italiano Ureneck writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/courtesy Elise Italiano)

As I’ve spent more time with the concept, I’ve taken it on as a pillar of my own spiritual life. On the one hand, it’s the simplest way of looking at things. On the other, it’s completely radical, maybe even counterintuitive.

To say that we can identify God in all circumstances means that we are willing to look for his providence in both joy and sorrow.

The past five years of my own life have been a pressure cooker. In that span of time, my mother was diagnosed with a devastating terminal illness. I met and married my husband, we welcomed our first son, we buried my mother and three weeks after her death, I gave birth to my second son.

It was easy to find God at my wedding Mass and reception; nothing really drives home the idea that heaven will be like a wedding feast quite like your own wedding feast.

As I looked out at the reception, surrounded by friends and family, fresh off a sacrament with my best friend, and celebrating with food and drink, I longed for time to stop. It was the first time I wasn’t frightened by the idea of eternity.

I felt God’s presence in the most intimate way at my sons’ births. Even though it can be argued that an individual human life is a statistical anomaly or chance occurrence, any new parent knows from the earliest moments of their children’s lives that they have been in the mind of God for all eternity.

If you’ve ever traced your child’s fingerprints with your own index finger, you see a map that leads back to a loving God.

Finding God in my mother’s slow paralysis and suffocation was not as easy. I often look back on her illness with great horror. Flannery O’Connor once said after an encounter with a young girl disfigured by cancer that illness is “grotesque.”

Recognizing that God is at work in death, estrangement or loss of any kind takes a special disposition. It’s a posture of searching beyond first glance, sometimes patiently for years on end.

The place I continue to search is a crucifix in my parents’ home that my mother gazed on from her recliner. Each time I visit my father I look to it, trusting that the God who loved my mother into life gave her a death like his son’s.

God was at the wedding of Cana. His love became incarnate in the stable on Christmas Day. And his love was perfected on Good Friday.

This Christmas we’ll hear proclaimed, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” In short, God can be found in all things. Our only response can be, “Amen.”

Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and a columnist for Catholic News Service.