How Providence actually works in the lives of people is a theme running through Centurion's Daughter. The main character, Aemilia, is at times dimly aware of a sense of direction in her life; a realisation that a series of odd coincidences are not just chance, but a fortuitous combination of events that nudge her in a certain direction. It is only when she begins to try and carve out a path for herself that she loses this awareness and things start unravelling for her. But she always comes back to what Malcolm Muggeridge calls the Golden String, which eventually leads her to a destiny she did not expect.
I give you the end of a Golden String,
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s Gate
Built in Jerusalem’s Wall.
Muggeridge was quoting from William Blake in his autobiographical Chronicles of Wasted Time, a work which I read years ago and never forgot. It became a central theme of the novel: what is Aemilia's place and what is she supposed to be doing with her life? At the beginning of the book she hardly knows - she is completely preoccupied merely with her survival, looking for a father she had never met in order to escape a master who wants to force himself on her. It is only when she finds her feet in her new settings and gradually begins to think for herself that the big question raises itself. She is half Frank, half Roman, and does not know in which world she belongs, being drawn in different ways to them both. How she resolves this dilemma and finds her true calling in the dangerous tangle of human affairs takes up the rest of the book.
The point which interests me here was showing how gently, almost imperceptibly, God steers us in the course of our lives without ever revealing himself. For me God is a tightrope walker par excellence. The most precious gift he has given us, and the one he respects the most, is our free will. We have a span of eighty odd years to decide whether we will, consciously or unconsciously, side with God or against him. With a very few exceptions, God does nothing that ever forces free will to a decision. There is enough evidence lying around to conclude that there is a God, but the evidence is not of a kind to oblige our acceptance. We are able, as long as we live in this world, to disregard God completely, even to the point of rejecting his existence.
For Aemilia, the hints of what God wants for her come, firstly, in the form of enlightening thoughts, answers that seems to emerge out of nowhere for problems she cannot resolve by her own thinking; secondly, in the odd course of events. She is protected from a fatal suspicion by Syagrius who uncharacteristically does not see the obvious. She is brought by circumstance time and again to meet the man she will ultimately marry, the right man for her. It needs her co-operation, but eventually things fall into place, a little too neatly to write off as mere chance.
Does this correspond to real life? I think it does. One can either find the Golden String or try to manufacture something to replace it. The substitute must ultimately fall apart in one's hands. It's not golden, and gold lasts.