Every student knows the tragic end of King Louis XVI of France and his Austrian-born wife, Marie Antoinette. The sharp blade of the guillotine made swift work of their necks.
Yet, many readers might not be aware that their most Christian majesties had a daughter, Marie-Therese, who lived into her seventies. This French princess lost two siblings as infants, a brother to infection and another brother to the rigors of imprisonment. Despite these losses, she survived to take an active, if only supportive, role in European history.
Marie-Therese was imprisoned at the same time as her mother but, after her mother’s death, when the cruelties of the revolution mellowed, she was dismissed and sent to her uncle at the Austrian court in Vienna, where she matured into womanhood. These were not hopeful years for the exiled French aristocracy, since the upstart Napoleon had replaced the fallen monarchy with his own self-declared empire. After Napoleon’s losses near Moscow, Marie-Therese happily returned to Paris to act as hostess for her father’s brother, King Louis XVIII. In no time, the royal family had to flee again as Napoleon returned briefly from exile.
After Waterloo, Marie-Therese again served her uncle, King Louis XVIII, until he died in 1824. Another uncle, Charles X, succeeded to the throne only to be expelled by rebellion in 1830. To add insult to injury, the exiled Charles X was followed by a king from the Orleans side of Therese’s family, Louis-Philippe, whose father actually had a hand in betraying her father. Louis-Philippe, in turn, was expelled from Paris in the calamitous year 1848 to be followed by a grand-nephew of Napoleon. In the meantime, Marie-Therese entered into a childless marriage with the son of Charles X. During all this turmoil, the daughter who began her life at opulent Versailles, moved from France to Austria to Lithuania to Germany to England to present-day Croatia where she died and was buried with her husband and her father-in-law, the exiled Louis XVIII. On her grave stone are the maudlin Biblical words, “All you who pass by the way stop and consider if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.”
Marie-Therese was an excellent Catholic, maintaining her faith in God and the Church in spite of appalling, historical obstacles. When a friend remarked that the “finger of God” might be seen in the 1848 rebellion against her cousin King Louis-Philippe, whose father had contributed to her own father’s death, Marie-Therese responded thoughtfully and serenely, “The finger of God is in everything.”
As the popular imagery in the poem “Footprints” reveals in its folksy way, God never abandons the distressed pilgrim on his journey through life. When there is but one set of footprints, it is then that Christ has rescued the harried traveler with his own arms and borne the burden of the day’s travel. Marie-Therese was scripturally and faithfully correct to insist that “the finger of God,” the hand of God, his supernatural support, is benignly offered and certainly present at every stage of life. This woman experienced the collapse of the 600 year-old Bourbon dynasty. She tragically lost her parents, and was never quite sure what happened to her imprisoned little brother. She lived most of her life as an alien dependent on the kindness of relatives and sometimes strangers. She was denied children who might have succeeded to her father’s throne, and saw less-worthy persons favored by history. She died and was buried away from her beloved France. Yet, she could declare, “The finger of God is in everything.”
Nowhere is the finger of God better hidden than at the tragic events on Mount Calvary as God’s own Son hangs on the cross for the salvation of man and the expiation of sin. On Calvary, God the Father seems to be going against his own plans. His finger seems to be pointing in an entirely wrong direction. Jesus was sent to preach the Gospel, to convert the Jews, to open the pagan world to the divine message, to effect peace and reconciliation, to establish a believing community. None of these goals was plainly visible to those who beheld the cross of Christ on that fateful day. Yet, the finger of God was certainly there as the transforming power of Christ’s death and resurrection was lavished upon the earth. Only a truly Christian faith can perceive the finger of God in hardship as well as in good fortune. Hope in the face of adversity has described the Christian from the day of Calvary, throughout history, and is still the mark of the authentic believer.