I served as novice director for my community from 1982-1988. One of my “jobs” was to get a retreat director for the novitiate retreat in August. Back then, the director had to be a priest. I dutifully booked a wonderful Franciscan a year in advance. But two days before the retreat was to start, he called me with bad news. There was an emergency, a sudden death. He could no longer give the retreat–and his attempts to find a substitute were unsuccessful. I extended my sympathy to him and assured him not to worry. But when I hung up, I panicked, saying to myself, “Where in the heck am I going to find a decent priest at this late date?”
I began calling priests all over the place. Though everyone was sympathetic to my plight, no one could help me out on such short notice. But one Jesuit I called said, “Melannie, there’s a Jesuit new to the Cleveland diocese, Fr. Tim Shepherd. Perhaps he would be available.” I called Fr. Tim and had to leave a message for him. That evening, he called back. Yes, he could fill in for five of the eight days. I knew I could cover the other days, so I booked him on the spot. He came, he served, he was an instant success. But the real story is this: Through this chance encounter, Tim and I became very good friends.
Was it coincidence that brought us together? Or was it divine providence? Certainly, coincidence was involved: that sudden death, his newness to the diocese, the Jesuit giving me his name, his availability that week. But I believe something more was involved, namely, something we Christians call Divine Providence.
I like what the writer Dennis Covington wrote about coincidence and providence in his 1995 memoir, Salvation on Sand Mountain: If “you accept the idea of a universe set in motion by an intelligent hand, then it seems to me you need to consider the possibility that the hand may still be at work in its movement.” I agree! And one way God’s hand is still at work is through events we call coincidence or providence. For example, we have a parent who imparts to us their love for classical music, a love we carry with us our entire lives… or we have a dynamic teacher who impacts the trajectory of our life… or we meet our future spouse at a party we almost didn’t go to… or a serious illness as a child leads us into the field of medicine… or we read a certain book, by chance, and find the very words we need to hear at that time in our life.
Coincidence doesn’t determine our lives, but it can open a door to possibility. Tim and I were not predetermined to become friends. But our chance meeting gave us the opportunity to establish a deeper relationship if we chose to. Fortunately, both of us chose to–and we were both greatly enriched by our friendship. As the writer James Silas Rogers wrote, “coincidence can open a window on providence.”
Not all coincidences have a profound meaning, of course. Some coincidences are just coincidences. But others can carry profound meaning for our lives. After describing a “chance encounter” with someone that led to a “transforming moment” in his life, Dennis Covington writes, “Things happen. But chance and coincidence don’t mean much to me anymore. I believe there was a reason I ran into him that day… Mystery, I’d read some where, is not the absence of meaning but the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend.” Maybe in heaven, we will discover profound meaning in mysterious events we had dismissed as insignificant.
I believe it is vital to the health of our spirituality to reflect regularly on our personal lives. In doing so we may realize that some of the coincidences in our lives were really providential. The Creator’s hand is still involved in the movement of the world and our individual lives. I suggest you take a few minutes this week to reflect on the role of coincidence and providence in your life. Here are a few reflective questions that might help:
Has a “chance encounter” ever led to a “transforming moment” in your life? That encounter can be with a person, an event, a place, a book, a song, a movie, an animal, etc.
Have you ever realized that a coincidence was really Divine Providence in your life?
Were there events in your life that initially appeared to be “bad luck,” but, in time, became a “blessing”?
Here’s something fun to reflect on: What role did coincidence and/or providence play in Jesus’ life?
P.S. Thank you for your prayerful support for my recent hip replacement surgery last week. Everything went well, and I’m in our health care center here in Chardon recuperating. The experience gave me a greater appreciation of the gift of life, our health care professions, our compassionate care givers, and the support and encouragement of family and friends like you!
As I said earlier, I liked what Dennis Covington said about mystery: Mystery is not the absence of meaning; it can be the presence of more meaning than we can comprehend. When I searched for a music video, I found (by chance?) this hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” written in 1773 by William Cowper. It is sung here by Graham Kendrick. I love the poetry of some of the lines: “God treasures up his bright designs… The clouds you dread are big with mercy and blessings… Judge not the Lord by feeble sense… the bud might have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower… I will trust and not be afraid, for all his ways are love.”
I invite you to respond below… You words enrich my blog!