Normally on Sundays, I toss on a t-shirt and jeans and walk to afternoon mass. There is an elementary school along the way that I normally walk around. The neighborhood is quiet on Sundays. There are occasionally a few kids out playing, but usually it’s just me and my tunes. It’s a completely routine, uneventful part of my weekend.
Today, I didn’t wear jeans. I had an overwhelming urge to dress up for church, even if I was going to be walking in the 85 degree afternoon heat. So I put on one of my favorite skirts instead. When I reached the school, instead of veering right and walking around the campus, I took the path that cut through the campus. It was on this path that I encountered a group of teenagers. (Maybe they were undergrads and I’m just getting old.) There were six or seven of them, the gaggle of young folks to run across at malls on Friday night, not neighborhood on Sunday afternoons. I smiled as we passed, saying a small hello to the two in the front. Then, the girl in the back of the group stopped and said to me, “You’re sure dressed up. Where are you going?” I replied, “I’m heading to church.” And she replied, “Pray to God for me.” I told her I would and wished her a good day, and we continued on our ways.
I did pray for her before mass. And my thoughts kept returning to her. It was an unusual encounter. Normally, people don’t have pray requests for me, especially strangers. And I thought about each thing that happened differently for that encounter to happen. I wore a skirt; I took the school path; I said hello to the group of kids. Were those all coincidences? Or was God pushing me toward this meeting? Was it an unusual but nice encounter, or was Providence at play? The truth is, I’m really unsure how to tell the difference. Is every tiny facet guided by God? Is every little decision I make part of the bigger plan? I can’t quite accept that. It seems to eliminate free will. If I can’t even decide jeans or skirt on my own, how can I have the will to choose God? But then there is the other extreme. Is it all coincidence? Does God not interfere at all? Is he the watchmaker of Deism? I can’t accept that either.
The catechism addresses this state of free will and Providence. “The universe was created in ‘a state of journeying’ toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it (CCC 302),” and Providence is how he guides us toward that perfection. “To carry [his master plan] out he also makes use of his creatures’ cooperation…Though often unconscious collaborators with God’s will, they can also enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings (CCC 306-307.)” Look at that: the Church addressing my issues centuries before me, like always. I do have control over my little decisions, and maybe some things can be chalked up as coincidences, but God resides in coincidences. He resides in everything.
I don’t know if it was chance that I took a different path or if it was my entering into the divine plan, but I do believe I was supposed to run into that girl today. Either she really needed me to pray for her, or I really needed someone to pray for. That interaction needed to happen for some reason I don’t fully understand. And I don’t need to fully understand. I just have to agree to pray for a stranger when she asks me to.