This is not a post about Catholic literature, but I want to use that topic, which is so frequently discussed on this blog, as a point of departure. It’s almost impossible to talk about Catholic art and literature without someone bringing up the concept of the “sacramental imagination,” the idea that deeply embedded within the Catholic worldview is the sense that the material creation always points beyond itself. Commentators often observe that Catholic artists–even lapsed Catholic artists–don’t merely invent symbols to stuff into their books, but experience the natural world as place where symbols are discovered, a universe “groaning in labor pains” that “awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.” There is much truth in that observation, but it also seems to me that many serious Catholics from younger generations, especially in rich countries, could just as well be described as lapsed secularists. Catholics in this group are people who have reached the conclusion that the Faith is true and try to shape their lives in accordance with those convictions, but they do it against a default pull toward a disenchanted worldview. They know that the world is suffused with God’s presence, but they have trouble feeling it. In many ways, I include myself in this group. We are believers who are quite ready to recognize the presence of grace in literature, to delight in its action in the works of Flannery O’Connor or Graham Greene–but when it comes to daily life? Well. We’ll assent intellectually to the action of Providence in the abstract, to the possibility of miracles in general, but it’s almost as if we can’t quite believe that such Divine action could ever really touch us, that the supernatural could manifest itself in any extraordinary way within the supreme ordinariness of our own planned, controlled, and insured lives.
Even as I have grown in my intellectual assent to Catholicism and (I hope) the practice of the faith, the longer I’ve lived in the United States, the more this secular sense of disenchantment has become for me an easy attitude to drift into. Note that it’s not a belief or a conviction, merely a posture or disposition, yet precisely for that reason it’s something that can wreak havoc on the spiritual life. The Latin American Catholicism in which I grew up is not without serious deficiencies–it is intellectually weak and liturgically barren, to begin with–but our culture is not yet entirely disenchanted, and that can count for a lot. Miracles or interventions of Providence are not events one only expects to happen to other, distant people (if at all), but rather realities that, while always surprising, are certainly expected as part of the experience of one’s life. I know these things also happen in the developed world (they have to my family, and why should they not?), but somehow they never become a part of our family histories, our personal histories, and thus fail to influence they way we see the world. Consequently, in an effort to fight against this posture of disenchantment, both for my own sake and for the benefit of anyone who reads this blog, I’ve decided to record my family’s own stories about moments of extraordinary grace. Some of the stories involve events that I would consider outright Miracles, while others could perhaps be interpreted simply as bizarre or beautiful coincidences, but they are all moments when it was hard for us not to see God’s hand at work. I want to save some of the good stuff for later since this post is already getting quite long, so I’ll begin with a fairly simply story that always brings a smile to my face.
During the fall of my sophomore year in college, my parents couldn’t afford to bring me home for Thanksgiving. My parents had moved to South Florida from Colombia around the time I finished high school, and they were in a very difficult financial situation. I had received a very generous financial aid package to attend Penn, but still the portion of tuition my parents were liable for was a huge strain on the family. Since I was going to school in Philadelphia, there was not even the option of driving, but I didn’t really mind staying for a quiet week on campus. It had been the same thing the year before. Since I had not celebrated Thanksgiving growing up, I didn’t really feel that I was missing anything. For my mom, however, it was a different story. With only one Thanksgiving under her belt as a US resident, she already felt a depressing lack at not being about to fly me home for the week. Unbeknownst to me, as the holiday approached she became truly heartbroken about it, and would spend futile hours looking online at tickets that were way too expensive to even consider.
Then one day, just a few weeks before the break, an astonishingly cheap ticket popped up on her screen. It was $135 round trip; nothing else she had looked at came even close. She was sure that the offer would be gone at any moment. Such was the family’s situation at that time, however, that we simply didn’t have those $135. The money wasn’t there, but the find seemed like such a godsend that she called my father to discuss whether there was any way they could afford the ticket.
“Get it,” my dad said at once.
“But how are we going to pay for it?” my mom replied, ever the practical and responsible one.
But if anyone in the family is good at abandoning himself to the will of Providence, it’s my dad.
“Get it,” he insisted. “Put it on the credit card. If God put that opportunity before us, he’ll give us what we need to pay it off.”
Usually, my mom would have argued back and reminded him of everything that could go wrong, that he had no way to know if that was really God’s will, but in this instance her desire to have the family together for Thanksgiving was so strong that she gave in and bought the ticket at once. My parents called me that night and announced I would be joining them for the break after all, that they had found a flight at a great price. They never said anything about my mom’s tears or the seemingly reckless decision to buy the ticket. I was pleased with the news and took it as a sign that their finances must be stabilizing at last.
During the weeks that followed, with the credit card bill looming, my mom continued to fret, but my dad remained calm (likely to my mom’s great annoyance and distress) in his conviction that God would figure it out. Yet as the morning of my flight arrived, my mom’s joy in knowing she would see me later that day was still marred by worry about the coming bill.
It was my dad who came to pick me up at Fort Lauderdale Airport that morning. I met him on the curb in the Arrivals section, where he greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and took my suitcase to place in the trunk. As he did so, I saw off the corner of my eye something fluttering on the ground. My dad saw it too and we instinctively looked down for a better look.
There were a few dollar bills on the ground.
As we looked for another second, however, we realized there were more than a few. There was a whole trail of them strewn along the curb and sidewalk right by our car. Looking around, we saw there was no one around whom we could identify as a potential owner. At that point we rushed to pick them up before they fluttered away. I handed my bundle to my dad, and a knowing smile started spreading across his face as he began to count them.
“One hundred and thirty five dollars,” he said, as if the number had some special meaning.