When I was a kid I heard, or perhaps read, that coincidences are God’s way of talking to us. I didn’t know if it were true but I wanted it to be true.
And so, I’ve spent my life looking for them, paying keen attention to them, and probably discovering coincidences when they weren’t even there.
Eventually, I came to believe there is no such thing as a coincidence, that the phenomena that stop us in our tracks really are messages from God. They’re too miraculous to be anything else.
A few years ago, for example, I was driving my son back from college for Christmas vacation and we found ourselves caught in a blinding snowstorm on Route 81. I was driving and trying my best not to let it show how scared I was … and how foolish I felt. We really should have respected the forecast more and checked into a motel 75 miles back, I thought. Now we were risking our lives.
I’d driven in some pretty bad snow storms before, but this was the worst, by far. Tractor trailers kept passing and spraying even more snow and ice on the windshield, drivers in front of us kept plugging their breaks out of fear and lack of visibility, the windshield wipers could no longer keep up, and we had nowhere to go but forward, just inching along.
All I wanted to do was to get off the road but it seemed we’d never reach an exit. Just as things got worse, as if that were possible, through the blizzard I was able to make out a sign. It was for the St. Clare exit.
“Look at that, Mike,” I said to my son who was nodding off. “I think Gram wants us to get off here and find a motel.”
My mom, who died in September of 2003, was named Claire, spelled with an “i”. And she was as much a saint as anyone else I’ve ever met.
So, Michael and I took the exit and got the very last room at a Holiday Inn. People in line behind us were being turned away. The snow was up to our knees as we trugged through the parking lot.
Lent always causes me to think of my mom and a shared moment, we were sure, of God talking to us.
In was spring of 2001, when one of my college students, a single mom, asked if she could bring her youngest daughter to class. She said the 10-year-old was going to have dental surgery and she told her if she was brave she would allow her to come to class as a treat.
I wasn’t sure how much of a treat my class would be, but said it was fine with me. Besides the little girl’s name was Clare.
Well, on the very morning that Clare was expected in my class, I turned on the television in the bedroom and while flipping through the channels came upon a piece on Catholic television about the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Since I had been there the previous March, I sat down to watch and wondered if they would mention St. Clare’s, also located in Assisi.
Before traveling to Assisi, I had never heard of the Basilica of Santa Clara (St. Clare) or her religious order, the Poor Clares. What a coincidence, I thought at the time, and couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mom.
Turned out the Basilica of St. Clare was closed while I was there due to damage from an earthquake that also had damaged St. Francis’s. But at a little shop across the street I was able to buy a small statue of St. Clare for Mom and learn a little more about the saint. St. Clare was a contemporary and close friend of St. Francis, which happens to be my son’s middle name, and of course, the name taken by the new Pope.
It turned out the television program was more about St. Clare than St. Francis, so I ran downstairs to put it on for Mom, who was living with me at the time. We sat there watching together.
St. Clare, we learned from the program, was a humble soul who chose to live in poverty. She slept on a slab of hard wood, barely ate enough to stay alive, and lived primarily in seclusion.
Once, near the end of her life, after St. Francis had passed on, Sister Clare found herself in the presence of the Pope. Pope Gregory IX had come to Assisi for the Canonization of Francis.
During the visit he made it a point to visit Clare and her sisters. It was noon and the sisters invited the Pope to join them for their humble lunch of stale loaves of bread. The Pope accepted the invitation and asked Sister Clare to pronounce a blessing over the meal.
At first, Sister Clare refused saying she could never accept such an honor. But the Pope insisted — actually ordered her, the story goes — and she obliged.
All closed their eyes as Clare recited a beautiful blessing. When they opened them, they were astonished to see that miraculously a cross had risen on the top of each loaf. This, legend has it, was the beginning of the Lenten tradition of hot cross buns.
Mom and I looked at each other and smiled.
Everyone who knew my mom knew that her most favorite thing in the world was hot cross buns. At that point we believed we finally understood why.
Later in the day I told all of this to the little girl named Clare when she came to class. She said she knew the whole story. That’s why she was taking Francis (with an “i”) as her middle name at Confirmation. She’d become Clare Francis. How beautiful those two names sound together.