The National Catholic Review
I am sitting at my desk near the library’s back door when I notice a hat on the floor. Evidently one of the many theology students rushing to class dropped it. I notice that it is a fine hat, made of wool and clearly hand-knit, so I trust its owner will return shortly. If not, I remind myself, there is always the lost-and-found box upstairs. About an hour later, a woman shows up at the desk, looking frazzled. She is wearing what appears to be a hand-knit shawl over her sweater and jeans, and when she spots the hat, her eyes light up.

Oh, I’m so relieved, she says, sweeping the hat into her hands gratefully.

I smile and reply, Well, I figured it was special, since it looks handmade.

Not only that, says the woman, but it was made by my friend who has her own sheep and spins her own wool. Since I raise goats and make cheese, we often do trades.

Now we are off and running.

She tells me she has just started theology school and lives on a farm about an hour away. Before long, I am asking how many goats she has and what she might do with her farm once she graduates.

I tell her about my husband, who keeps bees in our backyard in Decatur, and she tells me about a nearby organic produce market she launched and suggests we might sell our honey there.

A good 15 minutes later, she explains she has to get to class, puts the hat on her head and bustles into the cold afternoon. Before leaving, she says, Obviously, we’ll have to continue this conversation.

Later, I can’t help but wonder: How many people become part of our lives through some incident that seems to happen purely by chance?

Some people would call the first time my husband and I met a fluke. He was an engineering major at Georgia Tech and wanted to take a philosophy course, but his advisor strongly opposed his studying something so flimsy.

I was teaching the course my husband ended up taking. Had he followed that professor’s advice, most likely we never would have met. Yet here we are, over 20 years later, still going strongand occasionally even discussing philosophical issues.

Many people believe life is a series of chance events, but that framework does not work if you believe there is a God who is in charge of everything.

Jesus told us, after all, that not even a sparrow falls without the Father’s knowledge, and reminded us that the Father has counted every hair on our heads. This means God gets involved in the small moments of our lives. And dropping a hat or enrolling in a class are not random events, but instead part of his plan for us.

The incident with the hat reminded me to pay attention.

What if I had just handed the student her hat without comment because I had not taken the time to look closely and realize it was handmade? No conversation, I suspect, would have developed.

Too often, we get so wrapped up in our own private worlds that we miss what’s going on around us. As a writer, I spend hours at the computer, while outside the birds are performing a spring sonata and the squirrels are doing complicated acrobatic maneuvers in the pine trees.

Many people fret that they can’t find God, but have we ever lost him? After all, Jesus outlined a definite method for encountering God in everyday life (Mt: 31-46). He said we meet God in people who are hungry, naked, sick and in prisonand don’t forget the strangers.

St. Paul went on to suggest that some of the strangers who wander into our lives may actually be angels in disguise. All these years later, it is a bit daunting to realize how often we miss the chance to give strangers a warm welcome.

Hundreds of students pass by my desk at the library each week hurrying to class. Some of them have passed by the desk for years, yet so engrossed in their concerns they barely stop to say hello.

Often, I have a pot of flowers on the desk. Some students pause to admire them, while others apparently don’t even see them.

I can’t blame the ones who rush by, because I do the same thing. So often, I am wrapped up in my own thoughts that when I go to the grocery store or pharmacy, for example, I neglect the opportunity to converse with the cashier or the pharmacist.

My husband and I are on an ongoing journey to find a new church community in metropolitan Atlanta. As we jump from parish to parish, it is somewhat disheartening to realize how often we show up for Mass and are then largely ignored by the regulars afterward.

Again, I can’t point the finger, because I have done the same thing. Especially in huge parishes, folks may be hesitant to greet someone they think is a stranger for fear of discovering that the apparent newcomers have been parishioners for years, but went largely unnoticed.

I have not seen the young woman with the woolen cap again. Perhaps God sent her to my desk that day to give me a message, a gentle nudge: start paying attention, especially to the strangers I encounter. Because, who knows? The next person who loses a hat or gloves near my desk may be no ordinary student on the way to class.

She could very well be one of St. Paul’s angels in disguise.

Lorraine V. Murray’s latest book is How Shall We Celebrate? Embracing Jesus in Every Season (Resurrection Press). She works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

Comments

Tom Leonhardt | 5/11/2005 - 9:07am
Ms. Murray's article reminds me of how good my wife is at beginning such conversations and how reluctant I am to do so. But when those seemingly chance conversations occur, I find myself more hopeful for humankind. If only we could leave our prejudices behind more often and forget the clock for a while, and engage one another. We are, after all, more alike than different, no matter what country of orgin or language. I am inspired by my wife's example and by the gentle reminder from Ms. Murray. Thank you, both.
Tom Leonhardt | 5/11/2005 - 9:07am
Ms. Murray's article reminds me of how good my wife is at beginning such conversations and how reluctant I am to do so. But when those seemingly chance conversations occur, I find myself more hopeful for humankind. If only we could leave our prejudices behind more often and forget the clock for a while, and engage one another. We are, after all, more alike than different, no matter what country of orgin or language. I am inspired by my wife's example and by the gentle reminder from Ms. Murray. Thank you, both.

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