By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 12, 2008)
Have you ever wondered whether the Lord's plan for you was to put you in just the right place at just the right time? That's what one of our readers, Jeannine, recently felt as something unexpected happened right before her eyes:
Recently, my family and I witnessed the death of a very good male friend. My family, which consists of my husband, three young children present, and me left the restaurant with this man and his wife. We were all in a jovial mood. Right before our eyes, this man dropped dead, death rattle and all. Everyone was vividly upset. There was a lot of confusion as he was expiring. Quite frankly, no one thought about praying for his soul, but my 9-year-old daughter, who prayed a lot of Hail Marys (I found that out later on). This man was a lapsed Catholic. As far as I know he did not reconcile himself with the Church, maybe even God, but I don't know about that. My question is do you think a series of Hail Marys prayed by a youngster in front of a person dying produces the same results as the Divine Mercy prayer [Chaplet of The Divine Mercy]?
I don't believe in coincidences. I believe there was a reason that this man, who we all loved and who has never gone out to a restaurant with us, died so quickly in front of our eyes.
Well, Jeannine, I believe that any prayer said for the dying, offered up to God with a pure intention (and the prayers of children often have the most pure intentions of all!) can obtain the graces of salvation for a soul at the moment of death. After all, when we pray the Lord looks more on the heart than on what form of words we are using, and any set of given prayers are really just ways for us to purify and perfect our intentions. The Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, for example, is an especially powerful prayer, not because it is a series of "magic words," but because it focuses our mind and heart in prayer on the supreme expression of our Savior's love for us — His sorrowful passion — and does so in a way that intentionally unites our chaplets with the offering of the Mass itself ("I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ ..."). A chaplet, said with sincerity and devotion, is therefore a pure response to the merciful love of Jesus Christ. But even the simplest prayer — such as, "Jesus, I trust in You; please have mercy on this dying man" — flowing from a heart full of faith and love, can obtain the same graces as any chaplet or Rosary. It's just that most of us adults need a full chaplet or Rosary to focus our anxious and distracted minds, and purify our mixed feelings and intentions!
Like you, Jeannine, I am sure there is no such thing as a sheer "coincidence." We cannot always see why God permits seeming coincidences to happen to us as part of His plan, but in your case, it seems pretty clear why He put your family there at the hour of this man's death. Isn't it amazing how His providence operates!
In fact, I see an even deeper lesson here in what happened to you. It tells us something very special about the kind of God we believe in. When you think about it, this friend of yours was, in a sense, running away from God. He had fallen away from his faith. Maybe he never even had a well-formed faith to begin with — maybe he was never properly instructed in the beauty of the Catholic faith — and so he never really knew what he was missing. We cannot say for sure that he was headed for hell; perhaps an invincible ignorance of the real beauty of the faith, plus his own sincere attempt to live by what light of truth he did have, would have been enough to get him into purgatory ... we don't know. What we do know is that what God really wanted for Him was something more: to know His love clearly, without confusion or doubt, and to surrender to His love completely. At the very least, from the way you describe him, this man was walking forward in semi-darkness.
But it's clear that God never gave up on him. He wouldn't give up on Him even on the last day of His life. He didn't just sit back in heaven waiting for your friend to repent and come home to the Church: He actually went out looking for Him, like the Good Shepherd in Jesus' parable in St. Luke's Gospel, chapter 15. He pursued him; He tracked him down. Maybe God had cornered him a hundred times before in his life, knocking on the door of his heart through something he read, or someone he met — but he kept slipping away from the Good Shepherd's arms. Maybe he had turned his back on the Lord so many times that he could no longer hear the Shepherd's voice calling his name. But the Lord cornered him at last just outside that restaurant, brought just the right people together that night for his own good, shook him to the core by allowing him to experience a massive heart failure, so that perhaps the door of His heart was open just a bit at that last moment, while the voice of your little daughter was heard in heaven lifting her heart in prayer to Mary for this lost soul, and then (we don't have the gift of reading hearts, so we do not know for sure, but we have good reason to hope!), the combined prayers of Mary and your little daughter obtained for him all the graces he needed that he could not ask for by himself, and he surrendered to that Infinite Love at last!
That's what kind of God we have. As the poet Francis Thompson once said, He is "The Hound of Heaven":
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days:
I fled Him down the arches of the years:
I fled him down the labyrinthine way
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him....
'All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might'st seek it in My arms.
All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!
Isn't this just what we learn from St. Faustina's Diary as well? From the very earliest years of her life, our Savior was tracking her down, seeking her total surrender in trust to His merciful love. Remember the story in entry 8, where Helena describes how when she was young she tried to shun the "incessant call of His grace" by losing herself in "amusements"? She went to a dance in Lodz one evening with one of her sisters. While everyone was dancing and having a good time, she began to dance, and suddenly she saw Jesus standing at her side, covered with wounds. He said to her "How long shall I put up with you and how long will you keep putting me off?" I do not think he said it in anger. I think He said it out of unrequited love: as if He was the one who had asked her to an even more joyful dance, because of His love for her, and she was still dancing with other suitors instead. He was her true dance partner, her True Love, wondering when she was finally going to love Him back.
Later in her Diary, she describes how the Lord tracks down the souls He loves so much even to the last moment of their lives, hoping for some response of repentance and trust:
God's mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way. Outwardly, it seems as if everything were lost, but it is not so. The soul, illumined by a ray of God's powerful, final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God forgiveness of sins and punishment, while outwardly it shows no signs either of repentance or contrition, because souls [at that stage] no longer react to external things. Oh, how beyond comprehension is God's mercy! (Diary, 1698)
Jeannine, I hope you will keep a copy of this column in a safe place, so that one day, when your 9-year-old daughter is older, she can read it herself, and then appreciate even more deeply the wonder and mystery of the work of mercy that our Savior accomplished through her, that autumn night outside the restaurant!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.