Finding the sparks of God’s grace

Kathy Berken

When I saw the Coke ad featuring the U.S. motto “e pluribus unum” during the Super Bowl and the Olympics, I remembered the reference to our forming one country from the 13 colonies. But I wondered how it connects to being Catholic. In one way, we are one universal Church comprising many people. “Out of many, one.” When I was little, my dad would say, “No matter what Catholic church you attend in the world, Mass will always be the same, and you will always feel at home.” What made being Catholic special was that commonality I discovered among Catholics I met along the way. We easily shared stories about church, nuns, catechism, sacraments, grace, theology and traditions. That’s one way to look at the motto.
By now, you might guess that I would find a different way to see it, one that embodies our Catholicism, carrying it from our church experiences into our everyday lives. So, as I tell you a few stories, I invite you to find the sparks of God’s grace as I did.
Due to my embarrassing direction deficiency, I lost my way at baggage claim at the airport. I passed a TSA agent as I walked down the stairs and was already through the one-way glass exit doors when I realized I was lost, so I made the mistake of walking back to her, which set off her internal alarm. She jumped up, ran towards me yelling with her hands up, “Go back! Go back! You can’t come in this way!” I had the feeling she wasn’t going to listen until I was safely behind those doors. “I just need some information,” I said. She stopped for a second, pointed to the sign behind me and explained the system. It was one small goodness in one brief interaction. But out of the many, appeared one person who helped me find my way. This wasn’t just a person doing her job. It was a good-God-moment of grace.
A few minutes later, I stood at the crowded baggage carousel with hundreds of other exhausted passengers. Every other bag looked just like mine and my only hope lay in finding a lousy luggage tag as a distinguishing mark. Within seconds, a woman next to me reached down, lifted up a blue bag, flipped it over and rejected it. “That’s mine!” I screeched, dragging it off the carousel. I looked over: “Hey, thanks for the help!” She laughed, “Glad to be of service!” Look at what just happened. A gazillion strangers searching for their bags and I panicked thinking I’d never find mine. Then I discovered another amazing encounter with grace. Not only did I get my bag, but I got a heartwarming exchange. Out of many people at the carousel, one came to save me.
Two nights later in downtown St. Paul, I was closely following a friend’s van to a restaurant I had never been to before. Add to my crippling direction problem my turned-off GPS. After all, I was following the leader, but as fate goes, I found myself in the midst of thousands of sports fans heading to a game and numerous traffic cops directing the chaos. Naturally, the officer let my friend through and stopped me. What? Why is he walking towards me? I roll down my window and he says, “I needed to give the others a green light.” I said, “I’m lost. I was following my friend and don’t know where to go.” In five seconds, he gave me directions to the restaurant. What are the odds? It was a blessed act of grace to help me find my way. Out of very many that night, one man emerged and filled a need.
I can’t just sit in church and expect that this be the only place where God lives. The grace that comes from our Catholic rituals and prayers creates a profound awareness in me that God is everywhere. My faith, my hope, and my love all grow when I experience God’s presence as grace in a TSA agent, a stranger at the carousel, and a traffic cop.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)

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