“The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way:
‘a fortunate stroke of serendipity'”
In 2001, I found myself mesmerized by a witty, creative romantic comedy starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. The movie was simply called “Serendipity”. It was a charming yarn about a ‘love-at-first-sight’ encounter between characters Jon and Sara. It begins as a classic “chance” romantic encounter. A last pair of gloves at the Bloomingdale’s counter during the last-minute Christmas rush is the setting for Jon and Sara, who find themselves starry-eyed and magnetically attracted to one another from the very start. Subsequent to the mock controversy over the gloves (incidentally, intended for their respective significant others), the two declare a flirtatious truce by enjoying a cup of hot chocolate at a nearby coffee shop named ‘Serendipity’ and spending time touring New York City together. As Jon and Sara find themselves increasingly attracted to one another, it is Sara who throws a curve ball. A deep adherent to the notion of “fate”, Sara decides that the relationship must be tested. She will write her name and number (which they have yet to exchange) in the book “Love in the Time of Cholera” and sell it to a random used bookseller. Meanwhile, Jon is to write his name and number on a five dollar bill which she promptly uses at a newstand. If the book and bill find their way back into one another’s hands, fate has spoken…and destiny pronounced.
To the utter dismay of Jon the pragmatist, Sara would formulate one last test. They would enter the Waldorf-Astoria, simultaneously enter separate elevators and select a floor. If they arrived at the same floor, they were “meant to be”. It is from this point forward that the frantic chase begins. Near-misses, obscured encounters, and the simple march of time find Jon and Sara in quite different places ten years later. Both are about to be married to respectively nice, yet ill-fitting partners. Yet, they are equally haunted by the chance encounter left to the forces of fate ten years earlier. With the help of the quirky, but undeniably endearing, friends (played brilliantly by Jeremy Piven and Molly Shannon), Jon and Sara find themselves on a time-sensitive, nerve-wracking search for the one true thing that was originally left to “chance”. It is an extraordinary, romantic, and witty journey with several deeply poignant moments.
Recently, and twelve years later, I found myself once again reflecting on this movie and the many layers it conferred. There is the superficial, romantic, and witty layer of the story making it perfect for date night. But there is also the deeper layer thick with the forces in our lives that seem clearly out of our control, and which in fact, seem at times to exert some control over us. No matter the license “Serendipity” uses to embellish the “hand of fate”, even the most hard-bitten materialist carries in the depths of his heart a respect for something somehow greater than himself. As Charles Dickens once reflected,
“There is a passion for hunting something deeply implanted in the human breast.”
Where does this come from? Why do even the most “enlightened” and least “spiritual” seem to be drawn to the notion that there is something out there, however vague and mysterious, having an impact and playing a role?
It is easy to anticipate the detractors from the point I just made, but allow me to offer an illustration. On February 25th, 2013 Time Magazine published a piece on the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI. In it the pragmatic, political elements of papal succession were described with a thinly veiled disdain for any notion that there truly may be a “Holy Spirit-led” process at play. And yet later in the article, with no hesitation or reservation, the author is quite credulous in using phrases like “mysterious ways” and “fate intervenes”. It is curious how society should blanch or scoff when the credit is assigned to the Holy Spirit, but should heartily (if not romantically) embrace credit assigned to karma, chance, coincidence, serendipity, destiny, fortune and luck. Simply consider this: There is something greater than ourselves that we realize is going on in our lives and in the world, but apparently we are to keep it vague and minimally spiritual.
I whole-heartedly believe in the activity of the Holy Spirit. It is not that I can capably interpret it (and in fact, may be rather lousy, tone-deaf, and unappreciative). To believe in the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit does not mean that it is always (or often) comprehensible. It is to believe that God is benevolent, intensely invested in each of us, and yet so brilliant that I may decipher His Action and Will only in moments of grace. And I believe, if we are reflective and truly honest with ourselves, we have all had such special moments.
An epiphany occurred for me when I was going through RCIA to convert to Catholicism. A friend and mentor (let us call her Anna) relayed a story regarding her conversion. Anna recalled explaining to a nun all the steps taken, decisions considered, and commitments made that brought her to become Catholic. As Anna described a certain satisfaction with her choices, the nun stopped her short. “Anna, you aren’t here because you chose to be here – you were Called here.”. This story jarred me – and humbled me. Of course, the Holy Spirit awaits our answer. But there are innumerable events dubbed as chance or coincidence, and countless circumstances when we think we are in complete control, yet when considered as part of a greater plan are stunning in their unity to have originated outside of our control and are intended to bring us closer to God. If only we pay attention.
A second epiphany involved a nun who simply enjoined that whenever we experience what might be dubbed a fortunate coincidence, we should more actively consider the mysterious ways of the Holy Spirit. Those critical of this notion might argue that if we credit the Spirit for the good, we must also blame the Spirit for the evil. I would reason that the Triune God is incapable of evil. And the evil which is perpetuated in our world is a consequence of man’s Fall and subsequent introduction of Sin (Evil and Imperfection) into the world. If God is pure and perfect Goodness, then we should look for Him (and the Spirit) in the goodness we encounter. In considering this nun’s insight, it has been striking what I have overlooked and underappreciated. No more.
“Serendipity”, the movie, is a charming romantic comedy. The concept of serendipity is a warm, dreamy, poetic notion. But it is also incomplete. By naming the good which happens in this world as a vague, positive, yet freak occurrence, we diminish it. Rather, we should recognize the good as mysteriously, yet beautifully rooted in “the Helper, the Counselor, the Holy Spirit”. In doing so, I believe we are drawing closer to the Truth. It is Serendipity with a Source. How beautiful indeed.