F.R. Duplantier reporting Behind The Headlines

Week of:
April 9, 2000
Miracles, For Those With Eyes to See

F.R. Duplantier

by: F.R. Duplantier

Was it "just a coincidence," or was it something more than that?

The New Orleans Times-Picayune once ran a wire- service story about two friends fishing on a north Louisiana lake, whiling away the time between nibbles by debating the existence of God: one pro, one con. Ultimately, the nonbeliever issued a challenge: "If there is a God," he shouted, "let him strike me dead right now!" His companion urged him not to tempt his Creator, but the atheist repeated the challenge, shaking his fist skyward. He was struck by lightning and died instantly.

I found that true story so compelling that I tore it out of the paper and kept it for many years. I later gave the clipping to my father-in-law, Jim, whose pronounced skeptical bent had also led to a brush with the wrath of God. While attending a food festival in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans on Palm Sunday, Jim was asked by his third wife how that holy day had gotten its name. "Today's the day the priests all stick out their palms and ask for money," he replied, and at that moment his shoulder was splattered so thoroughly by an unseen pigeon that he had to leave the festival to change his shirt. Jim related this incident with no apparent appreciation for the supernatural significance of the event, which is what prompted me to make him a present of the eerie story of the faithless fisherman.

Some time after that I found myself embroiled in a friendly theological debate with a colleague named "Sky," a sullen, alcoholic atheist who hailed from Shreveport. I told him about the defiant fisherman who'd gotten what he'd asked for. Oddly enough, Sky had known the fellow and remembered the incident, but he saw nothing more than coincidence in a blasphemer's incineration. A few days later Sky showed up at the office looking shakier than usual: He'd come home from a binge the night before to find that his house had been struck by lightning and his pet cat electrocuted.

My wife, Evann, and I moved to St. Louis in the spring of 1995, and my father-in-law, who lived east of the city in Illinois, died of cancer that fall. He still carried the newspaper clipping in his wallet, and in his last days he overcame the pride that had restrained him, confiding to Evann, his daughter, that he wanted to make his peace. Fr. Quilligan, pastor of the parish that would have been Jim's had he chosen to attend, came to the house and heard the deathbed confession. The transformation in Evann's Dad was astounding -- the great weight of remorse lifted -- but it might never have occurred if not for a bird that "just happened" to pass overhead.

I lost track of Sky, but recently heard that he too had died, after two years' residence in an institution to which he'd been committed for substance abuse. I've no idea whether he'd managed to conquer his demons or not, but I'd like to believe that the fate of his fisherman friend might finally have swayed him.