I noticed her eyes immediately. They seemed to be following me. I was in a meeting, explaining something when mid-sentence—Zap! Poof… everything I was saying magically evaporated.
Awkward silence. “I’m sorry. I just had a senior moment,” I heard myself saying to excuse my inexplicable, abrupt absent-mindedness. She responded with mild laughter, but I just swallowed and tried to reorient myself.
The Parish staffer with whom I was meeting had a smattering of photos on her wall, some I recognized as famous 20th-century saints, others not at all. But there was one black and white headshot of a young woman that seemed to be imploring me to look back. As I gained my composure, I found myself continually drawn to those familiar, heavily-lidded eyes. Each time we experienced a lull in the conversation, my gaze landed on that photo. While I had undoubtedly never seen the young woman before this moment, I was strangely convinced I knew her.
“Yoo-hoo,” she seemed to be calling from her static, serious photograph. “Don’t you know me?” Then it struck me. She looked like me, not just a little, but a WHOLE LOT. It was something in her deep-set, Mediterranean eyes. They were the same ones that greeted me in the mirror every morning. If she wasn’t my exact twin, she was definitely recognizable as a close relative. I remember having that same uncanny feeling when I was introduced to a young man my aunt had given up for adoption. The two had joyfully been reunited and I was invited to meet this long-lost cousin. Upon seeing him for the first time ever, it was as if he had always existed in my memory. How could that be? My aunt’s whole adoption story had caught me by complete surprise. But I remember thinking, “Of course you’re my aunt’s son. Who else could you be with those familiar features?” Though I’d never laid eyes on him and intellectually did not know a thing about him, my heart had known him my whole life.
This is exactly how I felt about the woman in the photo! You’d think I would have asked who the mysterious woman in the picture was. She was hanging on my friend’s wall for goodness sake. Funnily enough, it seemed too much of a sacred moment to speak aloud. I didn’t want to make light of the strong connection I felt. If I admitted that I thought she looked like me, I didn’t want my companion to respond, “Huh? You think?” That would have diminished our undeniable bond. I wouldn’t allow anyone else to undermine that. I needed to process this strange turn of events before sharing.
When I left the meeting, all I could think was, “That was SO weird!” As is often the case though, the incident got shelved in the back of my brain as the day-to-day busyness took over. It wasn’t until several days later that her eyes popped back into my imagination. Who was she? While she was fresh in my mind, I did a Google image search on famous 20th-century female saints. Her somber photo, sandwiched between pictures of other famous holy women and nuns, immediately jumped off my computer screen and grabbed hold of me. She stood out, not merely because I felt a real magnetism to her, but unlike the other saints, she wore no habit or veil. And the photographer had captured a look in which the young subject seems to be disarmingly staring into the depths of every viewer’s soul. Her name is St. Gemma Galgani. I read a brief synopsis of her life in which I learned she was Italian. That would explain the almond-shaped, deep-set Mediterranean eyes we share. Nothing about her story seemed to particularly resonate with me, but those facial characteristics appeared so similar to my own. Or so I thought.
I showed my husband the photo. “Who does this look like?” I tried to ask as dispassionately as possible. “Hmmm… Dunno.” I turned the screen towards my oldest son. Ok, here goes… “Who does she look like?” A beat. “It’s YOU!” he exclaimed excitedly. I beamed back at him. “I know! It’s wild!” I proceeded to tell my family the whole story. We all agreed it was very intriguing.
That would have been interesting enough, if after that, St. Gemma remained quietly filed away in the annals of my memory. But she didn’t. From the moment I learned who she was, she began turning up in numerous emails, books, and articles I came across over the next several weeks. It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when you are introduced to someone and then suddenly you begin to see them everywhere, the grocery store, the gas station, in traffic! St. Gemma was ridiculously everywhere. I relayed some of the story to a dear Catholic friend and eventually texted her, “St. Gemma is officially stalking me.” “That just gave me the chills,” she responded.
I’ve heard people say and have probably uttered these words myself, “If you’re a believer, there are no coincidences.” This was all too bizarre to be a mere coincidence. I began to truly consider that St. Gemma was reaching out to me from Heaven. She was letting me know she was with me and praying for me. Over the years, people have shared their affinity for a particular saint with me. And there are triumphant saint stories that have touched me and offered great inspiration and comfort over the journey of my life. But other than the Blessed Mother, no saint has ever felt so tangibly connected to me. During each mass, we recite the Nicene Creed which acknowledges “the communion of saints.” Catholic author, Paul Thigpen describes what that means.
The perfected saints, having a share in God’s own nature, have a share in His perfect love. They love those of us still on earth as God loves us. They want to help us; they want to see us reach heaven as well. So they have the desire to assist us in any way they can.
The perfected saints also have a share in God’s perfect knowledge. They are able, through His grace, to know what’s taking place on earth. God allows them to see and hear what He sees and hears, so they can hear the requests we may make of them.
The perfected saints have a share in God’s perfect, supernatural power. They are able, through His grace, to act on our behalf, to intervene in earthly affairs, just as He does. They don’t just pray for us; they can act on our behalf in other ways as well.
Scripture tells us, “The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful” (Jas 5:16). If that’s true of righteous people still on earth, think how powerful and effective is the prayer of the saints in heaven, who have been perfected in righteousness!
You can read the full explanation of the communion of saints here.
Before sitting down to tap out this blog post about my new bestie, St. Gemma Galgani, I randomly went to a site I check every six months or so. When I plugged in the internet address, the essay that sprang up was, “Learning to Love Jesus With St. Gemma Galgani.” I’d like to say I’m no longer surprised by these “coincidences,” but I am. I’m amazed, in fact.
But why is it so hard to believe that the powerful love of our Savior is able to stretch across all boundaries separating Heaven and Earth? That one of God’s own children would be looking out for another, the same way my 4-year-old used to instinctively watch his 2-year-old brother if he wandered too far from the grocery cart? I feel so grateful St. Gemma has sought me out. I will continue to lean on her and consider her beautiful example of holiness and hopefully, my saintly doppelganger will provide a continual signpost to my eventual communion with God. Even though we have a special friendship, she’s stalking me after all, I’m willing to share her with the rest of you! St. Gemma Galgani, pray for us!
If you’d like to learn more about St. Gemma Galgani, I highly recommend the article I mentioned above.
Below is a fun photo experiment of myself over St. Gemma’s photo. What do you think? Remember, I have a good 25 years on her in this photo.