A skeptic comes to believe in miracles
I was an Anglican curate when I saw the sun spin. It happened like this. One of the teenagers in the parish had been to Medjugorje and suddenly got keen on the Blessed Virgin Mary. He joined a Medjugorje prayer group and twisted my arm to go with them on a visit to the Bosnian town where the Virgin Mary was supposed to have been appearing to some local youngsters. I resisted, pleading poverty. Then someone in the pilgrimage group wiped out my excuse by offering to pay my air fare.
So former Evangelical that I was, I climbed on the plane with a mixed load of Anglicans and Catholics to fly to Bosnia. There was an extraordinary sense of joy in our group of pilgrims and I eventually succumbed and started having a good time. On arrival we settled into our hostel and scouted the village to find the main landmarks. Part of the orientation was getting used to the prayer routine. The large church in the town was in constant use. Mass followed mass in a whole range of languages throughout the day. Then at six o’clock in the evening everyone stopped to begin saying the rosary. At six forty every day, after praying the first two sets of mysteries, the visionaries fell to their knees and had their daily visit from Mary. Then everyone finished the rosary by reciting the glorious mysteries.
On my second day I was sitting on the balcony of our hostel with Esther—a middle aged Anglican from my own parish. It was six o’clock. Time to start the rosary in union with virtually everyone else in the town. The sun was blazing high in the sky in front of us. I noticed at the time that the splash of light which was the sun was also reflected as a splash of light in the bonnet of the car below us. We prayed the rosary together. Then at six-forty on the button Esther gave me an elbow in the ribs. I opened my eyes and looked up. The sun—which before had been a blaze of light impossible to look at—was now pasted in the sky like a white wafer. Then it seemed to spin back and forth like a Catherine wheel. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. But Esther was seeing it too. Furthermore, I looked down to the bonnet of the car and saw the spinning disc reflected there as well, so it couldn’t be just my imagination. I witnessed the same phenomenon on two other days that week. In addition, many people we spoke to all around the town saw the sun spinning at the same time on those days.
At the time my own journey of faith had brought me from the default fundamentalism of my upbringing to a middle of the road, somewhat skeptical Anglicanism. Faced with the whole phenomenon of Medjugorje I had some questions. What was going on here? Not only was the spinning sun weird, but the place was crawling with stories of spooky goings on. People said their rosaries turned gold when they came back from Medjugorje. Folks were passing round “miraculous” photographs with images of Mary appearing in a photo of a rose, strange shafts of light appeared in photos where there was nothing visible to the naked eye at the time. People reported healings, dramatic conversions, speaking in tongues and people being “slain in the Spirit.” I was skeptical. But I was also delighted.
Maybe I was delighted for the wrong reason. I wasn’t delighted because the miraculous was suddenly giving my faith a booster shot. I was delighted because the weird events upset the status quo. In the midst of staid, respectable and rational religion this stuff was clearly scandalous. Furthermore, I got the impression that much Anglican rational religion was more a question of taste than real rationalism. “After all,” I could almost hear the biretta brigade sneer, “it would be so common to accept something as vulgar as miracles!” I thought of the sort of religious snob who sniffs, “Enthusiasm, sir is odious,” and was delighted because the spinning sun and visions of the Virgin to peasants knocks him for a loop. I like television evangelists, faith healers, weeping Madonnas and the Shroud of Turin for the same reason. Such things irritate all those who worship at the altar of good taste. They annoy the heck out of the rationalists who insist there must be a material explanation for everything.
My friend Trevor tends to be this sort of Catholic. Trevor is educated and refined. He sneers at stories about the odor of sanctity, uncorrupt bodies of saints, stigmatics and miracle workers. But I challenged him the other day. Why does he dismiss these things out of hand? Just because they are populist and tasteless or because he really can’t believe in miracles?
“I prefer to see the miraculous welling up in every day life.”He said.
“So do I. But if it’s too ordinary it’s not miraculous then is it?”
“Perhaps. But I don’t accept that such things are significant.”
“But do you accept that they happen?”
“I don’t know why God would intervene in such an illogical way,” Trevor evaded.
“I don’t either.” I said, “But isn’t that what makes it rather fun? It’s all a puzzle. Who can make sense of it? If it were totally logical where would the faith be?”
“I don’t really accept these alleged miracles.”
“Hold on,” I came in, “If you’re a Christian then you’ve got some pretty big miracles right up front that you have to deal with don’t you? For goodness sake, the whole thing is based on a clutch of super duper miracles called the virgin birth, the incarnation and the resurrection. Furthermore, if you’re a Catholic you’re meant to believe in a very regular miracle called transubstantiation. If you don’t allow for miracles, but claim to be a Catholic, then you’ve got some explaining to do.”
“I’m not sure Christianity is dependent on miracles,” came the reply.
“Well, it seems to me you only have two choices. Either a miraculous religion or a set of table manners.”
No matter what the religion, it has to include the supernatural. Otherwise it’s not really religion at all. Whether it is a statue of Ganesh sipping milk, a saint receiving the stigmata, the prophet Mohammed receiving the Koran from the angel Gabriel; whether it is a sadhu going into a trance and climbing a rope or a Buddhist sitting on top the Himalayas in his underpants without feeling the cold, religion is intrinsically miraculous. Religion, after all, is about the interface between this world and the next, and when you get into that territory weird things happen. Therefore, when dealing with religion, the odd thing is not that odd things happen, but if odd things were not to happen. No matter what conclusions you draw about the odd phenomena, the fact remains that they touch on that human fact we call religion. When sincere religious people try to weed out the supernatural from religion they should realize that what is left is not religion at all. It’s a moral code.
I know they try to eradicate the supernatural for good, sincere reasons. They believe that people long ago had a different mindset about the cosmos. They believed in a three-tiered universe with earth here, heaven in the sky and hell under the earth. They believed in demons and angels and miracles. We don’t anymore. It is up to us enlightened people to de-mythologize all the miracle stuff. Have you noticed how the lectionaries of some denominations don’t include the stories of Jesus walking on the water or calming the storm anymore? That’s part of the plan. But the problem with this thesis is that it assumes ancient people somehow found it easier to believe in miracles than we do. Really?! Surely the disciples were just as amazed as we would be if we saw someone walking on the water. Miracles were hard to believe then too. If people saw the sun spin in the first century I doubt that they would simply shrug and say, ‘That silly old sun. There he is spinning away again!’ No. They would have found it incredible too.
The fact remains. Weird things happen. To rule out the miraculous as impossible is a blanket a priori assumption. However it is right to question the unusual events. I was delighted by the weird events at Medjugorje, but I also stood back a bit. How on earth did such strange events happen? Why did hundreds of people in Medjugorje see the sun spin, but the people in the next village didn’t? Even more important, what do all the weird events mean? Are they always some kind of divine revelation? Do I have to believe every visionary, faith healer, exorcist and miracle man who comes along? This is where the Catholic position on these matters seems so eminently sane.
The Church’s first instinct when faced with miraculous phenomena is to defer the question. Let the whole thing blow over. The Catholic shouldn’t take the absurd rationalist position which denies the possibility of miracles. On the other hand, neither should we embrace every “miracle” without question. Did an icon of Mother Teresa really appear inside a bagel in Missouri? Did the condensation on the side of an office block in Florida really represent the Blessed Virgin? Did the fillings of Christians in England really turn gold when prayed over? Along with our willingness to accept miracles we also need a healthy sense of scepticism and a good strong sense of humor. The Catholic position is to stand back and wait. If the miraculous phenomenon continues it will be investigated. Qualified theologians, psychiatrists and exorcists will conduct a proper investigation. Their first efforts will be based on the assumption that the strange phenomena have some ordinary physical or psychological explanation. In the course of the investigation the church may simply withhold judgment—wisely neither denying the miraculous nor affirming it. As part of the investigation the church looks at the fruit of the alleged supernatural phenomenon. If conversion of life, personal holiness and renewal of the church come from the events then the judgment is likely to be more favorable. In the end, once in a while, the church will pronounce certain events to be authentic miracles. It will ignore other events, condemn some as harmful and allow others to continue to see if they stand the test of time.
C.S. Lewis once wrote that the only person he knew who had seen a ghost was a woman who still didn’t believe in ghosts. The same thing is ultimately true about miracles. The rationalist who refuses to admit that weird things happen will deny to his dying day that there is such a thing as miracles—even if he experiences one himself. He could see the sun spin, have a vision, and be healed of cancer and he would conclude that he had a particularly bad pickled herring which gave him a headache, hallucinations and indigestion, but luckily it cleared up. On the other hand, the person who allows for miracles may see more miracles than actually exist. It is possible for believers to be gullible.
At the end of the day, count me in with the believers. I would rather be accused of being credulous than incredulous. I would rather err on the side of belief than disbelief. I’d rather give things the benefit of the doubt. Is the Shroud of Turin the burial cloth of Christ? I think so. Does the title board from his cross reside in the church of Santa Croce in Rome? Of course. Is the body of St. Bernadette uncorrupt? You bet.
Apart from anything else, believing that weird things happen makes life so much more fun. How entertaining to think that things are unpredictable, that there are gaps in the curtain between the worlds where angels can get in. What a thrill to believe that the universe is open-ended and that anything can happen. The gospel says, “With God all things are possible.” You could read this as meaning, “With God anything can happen.” He’s the God of Surprises, the eternal Wild Card. On the other hand, how dull to believe that everything is cut and dried. What a waste to never worship. How prosaic never to pray. How boring to live in a closed universe. You might as well be living in a coffin. On the other hand, what an adventure it is to believe that miracles happen—that with God all things are possible, that it’s possible to walk on water, calm the storms, feed five thousand people with a tiny lunch and rise again on the third day.